In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the woods. Living in a tent in impenetrable forest, he subsisted on food he stole from nearby cabins. He did not have a conversation with another human being for nearly three decades—not until he was arrested for breaking into an empty summer camp for the disabled.
What makes a person abandon the world and become a hermit? Was Chris Knight merely an anti-social loner? Or does he have something important to teach us? These are some of the questions journalist Michael Finkel, who has written for National Geographic, asks in his book The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.
Speaking by phone during a stop on his book tour in New Hampshire, Finkel discusses what makes someone become a hermit, why Knight finally got caught, and how he discovered a new use for National Geographic magazines.
Christopher Knight was a thief who burgled private properties more than a thousand times and robbed their owners of peace of mind. What made you want to write a book about this deeply anti-social loner?
The story of the thieving was interesting but the rest of the story obsessed me. First, he lived for 27 years completely alone in the woods of Maine and didn’t even light a fire in winter; did not have a single conversation with another person in that time; did not send an email or communicate with the outside world in any way.
However, in addition to foodstuffs, batteries, and flashlights, he took hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books. I was intrigued to ask a person who had been completely separated from the human race, why he left and what observations he might have about the rest of us. People have been asking hermits for thousands of years, what is the meaning of life? And I fell prey to that primal curiosity.
The New York Times compared Knight to Boo Radley, the recluse in To Kill a Mockingbird. Tell us a bit about his background—and why he decided to drop out of society.
Boo Radley is fictitious and Christopher Knight is real. He grew up in a very interesting, private family, in central Maine. He had four older brothers and a younger sister. By all accounts, the Knight children were extremely smart: the type of family, rare in this day and age, who were lower-middle class, with not a lot of money, but in the evening read Shakespeare and poetry. They also knew how to fix automobiles and plumbing and studied thermodynamics as a family. They built a greenhouse under which they buried hundreds of gallons of water in one-gallon containers. They knew that water molecules are what’s called “sticky” during the day: They gather heat and at night they release it. The family was able to grow food in the greenhouse all winter in Maine, without paying a dime to the electric company.
Knight was extremely shy all of his life. He found human interactions dauntingly complicated. And at the age of 20, he drove his car into northern Maine, left the keys on the center console, and walked into the woods. The family never called the police or filed a missing person’s report. I asked the local police, were you surprised that they didn’t call you for a search? The police said, “No, they are a very keep-to-themselves family. If a boy went off, then he went off.” They worried about him, I am sure. But they didn’t involve the authorities. That wasn’t the ethos of that family.
You write, “You can take virtually all the hermits in history and divide them into three groups: protesters, pilgrims, and pursuers.” Unpack those categories for us—and explain which group Knight belonged to.
There have always been hermits, people that wanted to be by themselves. They have gone by many names: anchorites, recluses, and shamans. The most common reason why people leave is for religious purposes. That includes Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha. Today, about 3 billion people follow the religions brought back by those people. Chris Knight said he wasn’t religious. He had read the Bible as a child and didn’t need to see it again.
Protesters are angry about what the world has become and they have been recorded from ancient China to the present day. They protest war, consumerism, and poverty by leaving the world. Chris Knight said he had no opinion of the world. It had nothing to do with that.
Pursuers are the most popular kinds of hermits these days, people who leave the world for artistic, scientific, and personal reasons—like Henry David Thoreau, who said he went to the woods to explore the Atlantic and Pacific oceans of his inner world. From Einstein to Michelangelo and Isaac Newton people have called themselves hermits and brought back to the world some of the most beautiful pieces of art and intellectual breakthroughs.
Chris Knight doesn’t fit into that category, either. He never wrote down a sentence or snapped a photo. His solitude, though he was a thief, was almost more rigid and locked away than anyone I could find in human history. He referred to Thoreau as a dilettante. Thoreau only spent two years in his cabin on Walden Pond and his mother did his laundry. Knight thought that Thoreau was nothing but a show-off, who went out there and wrote a book saying, “Look at how great I am.”
His camp was extremely remote and naturally protected. Tell us about “The Jarsey” and the extraordinary strategies Knight used to survive in the backwoods for 27 years.
Knight did not live in the remote wilderness of northern Maine. He wandered around for a bit until he found this campsite and lived there for 25 years. It’s on private property, in an area dotted with several hundred cabins and crisscrossed by tiny towns and dirt roads. In other words, he was in the middle of society. How, I wondered, how was it possible that nobody had come across his campsite for 25 years?
