The Stranger in the Woods; The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

By Dan Clendenin

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Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods; The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (New York: Knopf, 2017), 203pp.

It took a long time, but on April 4, 2013 the long arm of the law finally found and apprehended Christopher Thomas Knight (born 1965), better known in the state of Maine as the North Pond Hermit. Back in 1986, when he was twenty years old, Knight disappeared into the dark woods of rural Maine, where for twenty-seven years he lived utterly alone in complete isolation. He didn’t have a conversation with anyone during those three decades, he never went to the doctor, he never built a camp fire (so as not to attract attention), and he never moved, but instead occupied the same site all that time.

Knight wasn’t just a hermit. He was also a prolific thief, which is how he survived. His camp site was only about a mile from a number of vacant summer cabins. By his own estimate, he burglarized those cabins and a camp about 40 times a year for food, clothing, reading material, propane gas tanks, and various sorts of gear. Across twenty-seven years, that adds up to about a thousand raids. He only took what he thought he needed to survive, and never valuables or money.

Why did he forsake society for radical seclusion? There’s no clear explanation. He wasn’t judging society, seeking nirvana, or trying to prove some point. “I can’t explain my actions,” he tells Finkel. “I had no plans when I left, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I just did it.” Nor does he offer any deep insights about anything he learned.

There are radically divergent opinions about Knight. Was he crazy or insane? Perhaps he had some form of autism? About 80% of the cabin owners that Finkel interviewed think he’s a liar, and that he could not have possibly survived the Maine winters as he claims. Most hermits that Finkel queried thought that his stealing disqualified him as a person worthy of respect. Others admire his independent streak for which Maine is famous. Still others are deeply angry about how their cabins were burglarized, their little kids terrified, and their psyches traumatized for almost thirty years.

Knight never justified his theft, but instead always felt guilty about it (especially since, like most good Mainers, he grew up with the ideal of self-sufficiency). After about seven months in jail, where Finkel interviewed him nine times, the prosecutor agreed that it would be cruel to punish the eccentric, and instead sentenced him to a probationary program. After completing the agreed upon program, he was freed to assume something like a normal life in regular society. He returned to the home he fled in 1986, only thirty miles from his campsite, to live with his aging mother.

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