7 People Who Gave Up on Civilization to Live in the Wild

A man and his mule walking through desolate land

Hartwig HKD / Flickr

Sometimes the weight of civilization can be overwhelming. The fast pace, the burdens of relationships, the political strife, the technological complexity — it's enough to make you dream of escaping to a simpler life more in touch with nature. For most, that dream translates into an occasional weekend camping trip, but there are some people — critics of civilization, activists, spiritualists, or mere free spirits — who have taken the idea to the extreme. Some call them naive or radical, but others consider them inspirational. You decide.

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Christopher McCandless


Best known from Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild," and the Sean Penn-directed movie of the same name, Christopher McCandless (who renamed himself "Alexander Supertramp") was an American itinerant who dreamed of an Alaskan Odyssey in which he would live off the land, far from civilization. Though he was well-educated, his upper-middle class background and academic success only fueled his contempt for what he saw as the empty materialism of society. Tragically, after living out his adventure for 113 days in the Alaskan wilderness, McCandless succumbed to starvation in late August 1992.

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Timothy Treadwell

Courtesy of 'Grizzly Man'.

Tim Treadwell was an environmentalist, amateur naturalist, eco-warrior and documentary filmmaker who lived among the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska. Despite living among the bears without any protection for 13 summers in a row, by the end of the last summer his luck had finally run out as he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by a bear. Though some found his idealism naive, Treadwell fought to protect the habitat he loved through his activism and filmmaking. His story was immortalized in the documentary film "Grizzly Man."

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Henry David Thoreau

Photo: Benjamin D. Maxham/Wikimedia Commons

Thoreau was a famous American author, naturalist, philosopher and development critic best known for his book "Walden," in which he reflected upon a period of isolation spent living independently in a cabin beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Although Thoreau returned to civilization after his time at Walden, his purpose there was to isolate himself from society to gain a more objective understanding of it. The work is recognized as a personal declaration of independence, a voyage of spiritual discovery and manual for self reliance.

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Ted Kaczynski

Photo: Bob Galbraith/AFP/Getty Images

Also known as the infamous Unabomber, Kaczynski is a primitivist who took his criticisms of civilization and technology to the extreme. Although he had a promising academic career, he eventually quit his professorship at the University of California at Berkeley to live in a remote cabin without running water or electricity in the wilds of Montana. There, Kaczynski began his bombing campaign, sending 16 bombs to targets including universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring 23. The rationale for his actions are outlined in his manifesto, titled "Industrial Society and Its Future." He is serving life without parole in a federal prison.

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Noah John Rondeau

Photo: Courtesy of William J. O'Hern

For a number of years, "Cold River City," located in the upstate New York county of the same name, had a population of exactly one: its self-styled mayor Noah John Rondeau. Rondeau lived in the woods on a bluff above Cold River off and on from 1914 to 1929, and then began to live there year-round in '29. He constructed two cabins, a "town hall" and a "hall of records." The former was where he cooked and slept, while the latter held his supplies. Critical of American political and business practices at the time, Rondeau found an escape in the wilderness. Visitors, however were welcomed. Rondeau's hermitage began to wind down in the late 1940s, as he started doing a sports show tour of sorts. By 1950, with a storm destroying acres of tree, Rondeau started the long process of leaving Cold River City. He died in Lake Placid hospital in 1967 at the age of 73.

William J. O'Hern has written a number of books about Rondeau and the books can be purchased from his website.

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Paul Gauguin

Photo: Everett - Art/Shutterstock

Paul Gauguin was a leading Post-Impressionist artist, painter and writer known for his primitivist style and philosophy. In 1891, frustrated by lack of recognition at home and financially destitute, he decided to sail to the tropics to escape European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional." He spent his remaining years living in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. His works of that period are full of exoticized views of the inhabitants of Polynesia.

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The Desert Fathers

Photo: Juan Rexach/Wikimedia Commons

Escaping the impiety of civilization for the spiritual purity of nature has been a major motivation for monks and zealots of various creeds and religions throughout history as they search for God or enlightenment. One example of this were the "Desert Fathers," Christian hermits of the third century who abandoned the cities of the "pagan world" to live in solitude in the desert of Egypt. Among the best known of the Desert Fathers was Anthony the Great, who was the first known ascetic to go directly into the wilderness, a geographical shift that seems to have contributed to his renown.