"The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit" (Book Review)

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The Stranger in the Woods book cover

Michael Finkel / Vimeo

It's as if Chris Knight left for a weekend camping trip, but didn't come home for a quarter-century.

In 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight drove his car into the Maine forest until it ran out of gas. He abandoned it, keys left on the console, and walked for weeks until he found a perfect place to build a campsite. There he lived for the next 27 years, subsisting off food, clothes, and books stolen from nearby cottages, and uttering only a single word (“hi”) to a hiker he encountered by accident. He never told his family where he was.

Knight’s life is the bizarre yet fascinating subject of Michael Finkel’s latest book, “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” (Knopf, 2017). The book opens with Knight’s dramatic capture one late winter night in 2013, after police and local residents ramped up their search for the elusive “North Pond hermit.” Knight was caught in the act of raiding a summer camp pantry and tossed in jail for seven months before his fate was decided.

Finkel, a journalist from western Montana, was fascinated by Knight’s story. They shared a common love of the wilderness. He corresponded with Knight by handwritten letter a number of times before making an unannounced visit to the jail. Over the next several months, Knight agreed to speak with Finkel about his years in the forest, resulting in the publication of this book.

Several facts are astonishing. Knight never lit a fire during all those years for fear that smoke would betray his whereabouts. This meant that, in the middle of winter, he never slept for more than a few hours, but would wake himself and pace the perimeter of his camp to keep warm.

Nor would Knight ever leave his camp if there were any risk of leaving a footprint, which meant he went nowhere during the snowy season, unless a blizzard was imminent. He walked without a trace, stepping on rocks and roots, always under cover of night, preferably in a downpour.

For years, he broke into cottages with cleverness and precision. He was not a vandal, but carefully replaced deadbolts and windows whenever possible, reattaching empty propane tanks where he’d stolen a full one or tossing pine needles over a canoe he’d ‘borrowed.’ He told Finkel that he hated stealing and readily confessed to more than a thousand counts of theft when captured.

He became something of a legend in the area. People knew they were being robbed, but reactions were mixed, since no vandalism occurred, nor were many valuables taken, unless deemed useful by Knight, such as a TV, watches, and car batteries. Some residents felt he should do no jail time, while others were furious, saying he'd robbed them of their peace of mind for decades.

The most confounding part of the story is why a young man would do such a thing – willingly reject human company for more than a quarter century for no obvious reason. This question is never answered satisfactorily in the book, quite possibly because Knight can’t really explain it himself.

From a New York Times review of the book:

"Finkel, to whom Knight gave stunning access while in jail — especially for a hermit — also does a fine job conveying the idiosyncrasies of his subject’s character. He was awkward and blunt, yet almost formal in his diction. He brimmed with persnickety literary opinions. He avoided looking at people’s faces — 'there’s too much information there' — which may have contributed to the state’s three possible diagnoses for him: Asperger’s syndrome, depression or schizoid personality disorder."

"The Stranger in the Woods" is a quick and entertaining read, fleshed out with interesting observations about other famous historical hermits, the age-old attraction of solitude, and the effect of the wilderness on the human psyche; but mostly, it’s just enormously entertaining. For anyone who has ever camped, or snow-shoed through a frigid forest in January, Knight’s feat takes on even greater meaning. That anyone could do that, voluntarily, for so many years, is wondrous and baffling.