Call of the Wild
The enduring appeal of watching human beings attempt to master the Alaskan backcountry
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Overheard in the men’s bathroom of a movie theater in Boston, after a screening of Creed III:
“That movie basically just makes me want to get in shape.”
“It makes me want to get in shape mentally.”
“Bro, that movie was all about mental stuff. You didn’t get that?”
The mental stuff. That’s where it’s at. The mind, the mind—it can bear you sweetly along on pulses of transparent super-energy, or it can rear up and bite your face off. And if, like me, you’ve watched 432 episodes of survival TV, the beloved subgenre that pits bare, forked man against the unrelenting wilderness, you’ve seen it happen over and over again. It’s not Alaska that breaks you, or Mongolia, or northeastern Labrador—it’s the contents of your own head.
Remember Jim Shields from Season 3 of Alone ? How passionately I relate to this guy. Deposited on the cold shore of a fuming-with-bleakness lake in the Andean foothills, with only a couple of GoPros for company (that’s the hook of Alone : no camera crews; the contestants film themselves), he spreads his arms, throws back his head, and, in an attempt at exultation, bellows, “PATAGONI-AAAAH!”— only to be almost visibly demolished, half a second later, by the ensuing unresponding immensity of silence and solitude. He exhales, as if the weight of it is about to collapse his rib cage. He looks momentarily holographic, like he might go fuzzy and vanish from the picture. And sure enough, on only his third day out there, his third day in the storm and vacancy of his own aloneness, Shields “taps out.” He can’t take it anymore: He radios the producers. His Alone time is over.
For comparison, Zach Fowler—the modest prodigy of durability who won that season of Alone—lasted 87 days (and lost more than 70 pounds in the process). Fowler, a boatbuilder, kept himself busy, did not wallow. This is the aspect of Alone, which has run for nine seasons, that made people love it with particular intensity during the pandemic. For those 87 days, Fowler was Kipling’s “man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity”: fishing, chopping wood, a marvel to behold as he managed his plummeting calories and husbanded his plummeting moods. Shields, in contrast, Shields, my spirit-mirror. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have the skills,” he reflected to his GoPro. “It’s just a matter of one skill that I can’t control. My brain.”
On USA Network right now, you can find Race to Survive: Alaska, in which eight pairs of contestants huff and puff their way into some very hard-core Alaskan topography—six races over 100-plus miles, with no shelter provided. Interpersonal crack-ups are inevitable. Look at Jeff and Hunter Leininger, father-and-son partners, laden with gear, laden with father-son issues, toiling grimly through the Tongass Forest in the first episode. “OUGHH!” says young Hunter, bringing up the rear, as he gets thwapped by a recoiling limb. “Right in the face !” “Don’t be right behind me, Hunter,” his father responds testily. “You know that!” The wilderness glints; the producers rub their hands. This will get worse.
Alaska seems to be a perfect place for all of this to go down—the flapping, still-open, still-wild, burning-and-freezing American frontier where you’re either alone, alone, all, all alone, or tearing each other to pieces. Outlast, which you can find on Netflix, is the next twist. Here 16 aloners/survivalists/bushcrafters/berry-munching nutcases are dumped in the Alaskan outback for as long as they can stand it. No rules, no end date: You either tap out or get medevaced. As usual, everybody’s plodding around in the cold, whittling and splicing and setting snares and muttering about protein, but with a crucial refinement, the contest’s single law: They must form teams. Nobody wins this game in isolation. No prizes, this time, for going it alone. It’s the last team standing, the last unit of cooperation, that shares the booty: a million bucks. You see the tension, right? The drama-generating torque? These are lone wolves, alpha personalities, rugged individualists, huge pains in the American ass, and they must work together, be together, in a classic Sartrean hell-cell of a reality-TV situation.
It’s different now, watching reality TV. Years ago, pre-everything, on a flight out of Salt Lake City, I sat next to a man who had been on one of those construction reality shows—about tiny houses, I think. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said to me as we popped open our second beer. “It’s all made-up. Everything that happens in the show. It’s complete bullshit.” At the time, I didn’t really believe him. I didn’t want to, so happily and beerily invested was I in the narrative tropes of reality TV: the villain, the meltdown, the redemption. But now, post-everything, we distrust narrative. So when plot enters a reality show, when story starts to happen, we think, Yeah, right.
In the case of Outlast, however, I buy it. When one of the ad hoc teams abruptly goes feral and starts wrecking the campsites of its rivals, stealing sleeping bags, and so on, that feels real to me. I do not sense the hand of the producer. Or rather, I sense the producer’s glee at how fucked-up everything is getting, at how readily it’s all reverting to a state of nature. Isn’t this the secret agenda of all reality shows: to become the Stanford Prison Experiment? And Outlast has the characters. Team Alpha, the rogue team in question, is three people: Jill, who has all the evil ideas; Justin, slashing tarps and twiddling the ends of his Mephistophelian mustache; and Amber, with her eyes of wolfish clarity, who aids and abets. They really run riot, this lot. They accelerate into a space of no compassion at all: “This isn’t about survival!” protests one of their appalled and out-gamed victims. “It’s about who’s the fucking meanest.” Now, doesn’t that have the ring of truth, the authentic clang of 2023? In lockdown, we watched Alone ; now we’re dealing with one another again, and we’re watching Outlast.
The greatest, boldest, craziest aloner of them all was Timothy Treadwell, cracked wilderness king and director of his own bootleg reality show. You’ve seen Grizzly Man, I hope—one of the director Werner Herzog’s masterpieces, and a prime text of the Alaskan sublime. Treadwell is the protagonist: the hero, why not? He filmed himself, like the contestants on Alone ; he asserted himself in hard company, like the contestants on Outlast. Only the company was bears, not people: the roaming grizzlies of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, among whom Treadwell camped for 13 summers. Bear-loving, bear-obsessed, eventually eaten by a bear, Treadwell never muttered about protein—at least not in the footage I’ve seen. He was too busy watching the bears play their own game of survival. And he entered the game. He was with them; cherishing them; backing them down; giving them names; talking to them in eerie, rapturous singsong, half shaman, half preschool teacher. Don’t you do that … don’t you do that … It’s okay, I love you, I love you. Next to this strange ecstasy, Herzog’s German-accented voice-overs are cosmic deadpan. “In all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
How nature feels about us, that’s the great imponderable. That’s somewhere under all these shows. The wilderness gapes. The wilderness crackles. Trekking across it, trying to make a home in it, aloneing, outlasting, or diving profanely into its mysteries, we never quite get the answer to our question: Are we strangers in this world, or not?
This article appears in the June 2023 print edition with the headline “Call of the Wild.”