When a National Guard Chinook helicopter airlifted the Magic Bus out of the Alaskan backcountry last year, the news got more attention from backpackers and the public at large than the demise of an old bus usually does. Since the publication of John Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild, the dilapidated automobile had drawn thousands of hikers, who made the pilgrimage down the Stampede Trail to see the site where Christopher McCandless, the book’s star-crossed main character, had spent the last three-and-a-half months of his life before starvation put an end to his peripatetic adventures. For a certain kind of questing hiker–and a state government tired of rescuing them when they came unprepared or the swollen Teklanika River trapped them–it was the end of an era.
However, the final flight of the Magic Bus was just the beginning of a much longer journey for a group of curators, students, and skilled volunteers. After the helicopter landed, a crew loaded the bus onto a waiting flatbed truck. Following a stint in storage, it made its way to its final resting place at the Museum of the North, a University of Alaska-affiliated institution in Fairbanks. There, staff set to work, assessing the damage to the dilapidated vehicle and figuring out what it would take to transform it into a museum piece that would tell the story of a brief, unusual chapter in Alaskan history.
“The big thing right now is trying to help the community and the public understand the long process that it takes to put something like this on exhibit,” says Angela Linn, the museum’s senior collections manager. “It’s not just bringing it in, plunking it down, and allowing people to come to it.”
Long before McCandless’s final journey into the wild, the Magic Bus was just Bus 142, a 1946 International Harvester K-5 that carted passengers around Fairbanks as part of the city’s municipal transit system. In 1961, the Yutan Construction Company purchased Bus 142, removed the engine, and used a bulldozer to drag it and three other buses out along what’s now the Stampede Trail as temporary housing for its workers, who were building an access road between the Alaska Railroad and a nearby mine.
In a post published by the non-profit Friends of Bus 142, Mickey Mariner Hines recalled living in the bus as a 10-year-old in 1961 while her father worked on the project. Hines, who’s consulting with the museum on the exhibit, called it “a summer of wonderful adventure in the middle of the wilderness.”
“Dad named Bus 142 our ‘boudoir’ and another was our ‘galley,’ which was outfitted with a cook stove and table,” Hines wrote. “The other men of the camp lived in two orange buses, one was the cookhouse and one the bunkhouse.”
After work on the project ended, the company left Bus 142, now with a broken axle, behind. Over the coming decades, the bus would become an area landmark, serving as a shelter for moose hunters and backcountry travelers. In the years after Into the Wild’s publication and the release of a 2007 film version starring Emile Hirsch, the bus became a destination for fans who wanted to retrace McCandless’s footsteps. Some weren’t prepared for the harsh conditions of the Alaskan backcountry: After a spate of frostbite injuries and near-drownings on the trail, as well as two deaths, the state finally decided it was time for the old bus to go.
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For the Museum of the North, Linn says, pushing for the opportunity to exhibit Bus 142 just made sense. As one of only three official state repositories in Alaska, and the only one in the interior, the museum has the staff and the experience to properly care for artifacts like the bus, and unlike other potential candidates, it planned to exhibit the bus to the public for free. Add in the local Fairbanks connection, and the museum was a natural fit. After making their pitch to the state Office of History and Archeology, their representative, and eventually the head of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources, the museum finally got the OK to bring Bus 142 home.
After 60 years of exposure to nature, the vehicle that showed up at the museum was in rough shape. The National Guard crew that airlifted out the bus had cut holes in its roof to attach chains to the frame; bullet holes pockmarked the body, including the iconic number 142, and the windows had all been shot out. The bus’s green and white paint scheme had worn through to the factory yellow undercoating on the hood and sides, and in other places, rust had weakened or eaten through the body entirely. The tires’ rubber was flattened and cracked, though Linn says the wheels still turned. Over the years, visitors had covered the interior of the bus in graffiti, leaving their names or messages to McCandless. Museum staff had just enough time to remove the loose objects, ranging from emergency supplies to books, that visitors had left in the bus before the beginning of the Alaskan winter forced an end to their work for the year.
In June, the museum flew in two professional conservators from B.R. Howard and Associates, an art restoration firm based in Pennsylvania, to assess Bus 142’s condition and come up with a plan for preserving it. The company, which has worked with the museum in the past, spent three days on site, examining the bus’s structure and taking paint samples. The museum is also working with students from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks’s technical and welding programs, and has received interest from volunteers as well. Also consulting on the project: Carine McCandless, Christopher McCandless’s sister, who wrote a book on the domestic abuse she and her brother survived as children and is helping to design the exhibit.
The plan is to eventually exhibit the bus outside, in conjunction with an exhibit on its history in the museum’s gallery and a virtual exhibit using 3D photography. While the project is still in its early stages, Linn estimates the bus will be ready to exhibit sometime in 2023.
The team doesn’t plan to remove all of the damage to the bus; where it tells the history of the bus, they actually hope to preserve it. The graffiti covering the bus’s walls, for example, is a record of its role as a symbol, inspiring hikers, wisely or unwisely, to make their own trek across the Teklanika River and into the backcountry in search of that same lonely freedom that Christopher McCandless sought. When it finally opens and the public has the chance to set foot in Bus 142 again, Linn says she hopes the exhibit can serve as a “site of memory,” a place where those who have lost a loved one in the wilderness can reflect on their loss and, hopefully, find some peace.
“Lots of people disappear in Alaska every year. Many people die out connecting [with the outdoors] and doing what they love,” she says. “And this exhibit, this ultimate exhibit, we hope can help serve as a place where people can acknowledge that and come to grips with their own emotions.”