In 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight walked into the wood of Maine, found a secluded clearing, set up camp, and avoided interacting with another human being for the next 27 years.
He wasn’t really an outdoors man. He didn’t hunt, or fish, or grow crops. He didn’t build a log cabin and become self-sustaining. Instead, he survived by regularly and repeatedly burglarizing the weekend homes and summer camps surrounding his camp site until finally being caught in the act, stealing food from a camp for kids with disabilities.
By his own estimation, Knight committed about 40 robberies a year. At first he stole only supplies he thought he needed and in quantities small enough that he assumed wouldn’t be noticed. But he stole a lot of books (and eventually radios, portable TVs, and even hand held video games) and his burglaries were definitely noticed. Among the locals he became something of a legend. They began to call him the “North Pond Hermit.” Some thought of him as something of a mascot, putting out bags of food and supplies for him (he avoided them, worried about traps.) Others were irritated, angered, and afraid. One woman left a note on her door with a pen attached. “Make a list of what you need. Please don’t break in.” He thought it might be another trap. Or maybe he just wanted to avoid any possible entanglements.
Knight was compulsive about his desire to evade human contact. Whenever he hiked out of his camp, he obsessively covered his tracks to avoid the possibility of being followed. In winter, he preferred to walk on the ice. Snow leaves a trail. Even when the coldest weather came, he claims to have never lit a fire for fear of someone spotting the smoke. This is in Maine, remember.
But despite all his efforts, Knight was eventually found by a game warden who decide that enough was enough. After nearly 30 years alone, Knight was now sharing a jail cell. His arrest was a sensation. Approximately 500 journalists requested interviews. A documentary film crew showed up. A woman proposed marriage. Imagining the stereotype of the wise hermit, everyone wanted to know what Knight had to say. The answer was nothing. He really only talked to one journalist, Michael Finkel, and their conversations were not revealing. Why did Christopher Knight go to so much trouble to be entirely alone?
He just wanted to.
Despite the lack of insights and revelations, The Stranger in the Woods is pretty fascinating book. Continually asking “Why did this man so want to live in seclusion?” without providing any answers, it leaves it to the reader to theorize. Was he protesting society? No, not really. Was he seeking a religious epiphany? Again, no. Was it the result of a psychological disorder? Perhaps, probably.
It’s possible the answer lies in the story the book chooses not to tell. A story about a family with a missing member. Knight’s mother, four brothers, and sister refused to speak with any reporters. When Finkel called Knight’s mother to tell her he was interested in asking her some questions, she replied, “I imagine you are,” before hanging up the phone. Not once in the 27 years he was gone did any family member call the police or search for Knight.
The answer to why he left could be interesting, but why they let him is the real question.