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Tuesday May 28th 2024

Into The Wild | 2007

Into The Wild filming location: Salvation Mountain, Salton Sea, California
Into The Wild location: Alexander Supertramp and Tracy visit Salvation Mountain: Salvation Mountain, Salton Sea, California | Photograph: wikimedia / Brian

The crazy / visionary / reckless journey of Christopher McCandless – aka Alexander Supertramp – from a comfortable existence in the suburbs of Annandale, Virginia, to a lonely death in the wilds of Alaska, is filmed by Sean Penn on many of the real locations visited by the restless traveller.

The marathon two-year shoot encompassed 35 different locations throughout the United States, beautifully captured by cinematographer Eric Gautier, who had impressed Penn with his work on another epic cinematic journey, Walter SallesThe Motorcycle Diaries.

Told in flashback from the last days in Alaska, the film’s story begins with Chris’s graduation from Emory University, 201 Dowman Drive, Druid Hills, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Although there are wide establishing shots of Emory’s campus, in front of Michael C Carlos Hall, in order to minimise disruption, the graduation itself was filmed at Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Boulevard, a private and independent liberal arts college in southeast Portland, Oregon.

Afterwards, Chris enjoys a celebratory dinner with his sister Carine (Jena Malone) and parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) during which the fault lines in the seemingly perfect family begin to show, as Chris scornfully refuses the offer of a new car.

The restaurant, welcoming Emory graduates and supposedly in ‘Atlanta’, is McCormick's Fish House, 9945 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Beaverton, also in Oregon, just west of Portland.

Without his family’s knowledge, Chris donates the whole of his $24,000 college savings to Oxfam and takes to the road in his reliable Datsun. He doesn’t have the car long, though, when it’s caught in a flash flood near Lake Mead, Arizona. After watching the affluent relaxing with their boats on the lake, Chris burns the last of his money and embraces the freedom of hitching.

Travelling north to Nevada, he enters Reno beneath the famous Reno Arch with its  ‘Biggest Little City in the World’ boast (the winning result of a city motto competition, apparently).

Now styling himself Alexander Supertramp, he hikes through idyllic greenery alongside Lake Tahoe on the Pacific Crest Trail, which winds from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington State.

There, he hooks up with self-styled ‘rubber tramps’ Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian H Dierker – who was the film’s Marine Coordinator) – proving the catalyst for both a crisis and a reconciliation between them as they camp on the rocky beach at Beard's Hollow in Cape Disappointment State Park, on the Washington/Oregon border.

Alex flees the threat of human intimacy, slipping off during the night with no goodbyes, somehow ending up hundreds of miles to the east in the tiny town of Carthage, about 60 miles northwest of Sioux City, South Dakota. He finds work on a grain farm, and in the relaxed beery atmosphere of the Cabaret Steakhouse And Lounge, 130 Main Street East, Carthage, receives life lessons from farm-owner Wayne (Vince Vaughn) as well as invaluable tips on wilderness survival from co-worker Kevin (Zach Galifianakis).

After Wayne’s arrest for dealing shady cable boxes, Alex’s journey takes a new turn when he comes across a store window display of canoeing equipment and impetuously makes the decision to kayak down the Colorado River.

Into The Wild filming location: Mushrooms Rocks, Lee's Ferry, Arizona
Into The Wild location: Alexander Supertramp heads to the Colorado River: Mushrooms Rocks, Lee’s Ferry, Arizona

He heads to Lee's Ferry in Coconino County, Arizona, about seven miles southwest of Page, which is the only place for hundreds of miles from which the river can easily be accessed. This meant it became an important river crossing and, named after the ferry operated here by one John Doyle Lee in the mid-1800s.

It’s still a well-known fishing spot and a launching point for whitewater rafting trips through the Grand Canyon but, as Alex discovers at Lee's Ferry National Park Service Station, there’s a 12 year waiting list for permits to navigate the River.

Naturally he ignores the rules, pushing his kayak in a shopping trolley past the mushroom rock formations that grace the entrance to Lee's Ferry and, despite lack of experience, launching straight into the treacherous rapids.

The production shot much further southwest, on the relatively safer section of the Colorado between Lake Mead and Bullhead City.

