The Magic Bus
Coffe Table Photography book out now!
999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
The Magic Bus was a place I had dreamed of visiting since I first saw the movie and read the Jon Krakauer book, “Into The Wild”. I think of it as a pilgrimage made by those who have felt some kind of connection with Chris McCandless and his story. Most people don’t realize the bus lies on the well known “Stampede Trail”, not all that far from civilization and can be reached in a solid day of hiking.
The Stampede Trail is fifty miles of rough, overgrown mining road that was abandoned in 1963. No bridges were ever constructed over the several rivers it crosses so it is primarily used by backcountry travelers on foot, bicycle, snow machine and motorcycle. The now infamous Fairbanks City Transit bus #142 was left behind by the Yutan Construction Company during the road building to serve as a backcountry shelter for hunters, trappers and ranger patrols.
I met two cool Austrian characters, Thomas and (roll the ‘R’) Roland on the Dalton Highway and it took all of 10 seconds to convince them to join me on a trip to ‘The Bus’. We were able to drive about 12.5 miles down Stampede Road before we had to leave the vehicles behind and continue on foot. The first hour and a half of hiking the next morning saw us travel on a really good quad trail, through some small swaps, through a couple of shin-deep river crossings and spat us out at the edge of the Teklinika River.
Ultimately, the ‘Tek’ was Chris’ downfall when he was unable to cross it and return to civilization, forcing him back to the bus. Although it was not the raging torrent Emile Hirsch faced in the movie, it was obvious we would be swept off our feet and downstream if we did not keep our heads about us.
We ummmed and arrred for quite a while and wandered upstream, where we had been told the river was wider and shallower. Once we got sick of our aimless wandering, Thomas picked a spot and after throwing in rocks and using sticks to measure the depth we all agreed it was our best chance. We tentatively forded one at a time, with our packs un-buckled so we could ditch them if we were to get swept in. It’s a shame you can’t see my face in any of the photos – I was more than a bit scared when it reached mid-thigh in depth and began to really push hard. Slow and steady won through and I was relieved to be on the other side. Roland came powering across like he was on a mission and in a voice that was too much Arnie to be true beamed “Bah, dat was easy”.
Thomas and Roland are fitness machines and once we were back on the trail I was quickly left in their dust, alone with my thoughts. Chris must have felt such a sense of isolation and awe to be all the way out here, alone, not knowing if there was anything or anyone ahead. At times I yelled into the alder and clapped my hands, trying to avoid startling any neighborhood bears. At times I sang aloud and at times I was silently reflecting – I was actually going to the bus, the bus that Chris had spent four months living in, was essentially trapped in and finally died in. Wow.
When bus 142 appeared on the side of the trail, seemingly out of thin air I was quite startled. I’d been hiking on my own for 10 miles but somehow wasn’t ready to be there yet. I paused on the edge of the clearing for a moment, then again in the doorway, trying to take everything in. Even though I’d never been there before, it was very familiar – from the description in the book, the movie and also from the pictures I’ve seen online.
I thought The Magic Bus would be a quiet, sad place to spend time – I was quite surprised to find the opposite was the case.
It’s customary for visitors to inscribe their name on the wall of the bus and write a message in the “Guest Book” – a book placed in the bus by Chris’ sister Carine. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of exhilarating messages from people all over the world who had made the trek out to the bus. People wrote about how upon hearing Chris’ story they changed their lives so they could live their dreams, people wrote of hitching thousands of miles to be there, people wrote about how beautiful of a place Chris had found. Graffiti like ‘Solo trek to honor Chris’ and ‘Swept downstream by Tek, it was worth it’ made me grin from ear to ear – Chris has inspired thousands of people and and I was thrilled to be a part of that.
My message in the Guest Book captures my feelings:
You have inspired more people than you will ever know, not least of all me.
Your passion, courage and determination gave me the strength to believe I really can make my dreams come true.
And here I am, in Alaska, having been to the Arctic Ocean, on my way to South America.
I spent many quiet hours in the bus, reading the walls and the many guest books.
Although I hunted high and low I could not find any writing from Chris himself – it seems they have all faded away over the years.
It was truly and amazing experience and all three of us couldn’t stop grinning and talking of adventures to come the entire hike back.
My hair is all wrong and my beard is not nearly long enough, but you get the idea: