Billie and Walt McCandless


Christopher McCandless Camera

Our career path followed a straight line paralleling the space race which began in 1958 with the Russian launch of Sputnik. The first 20 years were spent working on NASA programs while at Hughes Aircraft, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and then a move to another coast working at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 1978, following Billie’s intuition and initiative, Walt left NASA and we formed User Systems Inc., specializing in the Synthetic Aperture Radar technology that Walt helped pioneer while at NASA. This new part of the career path supported them for 25 years and USI continues under the ownership and leadership of their friend and former employee Bart Huxtable.

In the fall of 1992 our life was turned upside down when our son Christopher was discovered dead in an abandoned bus in the wilds of Alaska near Denali. He had disappeared after college graduation two years earlier. There had been no contact with us, his sister Carine, his stepbrothers and sisters, his aunts and uncles, or any of his friends, even though he had passed through some of the cities where they lived during his travels.

Chris had always been an out of the ordinary adventurer as a child and young adult. As a toddler he had taken off down the street only to be found early in the morning in a neighbor’s candy drawer that he remembered from an earlier visit. Once, he disappeared when mom Billie was getting him dressed after a bath and after a desperate search for him in the El Segundo, California neighborhood where we lived a call to the local police found him. He had rambled a few blocks and a passing police car stopped and when he couldn’t tell them where he lived they scooped him up and took him to the station. This independent behavior continued. After high school graduation Chris announced that he was going to use the money earned going door to door for a kitchen remodeling company to buy a car, the Yellow Datsun, and take off for the summer exploring the United States. He agreed to call us every three days but that soon evaporated and we were on pins and needles for much of the summer until Chris showed up looking like Jeremiah Johnson barely a week before he was due at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He had acquired a 30/06 rifle and a lethal looking machete and insisted on taking them with him to college. We drove him to Emory, the dorm captain convinced him that the gun and knife should return to Annandale with us and the transformed mountain man began his four years. Although he excelled academically, his persona of independence continued and in the summer after his Junior year he and the Yellow Datsun set forth for another Trek. We received two post cards. The first in early June from El Paso saying “headed south-----“ the second a couple of weeks before he was due back at Emory post marked Fairbanks, Alaska again saying “headed south.” We had been in a helpless, suspended state of apprehension with Chris before but it was never easy or comfortable in any way. It was like holding your breath all of the time. Nothing could prepare us for the desperate finality of his death. The finality was permanent but the mystery of his whereabouts was decipherable because Chris had recorded his 2 yr odyssey with a camera, a few cryptic logs, and post cards and letters to people that he had befriended along the way. The camera shown in our photograph and an earlier camera that failed to survive being buried in the desert outside of Las Vegas took 558 photos that survived his many treks through the western United States ranging from the Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to Alaska. During these two plus years, Chris had racked up thousands of miles travelling on foot, hitching rides, riding the rails, and paddling a canoe to many destinations. Along the way he befriended many, learned much, and risked everything for the sake of perpetual new vistas and experiences. Jon Krakauer used the photographic treasure trove to trace Chris’ Journey but although many learned about Chris and his adventures through Jon’s book and Sean Penn’s film, both bearing the title “Into the Wild” only 35 of this vast storehouse of photographs ever made it to media.

The bulk of this photographic treasure remained stored in a bank vault until 4 years ago when an infringement attorney required us to copyright all of the photographs to prevent their use without benefit to the Foundation that we had formed in 1994 to help others with the gains received from the sale of the book and later film “Into The Wild.” Walt was jolted into the realization that these photographs chronicled Chris’ story as it unfolded through his eyes via the miracle and blessing of the camera.

Walt and Billie McCandless.

Picture was taken by fellow team member and Professional Photographer Joseph Moss.

"This is truely an amazing picture. The old saying rings true - a picture tells one thousand words -in this case it is the camera within the picture. This is additionally compounded by Billie and Walt holding the treasure, that released a wealth of insights to the world about their son, Christopher McCandless" - Adam Read
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