UAF museum starts work on ‘Into the Wild’ bus exhibit

Two peopl look at an old green and white bus from behind
UA Museum of the North Director Pat Druckenmiller checks out Bus 142 last week with Colin Howard, left, and Aaron Warkinton, right, who work for Pennsylvania-based B.R. Howard Conservation. (Tim Ellis/KUAC)

Preliminary work began last week on a project to create a museum exhibit featuring the old bus where Christopher McCandless, central character in the book and movie “Into the Wild,” spent his last days.

The rusty relic was airlifted from a remote spot off the Stampede Trail last year and brought to Fairbanks, where it roamed decades ago as a city transit bus. And now, University of Alaska Museum of the North staff are planning a new outdoor exhibit that will tell the story of how Bus 142 became an American cultural icon.

RELATED: Helicopter removes ‘Into the Wild’ bus that lured Alaska travelers to their deaths

Colin Howard and another artifact conservation expert conferred with Museum of the North staff about the fragile condition of Bus 142 before the conservators head back to Pennsylvania, where their art and artifact conservation company is based.

“It provides a whole bunch of challenges,” Howard said. “I mean, she’s really dirty, and she needs a lot of work.”

He and his colleague, Aaron Warkinton, met with museum staff last Friday after spending a couple days assessing what’s necessary to make the old rig presentable to the public and to keep it from deteriorating.

“We don’t want to make it brand-new,” Howard said. “I don’t want to make it look like it was just repainted. It carries a significant story for multiple decades, and we want to keep that story going.”

A woman in ornge pants and a blue shirt stands on the floor of a bus gesturing at the floor
Museum of the North Senior Collections Manager Angela Linn explains conservation work needed to stabilize the floor of Bus 142 and other parts of its interior on June 11, 2021. (Tim Ellis/KUAC)

Those stories are told in part through the rust and chipping paint typically found on a 75-year-old vehicle, especially one that’s been sitting exposed to the elements at a remote site near Denali National Park since it was hauled there in 1961. The bus served as a shelter for hunters and hikers, including McCandless, the hapless wanderer profiled in Jon Krakauer’s account “Into the Wild.”

“We just want to stabilize it, make sure that the corrosion is no longer active,” Howard said. “We want to stabilize flaking paint that’s coming off. There’s stories inside that are falling off the walls, literally.”

Those are stories told by inscriptions scrawled all over the bus and its few remaining windows. Many were left as an homage to the memory of McCandless, whose body was found in the bus on Sept. 6, 1992 by some moose hunters.

One of the scrawls reads, quote, “Godspeed Chris, and say hi to my mom from me!”

Another reads: “Thanx 4 the inspiration!”

Yet another simply says “He was here!”

Writing in different colored markers on the interior of a wall
The interior wall of Bus 142, picture on June 11, 2021. Many of those who reached the bus left messages addressed to McCandless and their fellow “pilgrims.” (Tim Ellis/KUAC)

“There’s Japanese kanji in there, Russian. People from all over the world have journeyed out there to interact with that relic,” Warkinton said.

He attests the draw to the universal appeal of the story of McCandless, who, after graduating from college, decided to escape society and materialism to find the meaning of life, a search that led him deep into Alaska.

“I think he touched on something that a lot of people struggle with,” he said. “Like I’d mentioned earlier, about dealing with the modern world — it can be so overwhelming!”

Angela Linn, a senior collections manager at the Museum of the North, agrees.

“Y’know this is a story that really resonates with millions of people around the world,” she said. “And whether it’s because of the mystique of Alaska, whether they really identify with Chris McCandless and the transition he maybe was going through himself. That, y’know, people see that in themselves.”

Linn, who’s managing the project, said that’s one of the main reasons Museum of the North officials believe it’s important to preserve the bus and share its stories with the public.

“We think it’s really important to spend the money and the time and the great amount of effort to bring all those stories together,” she said. “And that’s part of what our job is in museums, is to get people to connect those dots within themselves.”

Linn said it has cost about $7,000 so far for Howard’s firm to assess the work needed on the bus and estimate how much it’ll cost to do it. The money was online: Linn hopes to raise additional money with crowdfunding help from Friends of Bus 142, a group founded by McCandless’s sister, Carine.

Much of the consulting and planning for the exhibit is being done by a 25-member interpretive team, Linn said, which includes university faculty and members of the community.

She said if all goes well, the exhibit could open in 2023.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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