Strange Sojourn

The last true hermit

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Among the residents of North Pond, there was a legend: a hermit who emerged from the forest to ransack homes, taking food and gear and books. Items disappeared almost without a trace; you were sure you’d left batteries in the drawer, but suddenly they were gone. There were preferences—macaroni and cheese, candy, beer—but no patterns. There were suspicions, but no proof.

And then the legend had a name: Christopher Knight, 47 years old, from Massachusetts. In 1986, Knight parked his nearly new Subaru Brat, left the keys on the seat, and headed into the central Maine woods, carrying only the most rudimentary gear. He had one goal—“to get lost”—but lacked a solid plan.

Knight would survive in the woods, on his own, for 27 years.

Michael Finkel’s fascinating new book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, tells Knight’s tale. Though written with only grudging support from Knight himself, who truly prefers in all encounters to be left alone, Finkel manages to construct a nuanced portrait of this complex man and the extraordinary way he subsisted.

The book opens with an account of Knight’s apprehension at the hands of game warden Terry Hughes. Hughes employed high-tech devices developed for the Department of Homeland Security to capture Knight, who had eluded all previous security measures for years. When arrested, in the midst of plundering a camp kitchen he regularly frequented, Knight immediately identified himself and began to confess his crimes.

On its face, the hermit’s story strains credibility to the limit. Knight survived in a tent, making it through the brutal Maine winters without once lighting a fire or seeking indoor shelter. He neither hunted nor fished, instead sustaining himself on a largely processed-food diet obtained from dead-of-night raids on cabins and camps. He slept, not on the ground, but in a bed complete with mattress and bed frame, pillows and high-thread-count pillowcases (all stolen, of course). He was clean-shaven or maintained a neat beard, wore clean clothes, kept his camp tidy.

The book speculates at the motives behind Knight’s strange sojourn, though reaches no definitive conclusions. Background information gleaned from various sources fills out a portrait of a man who sought solitude above all else.

The price Knight paid was excruciating physically and mentally; he describes the fear and guilt he felt during every raid, and winces at the trauma his actions inflicted on others.

Questions about Knight’s experience abound, chief among them, what comes next for this unusual man? Finkel examines other notable cases of life in isolation to demonstrate the far-reaching effects of living absent the experience of human interaction. Can Knight reenter modern life with any degree of success? More to the point, does he wish to?

Readers will feel the author’s own conflicted response to his subject. Finkel walks a fine line with his account, taking care neither to celebrate Knight nor vilify him. Instead, The Stranger in the Woods is an unsparing, often difficult look at a man whose extreme life allowed him in some way to reconcile with a world that never felt quite right. “There was no place for him,” Finkel writes, “and instead of suffering further, he escaped. It wasn’t so much a protest as a quest; he was like a refugee from the human race.”

Mary Kinser is collection development librarian for Whatcom County Library System, where she selects fiction, DVDs, music and audiobooks for adults. She can almost always be found with a book in hand.

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