If you looked to the sky near Denali towards the end of last June, you may have encountered a rather unusual sight: an old, rusty bus strapped to the bottom of a helicopter, cruising over the tundra.
That miraculous flying vessel was Bus 142, known to many as “The Magic Bus,” made famous by the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and the film of the same name from Sean Penn. Since the book’s publication in 1996, many hikers have attempted the arduous trek down the Stampede Trail into the Denali wilderness where it rested, and a handful have died on the way. But the Magic Bus will have a new home soon: as an exhibit at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
Into the Wild’s protagonist, Chris McCandless, achieved a cult following after spending 113 days in the bus prior to his death. Bus 142’s story, though, extends far beyond McCandless’s stay, and the museum plans to tell it. An Alaska state repository, the Museum of the North made a proposal to exhibit the bus, winning out over other museums. Fittingly, the museum is where McCandless picked up his Tanaina Plantlore field-guide-turned-survival-log on his way to the Stampede Trail, according to his sister, Carine McCandless.
Read More: Alaska Has Removed the Into the Wild Bus
“Once it was transferred to us, [the exhibit] just made sense, because it’s a piece of Alaska history,” said Angela Linn, the museum’s Senior Collections Manager for Ethnography and History, who’s leading the exhibit’s team of around 30 planners.
The history of the 1946 International Harvester bus is far more comprehensive than most people realize, spanning from Bus 142’s days as a fully operational transit bus, to its time as a makeshift home for families working on the Stampede Trail, to its years as a hunting shelter before McCandless stumbled upon it.
“I just met a guy yesterday when I was at the antique auto museum, who said, ‘Oh, I rode that bus when I was a kid!’” said Linn.
But of course, the bus’s main draw is its connection to Into the Wild, and the museum has enlisted the help of the leading authority on the subject. Carine McCandless, who didn’t know about the bus’s removal until it was hogtied to the helicopter, recounted, “I was in shock. And then I just immediately turned into the mode of, ‘What can I do to help?’”
The answer: a lot.
Carine has been influential in the planning process, sharing photos and videos from McCandless devotees who ventured out to the bus at its old home, consulting for the team working on the exhibit, and even coordinating fundraising efforts through her project Friends of Bus 142. But she wants to emphasize that Bus 142 isn’t just about her brother.
“This next phase in the bus’s life is just a continuation of that story,” she said.
Carine made her own contribution to Chris’s story with the release of her bestselling book The Wild Truth in 2014, which details the abuse she and her brother suffered growing up. An outspoken advocate against domestic violence, she sees the bus as a vessel to raise awareness for the issue, which often takes place behind closed doors.
“Chris’s story is one that everyone thought they knew, right? There’s a book, there’s a movie,” she said. “But when I go and talk with students I’ve never left [a school] where someone didn’t come up to me for the very first time and reach out for help.”
With the help of Carine, as well as that of historians, the local community, and the UAF’s English department, Linn and her team are hoping to tell the Magic Bus’s story in a three-pronged exhibit. It’s slated to feature an indoor section in the Gallery of Alaska with both physical and media elements, as well as a virtual adaptation making use of 360-degree photography and 3D scanning.
Outside will be the bus itself, which has seen better days. “There’s maybe one window that hasn’t been shot out,” Linn said. “Somebody fired a bunch of rounds into the iconic 142 painted on the driver’s side.” Structural damage and graffiti now cover Bus 142’s exterior, but restoration efforts won’t alter its appearance too drastically.
“The graffiti, and to some extent, some of the broken mess, is part of the story of the bus,” Linn said. “People went through a lot of heartache and hard work to get out there.”
Linn says that her team would love for the exhibit to be ready by 2022, the 30th anniversary of Chris’s death, but acknowledges that the process could take several years longer. “
It’s a careful story that we can’t just throw together,” she says. “We have to do it right.”
To help speed up the process of preserving the bus, supporters of the exhibit can send donations here.