The end of an era: the story of the final pilgrim to pay tribute to the Magic Bus

Erica Calvo recreates an infamous self-portrait taken by Chris McCandless, whose story...
Erica Calvo recreates an infamous self-portrait taken by Chris McCandless, whose story inspired so many adventurers to seek the bus, some of whom met similarly tragic ends as McCandless. (Erica Calvo) (KTVF)
Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 7:32 PM AKDT
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When I met Erica Calvo for our interview at Creamer's Field on a sopping wet Sunday afternoon, I was horrified to learn that she had walked from her campground several miles away. "It’s fine," she reassured me. "I walk ten miles every day anyway."

A mutual friend had put me in touch with Calvo on the night the infamous “Bus 142” had been airlifted from its place in the Alaska wilderness.

“Erica was the last person to visit it 5 days ago during a trip in Denali,” read the text the friend had sent.

The bus, an old Fairbanks Public Transit vehicle, had been made famous by Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild”, which chronicled the last two years of the life of its protagonist, Christopher McCandless. McCandless’ rejection of urban life and yearning for adventure out beyond the comforts of civilization was embodied by many pilgrims who visited the bus, which is where McCandless met his end at the hands of starvation.

Of course, there is no way to verify the claim that Calvo is the last person to visit the bus; the state does not keep track of this information. All that can be said is that Calvo visited the bus on Sunday, June 14, and the bus was moved on Thursday, June 18.

Calvo believes herself to be the final visitor, however, and the story of her visit lends credence to this idea.

With a few days off work, Calvo drove down the Parks Highway towards Denali in a rental car. “That’s where everybody said to go,” she says. “And I passed Healy knowing that’s where the Stampede Trail was, and it was in the back of my mind.” Calvo says she dissuaded herself from attempting the hike, however, believing she lacked for time.

“I hiked up the super popular Mt. Healy overlook trail,” she continues, “and then I just went along that range for a very long time. I have no idea what I was hitting, but I just kept ridge-walking.”

The next morning, with the bus still gnawing at the back of her mind, Calvo traversed the Stampede Trail, and arrived at Savage River.

“I just went and stared at it for a really long time and tried to really decide ‘do I have the time? Can I attempt this in high summer season where the flood waters are going to be high?’”, Calvo asked herself. “And I just decided against it.”

However, the next day, she was struck by another idea.

"I wake up, and I can't tell you what came over me, but I called every helicopter company within a 150 mile radius. No one was open, no one was doing tours, half the companies they won't even go to that bus," Calvo says.

Then, she got a tip about a company that sometimes did ATV excursions to the bus. Calvo called, and sure enough, they agreed to chopper her there.

Around midday, Calvo found herself in front of the bus; but what she found was not what she was expecting.

"My whole life, you put the man on the highest of pedestals, and you get out there and it was this profound feeling of sadness, and loneliness, and isolation," she says.

She recalls her trip to Mt. Healy, and being overcome by the beauty of the location. Here, however, before the bus, she says that it was anything but beautiful.

She says that McCandless had come to this place to run away.

Days later, she says that the profundity of the experience did not dawn on her until a friend offered their analysis.

"It really didn't hit hard until yesterday, when somebody said to me 'if you look at it just in terms of a soul searching adventure, he was the first, and you were the last,’" she says.

The future of the bus is still uncertain, and rumors continue to swirl about where it may end up.

What is certain, however, is that pilgrims looking to shed the material world and return to nature will need to seek another holy land.

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