It’s hard to picture that an abandoned vehicle can be such a treasured and venerated piece of history. But Fairbanks Bus 142, which served as a shelter for nomadic life-seeking man Christopher McCandless until he died of starvation, has a different story. Fairbanks Bus 142 was originally one of three buses used by the Yutan Construction Company to provide site accommodations for the construction crew from Fairbanks that worked on road upgrades in 1960. Ten years later, the buses were removed from the trail, but Bus 142 was left behind due to a broken rear axle to serve as a shelter for hunters, trappers, and visitors. McCandless, meanwhile, was a man who wanted to live nomadically throughout the US and attempted to survive in the Alaskan Wilderness, ultimately perishing from starvation.
A group of hunters found his body about two weeks after his death and radioed police. The abandoned bus is where McCandless stayed until his death, and the bus ultimately gained notoriety from this story when John Krakauer wrote an article about McCandless’s death in magazine The Outsider and later a biographical novel about his story, Into the Wild. A movie adaptation of Into the Wild was also directed as a result, and all of these stories spurned a great deal of interest for hikers to reach the location where McCandless perished. Two hikers died trying to reach the bus, and 15 other hikers were involved in search-and-rescue missions after attempting to reach the bus themselves.
With all the danger that involves the trip to this location, the state of Alaska finally flew the bus out of the wilderness last year, taking it to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Bus 142 can now finally be viewed safely while it undergoes preservation work. The bus has deteriorated from its years as a shelter for the Yutan Construction Company and other instances. Holes cut in the roof and floor for the helicopter to ferry it out of the woods must be repaired, and in 2006 several hikers shot at the bus, leaving sharp bullet holes. The bus is being preserved in a heated space with environmental controls. The bus also has an elevated observation space that allows anyone to view the bus for free on weekdays, and is expected to remain at the University of Alaska Fairbanks until the end of the year. While McCandless remains something of a controversial figure and the bus where he perished is mostly remembered for this legacy, there is much more to the bus than meets the eye and thus it deserves to be fully preserved.
The bus has been at the university since last year, but preservation work continues. “It's OK that people have this huge range of feelings about the bus," Angela Linn, senior collections manager of ethnology and history at the museum, said. "That means they're thinking about it. They have opinions about it, and that means they're engaged with history, which is a really important thing for those of us who are in the business of preserving history.” Telling all of the history of the bus, including its history as a makeshift construction shelter, hiking shelter, and McCandless surviving in the bus, is what is most important to Linn and her staff. One thing Linn mentioned was important to the bus was the 30 years of graffiti on the inside of it. Either way, despite the controversy surrounding McCandless and the unsung history of the bus in the first place, it’s neat to see that this bus will ultimately become a piece of history that is appreciated rather than a dangerous tourist destination.