Reaching quieter waters, he meets a pair of crazy Danish tourists who plant in his mind the idea of traveling downriver all the way to Mexico. With river rangers on is tail, he temporarily takes to the road again and, with kayak on the back of a truck, crosses the Colorado via the road running along the crest of Boulder Dam.

Further south, toward Lake Havasu, he enters Topock Gorge and the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge beneath the rail bridge which runs alongside I-40.

Alex joyfully runs with a herd of wild horses in a scene actually filmed at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, 12163 Highland Road, Hot Springs, back in South Dakota, where about 600 rescued, unwanted and wild mustangs run free.

A 400-mile kayaking journey takes Alex to the Golfo de Santa Clara in the Sea of Cortez, entering Mexico through the spillway of the Morelos Dam, between Los Algodones in northwestern Mexico and Yuma County, Arizona. The brief shot of his kayak passing over dolphins, though, was filmed in the Channel Islands off the coast of Los Angeles at Santa Catalina Island.

After living in a cave for 36 days, he attempts to cross the border back into the United States at Los Algodones border station but, without ID, he ends up boarding a freight train which delivers him to the heart of the city of Los Angeles.

After months on the open road, the railtracks of the industrial wasteland east of Downtown present a dramatic culture shock. Trudging into the city, he’s hemmed in by the highrises of downtown, including the US Bank Tower on 5th Street, which you’ll probably recognise from its explosive cameo appearance in Independence Day.

Without money or ID, Alex joins a queue of the city’s homeless at the Los Angeles Mission, 303 East 5th Street – a part of LA life not often seen on screen. The Mission is a non-profit shelter, which has been serving the hungry and homeless of Downtown's Hope Central (dismissively referred to as Skid Row) for over 70 years (and I’m sure would appreciate a donation).

The hostel life is clearly not for Alex – he doesn’t even stay the night, hopping another train out of urban confinement.

Another lift takes him to the wonderfully named Holy Moses Wash, just south of Kingman, Mohave County in Arizona, which is a bit out of the way since his next stop is Slab City, a large campsite for ‘snowbirds’ (northern visitors who winter in the warmer southern states) and local squatters, who occupy the old abandoned WWII Fort Dunlap Marine training base near Salton Sea, east of San Diego, Southern California. The name comes from the concrete blocks, which are the only remains of the base’s barracks and Quonset huts.

Here, not quite by chance, he meets up again with Jan and Rainey and starts a brief romance with folksinger Tracy (Kristen Stewart).

Alex and Tracy pay a visit to nearby Salvation Mountain, East Beal Road, Niland, the colourful, 50-foot artificial hill built of adobe, straw and lots and lots of paint begun by Leonard Knight in the late 1990s, to proclaim his religious faith. Knight, who appears as himself in the film, died in February 2014 but his creation remains a place of pilgrimage.

Of course, it’s not long before Alex is off again, with Jan dropping him off at Salton City, Route 86 on the western side of Salton Sea.

The names just get better as he gets a lift back to his campsite, above the wonderfully named Oh-My-God Hot Springs (natural thermal pools actually just outside Slab City), Alex meets Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), another lonely soul who’s mourning the loss of his son in a car accident.

Alex stays with Ron for a while at his home some 20 miles to the west in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, where he learns to tool leather, and decorates a belt with the story of his journey.

The cable car they ride is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, 1 Tram Way, in Palm Springs itself, some way to the northwest.

Alex is momentarily tempted by Mr Franz’s offer to adopt him as his grandson, Alex’s compulsion to break free and to reach Alaska takes precedence.

‘Bus 142’, the abandoned, World War II-era International Harvester which the real Alex made his last wilderness home, still stands on the Stampede Trail, west of Healy in Denali National Park, Alaska, and has predictably become a famous attraction for hikers since the publication of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book. The difficult, near 20-mile trail to reach the bus demands solid hiking experience as well as good gear and preparation – not something to be undertaken lightly.

Although there’s a shot of the Stampede Way road sign, the Alaskan scenes were filmed about 50 miles to the south.

A replica bus, claimed to be perfect “down to the rust spots”, was built by the film’s Production Designer Derek R Hill on the bank of the Jack River, off the Denali Highway, southeast of the town of Cantwell.