THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:

THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:
the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives,
but they are tangled over giant boulders with dead-fall everywhere
like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. . ..

[A]t dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves.
He shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools,
and sets out from camp.

Opening Paragraph : Stranger in the Woods.

 

Michael Finkel
Alfred A. Knopf | 2017
227 pages
Non-Fiction | Biography | Maine
Review Source : Personal Copy
★★★★☆

 

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight walked off his job (installing security alarm systems) for no apparent reason. With little preparation, he got in his new Subaru Brat and drove aimlessly south; away from his home state of Maine. When he never came home, his family matter-of-factly assumed he was off finding himself somewhere. In 27 years, they never contacted the authorities to report their son missing.

Much like Forrest Gump on his infamous walk to nowhere-in-particular, Christopher grew tired of aimlessly wandering and headed back to Maine. Reaching his hometown, Knight drove right past his parent’s house without stopping and kept on driving until the dirt road he chose ended. Tossing the keys on the dashboard, he walked into the woods and was not seen for 27 years. But his presence was felt. 

For 27 years, the circle of cabins surrounding North Pond endured strange burglaries. Mattresses disappeared; others lost clothing, food, batteries, radios, books, grills, propane tanks et all. . . For some homeowners, the home invasions were a mere inconvenience. For others, having been burglarized over 50 times, their vacation homes were a source of anxiety and insecurity.

Law enforcement authorities, for over 25 years, tried every trick in their arsenal to identify the burglar and failed. Finally, employing a highly technical bug devised by Homeland Security, Game Warden Terry Hughes hit pay-dirt. April 4, 2013, alerted by an alarm in the middle of the night from Pine Tree Camp, a day camp for the disabled, Christopher Knight was found “shopping” in the camp kitchen.

As his story unfolded during interrogation, authorities questioned the veracity of this bizarre man in the clunky old-fashioned glasses. They were to change their opinion as Knight led them through a tangled wilderness to his well camouflaged camp.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County
Sheriff’s deputies hike
into Christopher Knight’s camp site.

 

As he languished in prison awaiting his day in court, everyone in the “civilized” world wanted to know how he survived the harsh Maine winters, what he did to fill each day, and why he chose to isolate himself from humanity. But Christopher Knight was not a man to share his inner thoughts and actions. After receiving over 500 requests from journalists for an interview, he responded to only one. Something in Michael Finkel’s handwritten letter spoke to Knight. Asked why he thought Knight was willing to meet with him, Finkel replied:

I believe that Knight realized he might be endlessly hounded to tell his story, and that if he told it once, and allowed it to be made public, he might be able to have more privacy going forward.

And what a story he revealed, piece by reluctantly chewed piece. Never revealing more than the bare facts; keeping his inner thoughts to himself. Desperate to feed the curious just enough to release him to a life of seclusion once more; if not in the deep woods, at least in the privacy of his family.

Knight doesn’t consider himself a hermit. He hated the word. He still needed the instruments of civilization to sustain him and to achieve his perfect world void of germs, people, and the great cacophony of society in general. He was known as a child to be a “genius”, a voracious reader, honest and someone who preferred his own company. Probably the hardest part of his solitary life was the requirement to break his own moral code. He must steal to survive. He never tries to hide the fact that he was a thief.

I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt not to sully what they admire in me. Take the whole package, good and bad. Judge me on that. Don’t cherry pick.

To the arm-chair adventurers, Knight’s ability to survive 27 harsh Maine winters without once lighting a fire seemed mystical. To those more concerned about his felonious talents, he represented less a hero and more a mild Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski bringing distress to the local community and costing years of tax dollars in the effort to capture him.

When Christopher had shared all he was going to share with Finkel, he told him is was time to leave him alone. And he did.

At times, Finkel strays away from Knight to expound on reasons for solitary isolation. He questions why some human beings choose to exclude themselves from the “pack”. In our current technology oriented world of Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, there is an effort to avoid isolation and self-reflection. There’s a monstrous market in self-help books, each flaunting the idea that they can help find what’s missing in your life. It is no wonder that people are attracted to someone who wholeheartedly rejects their world.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight’s journey was to seek it. But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing. It’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”

I found myself, a person who treasures her quiet life on a small Georgia mountain, thinking, at what length would I go if I wanted to isolate myself from the rest of the world, never even hearing my own voice. My answer, not very far.

I need friends, smiles, conversation, a campfire and a hot bath.

You are going to either love the book or hate it. Either way, you should read it.

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