A 27-year solitude

A 27-year solitude
From the point of view of the game warden who caught him in 2013, Christopher Thomas Knight, 47, looked nothing like a fellow who’d spent 27 years alone in the Maine woods. He was clean-shaven. He wore nerd glasses. His clothes were tidy and did not reek.

More baffling still, this spook of a man, who had successfully evaded four law-enforcement agencies and become the stuff of murmured folklore — he was known locally as the ‘North Pond hermit’ — set up camp in a community full of vacation cabins, the nearest one just three minutes away. He could hear hikers hiking and canoeists canoeing. Had he owned a cellphone, he would have gotten reception.

Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, an account of Knight’s self-imposed exile from civilisation, started as a phenomenally popular magazine article in GQ. This expanded version will no doubt have the same mass appeal. It’s campfire-friendly and thermos-ready, easily drained in one warm, rummy slug. It also raises a variety of profound questions — about the role of solitude, about the value of suffering, about the diversity of human needs.

What Knight didn’t need, clearly, was other people. They depleted and confused him. Nor was he seduced by busyness. Living in the woods amounted to a kind of self-erasure, an obliteration of time and identity. “What did he do for a living?” Finkel asks. “He lived for a living.” The Chinese have a name for it: wu wei. Non-doing.

I’ll confess that a small part of me was haunted by a different sort of question, which was whether Knight was telling the authorities the whole truth. I am not alone in my scepticism. Finkel writes that roughly 80% of the North Pond summer residents he spoke to couldn’t believe Knight had survived for decades in a crude shelter of his own making — not when the winter temperatures could fall to 20 degrees below zero, not when the summer mosquitoes were so vicious they would raise a sky’s worth of constellations on your skin. But the state police and game warden who interrogated Knight did believe him, and they had plenty of experience in smoking out fibbers, if not hermits.

Knight had definitely fashioned an elaborate North Pond encampment — made exclusively from stolen goods — concealed inside a ring of boulders and hemlocks.

For 27 years, those with vacation cabins on North and Little North ponds in central Maine would return to find that something was ever so slightly off: steaks gone from the freezer, a pack of batteries missing from a drawer.

Over time, these bewildered residents realised that someone was lurking in the woods. When Knight was apprehended, he estimated he’d committed 40 robberies per year. His was the largest burglary case in the state. “Maybe the world,” Finkel adds. Be prepared for occasional flourishes like that one.

Much of The Stranger in the Woods is devoted to logistics: How Knight bathed (sponge baths), how he kept warm (pacing), how he eluded detection.

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.

Finkel makes a convincing case that none of these labels are especially apt. Isn’t it possible he just wanted to be alone? Although my question persists: How alone was he?

The Stranger in the Woods is involving and well-told; it certainly casts its spell. But there are inconsistencies in Knight’s story.

When he was first caught, for instance, Knight had trouble calculating his age, because he seemed not to know what day or year it was. But he stole plenty of watches and radios while he was in the woods, which suggests that he must have had some idea. And while we’re on the subject of electronics: this is a man who once stole a small television, which he powered with a stolen car battery. If he was so close to civilisation, how could no one hear it when he tuned in to Ken Burns’s The Civil War? I could go on. Yet it’s important to note that Knight had no incentive to lie. People have not stepped forward to say they provided him assistance in all those years. Local authorities speak of his knowledge of the woods with reverence; the Maine newspapers reported his story as truth. And Finkel does tackle a number of objections his readers might silently raise.

He never gets an entirely satisfying explanation from Knight about why he decided, at 20, to vanish from the world. But perhaps we don’t need one. Maybe some people just feel an overpowering longing for solitude the same way others feel an overwhelming urge to ski off the edge of the Matterhorn. It’s another kind of extreme craving. For quiet. For aloneness. For no part of what most of us know.

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