Then I went into the forest around his site. The locals call it “The Jarsey.” It is like a giant Brillo pad; the densest, most disorienting, pathless, boulder-choked forest that is too difficult even for deer to walk through. I’m a decent outdoorsman but when I went to find the site I cut my hands apart and ripped my hiking shoes. Chris Knight was able to walk through these woods, at night, completely silently.
I was fascinated by the nuts and bolts of his survival. It’s almost unimaginably cold up there in central Maine. But he told me that he woke up every single morning in winter at 2:30am and, rather than huddling in his sleeping bag as I would at the depth of cold, he got up and paced the perimeter of his clearing in the woods while melting snow for drinking water, using a little camp stove. He did that every night, all winter, and never lost a toe or so much as a finger nail to frostbite. It boggles the mind.
His campsite was—I have no other word for it—this magical room carved out of the middle of the forest, hidden by a Stonehenge of boulders, with a perfectly flat floor, thanks to National Geographic magazines. [Laughs] He bound together stacks of them into what he called “bricks” and buried them under the soil of his camp site to make the floor perfectly flat. I am happy to inform your readers that National Geographic also drains water very nicely when it rains. [Laughs]
How was he eventually captured? And what did law enforcement make of him?
He became legendary to this group of communities in central Maine. Somebody was taking objects from cabins for 27 years, and nobody knew if it was a man, a woman, a practical joker, or a murderer. They gave him a mythical name, the “North Pond Hermit.” Finally, a game warden named Terry Hughes said, I’m going to put an end to this. He used high tech surveillance items from Homeland Security, put electric eyes in the forest, and finally caught the hermit.
It was as if the Loch Ness monster had strolled out of the lake. But the truth seemed even stranger than the myth. A guy really had lived alone in the woods for nearly three decades, confessed to a thousand break-ins, but had never carried a weapon or harmed anyone. Nobody knew quite what to do with him.
The guy who arrested him was a law-and-order man to the extreme. Terry Hughes said to me, “I was prepared to hate this guy.” Then Chris Knight led Hughes back to his camp to show him where he had lived. During that walk through the woods, Officer Hughes could not help but be amazed at the way this man moved through the forest. He described him as moving like a cat—silently, with agility, grace, and dexterity.
Several police reports noted the extreme neatness of his crimes. Chris Knight was a Houdini-esque burglar, who never broke a pane of glass or smashed a door. He picked locks skillfully and would take books, flashlights, food, occasionally an article of clothing. But when he left the cabin, he would make sure to set the latch on the door behind him.
Despite that, one of the summer cottage owners Knight repeatedly burgled said, “He stole every bit of my piece of heaven.” He stands condemned by that, doesn’t he?
I tend to feel warmly about Knight. But it should not be forgotten that it wasn’t just hamburgers and flashlights he stole. It was people’s sense of security and peace of mind, things you cannot put a price tag on. He is not an angelic hero. But I believe the grey area between the romantic conception of a hermit and a serial thief makes the story richer and more complicated.
People’s reactions to Knight went through 360 degrees. Some, whose cabins he robbed, felt Knight deserved to spend the rest of his life locked up for the torture he had inflicted on them. Others who were robbed by him told me that, ultimately, he was no more trouble than the seasonal housefly. I started thinking that what you feel about him says something about Knight. But it also says something about you.
You say, “Chris Knight, with his thousands upon thousands of days alone, was an unfathomable outlier.” Did you eventually come to understand why he left the world? And what did his story teach you?
What are we all looking for in life? Contentment, liberty, the pursuit of happiness? Simply, and perhaps profoundly, Knight was not happy being around other people and believed he would find contentment in the woods. He had no idea how long he would go for, but he found what he was looking for. He found a place where he was not only content but, despite suffering mightily in winter, was filled with a sense of joy and fulfilment.
Chris Knight left because there was no good spot for him in this world. If you don’t fit in and you’re a murderer, they put you in jail. When you don’t fit in because of mental problems, there are other facilities for you. This is a guy who was extremely bright, but just did not fit in. Some people said, can’t we just give him a little bit of land and a few bags of groceries, and let him live peacefully?
Sometimes, when I’m driving in my car with my three kids fighting in the back and I’m late for an appointment, stuck in traffic and the radio is blaring bad news, a thought runs right through my heart and soul: It’s not Knight who’s crazy, it’s the rest of us. Maybe the operative question isn’t why Chris left society, but why the rest of us don’t.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.