Imagine walking deep into the woods somewhere in Maine and living there for a day, maybe a week. Living at the same spot with no fire, no desire to communicate and no one around in case you run into trouble. Now, imagine this same situation multiplied by 27 years and you will have a true story that garnered national headlines.
This story is about Christopher Knight, a shy and intelligent man who leaves his home in Massachusettes and drives to an area just northwest of Waterville, Maine. It is a story about a man who simply walked away from life one day and vanished. His story, and the almost unbelievable ingenuity he utilized to stay both silent and invisible for 27 years in the woods of Maine, is now told in the new book by Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods, The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.
Many people have walked into the wilds of Maine and have shared their stories. From Thoreau, The Maine Woods to Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods, their stories were glimpses of both a shared experience and unique, sometimes challenging situations; stories of finding oneself with nature, of communal awakenings, mosquitoes and bear. The wildness in all of these stories rings loud and clear. But in the case of Knight, his was a desire to simply not be found and for no record of his experience to be left behind.
For Finkel, who lives in Montana and has written for the likes of National Geographic, GQ and Rolling Stone, a chance encounter with the story in a newspaper sparks a desire to look for more information. His effort is rewarded when Knight, having been captured and charged with over 1000 burglaries around North Pond, replies to a letter sent by Finkel requesting an interview. The result of that dialogue and many others reveals a fascinating story and provides answers to questions that have perplexed residents in the area for decades.
The story begins with the silence of the woods, a calculated but very routine break-in and a silent alarm ringing in a nearby house adjacent to a closed summer camp for kids in Maine. The caretaker, puzzled by the disappearance of many items over the years, finally decides to get to the bottom of this mystery by installing an alarm. As quickly as the alarm is triggered, the person, or North Pond Hermit as he became known over time was apprehended.
Through a series of interviews Finkel has with Knight, fragments of these discussions begin to come together. At first reluctant to reveal anything about himself and why he did what he did, Finkel eventually gains his trust and Knight tells his story.
In 1986, at the age of 20, Knight decides to walk away from a family, a job and a life he once knew and disappear into the woods of Maine. Driving north into Maine, he eventually ends up in the area of Rome, Maine. He drives as far as he can, parks the car, leaves the keys on the center console, and with only a tent and a backpack, no compass or map, “He stepped into the trees and walked away.”
The story continues as Finkel tries to understand the day-to-day behaviors, chores, and planning Knight needed to muster survival for all that time. Shortly after the arrest, he goes to Knights well hidden, almost fortress like camp. He makes no fire and spends the night thinking on the ingenious methods and survival skills Knight used to stave off the cold and maintain some semblance of an organized camp life existence.
Finkel writes, “In the forest, Knight never snapped a photo, had no guests over for dinner, and did not write a single sentence down. His back was fully turned to the world.” As Knight himself summarized during one of their many talks while he was incarcerated using a famous brand slogan, “I just did it. I can’t explain my actions. I had no plans when I left, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I just did it.”
Knight’s pattern was to take only what he needed from unoccupied houses and always leave things as they were found. His respect and tendency for certain items led many of his victims to often empathize and assist him, leaving notes of concern along with the items. Others angered by this intrusion would set traps to try and capture him. Those that eventually did capture him were in awe of the situation and could not believe Knight survived that long without being seen by anyone.
This book weaves a tapestry of encounters of the silent and elusive kind from start to finish. In riveting narrative, it aptly introduces a man who walked away from a life without any regrets seeking pure silence for no other reason than because he could and because it was there.
Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 2017 Hardcover, $25.95