One of the interesting parallels between Tracks and Into the Wild is that both texts represent what Davidson refers to in her postscript as an ‘extraordinary feat of remembering’. In the case of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer and, later, Sean Penn, have constructed the story of Chris McCandless’s last few years of life through his diary and writings and the recollections of those who encountered him on the road. In many ways, Robyn Davidson’s Tracks does a similar thing, reconstructing the story of her extraordinary journey through her own diary and recollections — perhaps assisted by the aide-memoire of Rick Smolen’s beautiful photographs.
These images are included in the book despite Davidson’s continued ambivalence towards National Geographic’s photographic documentation of her journey. The images undoubtedly have a significant impact on readers’ engagement with the story. They help to highlight Davidson’s vulnerability and ‘otherness’ in the outback — a lone, young woman in a vast wilderness of desert undertaking a personal quest to find herself and overcome the ghosts of her past, accompanied only by a small black dog and three enormous camels. Consider the impact also of one of the most iconic and tragic representations of McCandless’s journey: his final photograph, which ends the film, taken sitting leaning back against Bus 142. The real McCandless and the real Davidson are similar in their youth, their idealism and their vulnerability in the wild, but they undertake very different journeys.
What Smolen’s photographs represent is the connection that Davidson, albeit reluctantly, maintained to other people. More than that, however, they reflect the gaze of others. The narrative of Tracks is very much located in the depths of Davidson’s perspective and voice, and readers are positioned by her language to view everything through her eyes. We understand and sympathise with her scathing attitude towards tourists’ and journalists’ interest in her, for example. Yet the photographs add something more, an interesting external view of her journey that helps readers to see exactly why this story captivated people’s attention, no matter how prickly or resistant Davidson was to others’ curiosity.
Tracks is not always an easy book to read because we are placed so deeply inside Davidson’s consciousness. The additional elements drawn in to the book, such as the photos, add a different dimension — almost a sense of relief from stepping outside her intense experience to soak in the beauty of her environment for ourselves. We see Davidson how Smolen saw her, and how she was portrayed to the wider world.
Are they a more reliable or objective record than her memory? How do they compare with the recollections and photographs that helped others to construct McCandless’s story? What do these visual records add that written or spoken language cannot? These are certainly interesting questions to explore.
Click the link below for a list of online resources that relate to Tracks, and questions to consider about the book in your planning for an Into the Wild/Tracks pairing in 2017.