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The Magic Bus

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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.

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Typical conditions on the Stampede Trail

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”.

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Crossing the mighty Teklinika River

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.

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The front of The Magic Bus

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.

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The stove and bed of The Magic Bus

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.

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Jon Krakauer’s message in the book

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.
Thankyou Chris.

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Christopher McCandless Plaque

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.

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A quote by Thoreau on The Magic Bus

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.

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Roland Dan & Thomas at The Magic Bus

My hair is all wrong and my beard is not nearly long enough, but you get the idea:

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Dan at The Magic Bus

-Dan

If you’ve just stumbled onto my site, I encourage you to have a look around and read more about my 2 year expedition from Alaska to Argentina and my 3 year expedition all the way around Africa.


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447 Responses

  1. Michael Engelhard says:

    Hi Dan,

    I am currently writing an article for Alaska magazine about the bus off the Stampede Road and was wondering if you ever got to make the trip. I’m particularly interested in what motivates people to go on this journey and what they make of the experience afterward. It’s become such a phenomenon, and I’m really trying to see what drives it.

    I’d really appreciate your help with this project. Please also feel free to pass this request on to other people who’ve done this or plan doing it.

    Best,
    Michael Engelhard
    (in Fairbanks, Alaska)
    http://michaelengelhard.com

  2. Sean Brennan says:

    What is the next big trip? Will you be at overland west 2020?

    • Dan Grec says:

      Hey Sean,

      I have a few ideas and dreams, and I’m actively working on something right now… no announcement until it’s locked in though!

      Yes, I’ll be at Overland Expo West for sure, please say hello!

      -Dan

  3. Tom Allin says:

    My Toyota 4Runner is currently parked in Madrid, Spain. Thinking of driving from Spain to South Africa.
    Is it reasonable to think I can drive from Dakar, Senegal — leaving 20 Oct — to Cape Town in four months? I would have to average roughly 100 miles/day or 200 miles/day if I am only driving toward my final destination every other day.

    I note by the dates of your post you took more than 3 times longer driving between these two cities.

    Would I be better off leaving Dakar earlier than 20 Oct and still arriving in Cape Town about 22 Feb?

    Thanks for any information you may be able to provide.
    Tom
    Driving the World Since May 2016

    • Dan Grec says:

      Hi Tom,

      I met people who did the whole West Coast in 3 months, and to be honest, they were hating life. They did 12 hour driving days every single day. Never stopping to see anything, never eating street food with locals. In my opinion, that is not a good time.
      I personally would never attempt it in less than 6 months, but it can be done.
      I hope that helps you plan the trip!
      -Dan

  4. Tom says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. My wife and I don’t have a reputation of driving fast. Took us six months to drive: Calcutta to Gangtok north of Darjeeling, back to Darjeeling, across Nepal (a month of our six months), 10 days to drive the Spiti-Kinnaur Loop Road, and eventually to Mumbai.

    Is your “not less than six months” from Tangier or Dakar?

    Currently I was thinking leaving Dakar on 20 Oct. I could easily move this date back to 20 Sept giving me five months to make it to Cape Town. Leaving earlier I believe means I will encounter the end of the rainy season in Senegal & The Gambia.

    It is our plan for me to drive alone to Burkina-Faso. My wife will meet me in Burkina-Faso and we would then take six to eight weeks to drive to Nigeria where she will fly home. I want to explore Cameroon through Angola on my own. I plan to take two weeks or less to drive from Angola to Cape Town, fly home, return in mid April with my wife to explore Namibia, South Africa, etc.

    Look forward to your thoughts and have enjoyed reading your posts on West Africa and listening to the pod cast with ExpeditionPortal.

    Again, thanks. Tom

    • Dan Grec says:

      Hi Tom,

      I think “not less than six months” applies for Tangier to Cape Town. Ideally you would spend twelve.
      Likely you’ll encounter some rainy season somewhere, it’s hard to skip it entirely. Do what you can to avoid it, but don’t stress about it too much.

      Make sure you can both get visas for Nigeria, and that you carefully plan where you will get all your visas for further south. Nigeria is very hard to get right now, and might be an issue for you.

      Good luck!
      -Dan

  1. August 9, 2009

    […] I’m not sure what to make of this one. It seems like quite the travel experience though: The road to the magic bus. Have a look and decide for […]

  2. September 5, 2009

    […] real life, Christopher McCandless continues to inspire. People often call young men of that age and temperament, “young and stupid and idealistic,” […]

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    […] into the wild Trek to the Magic Bus The road chose me Living the dream in AK [Show as slideshow] [View with PicLens] […]

  4. March 16, 2017

    […] – Curiosidades, Hypeness, The Road Choose Me e The Worldwide Guide to Movie […]

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