“Into The Wild” bus back in Fairbanks

A green school bus with shattered windows on a trailer bed with about six people standing in front of it wearing face coverings.
University of Alaska Fairbanks and state officials pose during a media event in front of the bus at the UA Museum of the North in September 2020. (Dan Bross/KUAC)

Historic Bus 142 has returned to Fairbanks where it first served as part of the city’s public transit system in the 1940s.

Backdropped by the derelict bus on a flatbed trailer outside the UA Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Director Pat Druckenmiller explained the idea of the future exhibit.

“The UA Museum of the North will be the long-term stewards of the bus so that we can allow people to see it, to see it for free in an outdoor exhibition, and tell the whole story of the bus not,” he said. “You know, there’s the famous part of the story with Chris McCandless, but there’s also a lot of other interesting aspects that we want to share with the public.”

Development of the exhibit will begin with a physical assessment of old Bus 142. UA Museum Curator Angela Linn said a professional historic automobile conservator will be brought in to help.

“Work with us to assess the physical stability, the structural stability of the bus, and kind of determine what approach we want to take in terms of what needs to happen for the safety of people around it for the structural safety of the vehicle itself. And make a plan as far as what enhances the interpretive value of the bus as well,” she said.

Linn says the next step will be developing an actual exhibit.

“That’s really going to be a challenging part,” she said. “Obviously, there’s lots of divergent opinions about the stories that are associated with the bus most dramatically with the Chris McCandless story. And so we want to be sure that we represent all those voices.”

Over the last 20-plus years the bus has set near near Denali National Park. It regularly attracted visitors, including two who died trying to cross the Teklanika River on the way there.

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There have also been injuries in numerous search and rescue operations. State Department of Natural Resources Land Manager Diana Lineberger said removing the bus from the wilderness has two benefits.

“Hopefully save lives and reduce the number of rescues that are required,” she said. “I really think the other part of this is the museum having it and telling that story, and making it available for so many more people to see.”

Originally towed out the Stampede Trail as a work crew camp, the bus later became a temporary shelter for hunters and other backcountry travelers. And in the summer of 1992, it became the place where young Christopher McCandless tried to live off the land alone.

“You can look at the bus as, well it’s just a bus, but it’s also a symbol for a lot of people (of) kind of breaking free of societal norms,” said Lineberger.

Christopher McCandless’ sister Carine McCandless is working with the museum on the exhibit. She says it can be a powerful educational tool, including about the mistakes her brother made that led to his starvation in the wilderness.

“He wasn’t prepared. And I don’t want people to gloss over that fact,” she said.

It’s expected to take two years of work including significant fundraising to develop the bus exhibit. The plan calls for an outdoor exhibit site in the woods north of the museum parking lot. But, in the meantime, the bus will be stored at an undisclosed university facility.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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