The Stranger in the Woods

I’ve finished reading one of the best books I’ve read in a long time The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

It’s the story of the Maine hermit, Christopher Knight, who lived for 27 years in the woods of Rome, in central Maine, starting in 1986, and never detected by the people who lived there as he stole his life supplies from the locals.  The story goes into much fascinating detail about the main topic….living as a hermit.  With so many people I know living almost hermetical existences themselves, I found these asides to be very valuable in how to assess the impact that Knight had on the small hamlet he lived next door to.

Michael Finkel

Finkel researches not only hermit literature, a hermit website, but plumbs the depth of the psychology of solitude. He presents information about the traits that make people want to escape so supremely.  Few people in history can match Knight’s achievement, as even in a Supermax Federal prison, you see people sometimes, even in solitary.  There is apparently another hermit who continues to live in rural Russia who might have beaten Knight, but that’s it.

Nobody ever saw Knight as he lived in the Maine woods, except for two hikers who happened to come upon the hermit while hiking.  Knight was startled and saw them, said nothing, and then bowed to them in an act of deference, and hopefully for him, a mutual vow of keeping his secret. They did.  After nearly three decades of having things stolen from them, though, the people who lived around the lake bought cameras and detection devices that got the police chief out of bed in time to catch the thief in action–red-handed.

Author Michael Finkel was beyond intrigued by Knight’s impressive hermit story.  He spent thousands of hours interviewing people who knew him, unsuccessfully trying to engage with Knight’s family and visiting him in jail in central Maine eight times.   He wrote letter after letter and got some letters back from the reclusive Knight.  The thing that Finkel most wanted to know is, ‘what was it like to be alone for so long? What were you thinking as you sat freezing in your tent, afraid to even make a fire for fear of revealing your location?

Chris Knight

But Knight was a cipher, a mystery wrapped in a riddle when it came to his inner mind. He wasn’t going to give Finkel what he wanted…but was open to sharing the details of how he managed to survive 27 brutal winters in a tent in the woods with no fire.  Knight said that he broke into houses carefully, making sure not to break things but to put things back.

He was horrified when he found out that he had scared some of the local kids, he never wanted to do that.  Knight said he just couldn’t stand being in society…having to be a part of it, to talk to people, especially, to be touched or to touch anyone. No, no, he said, no. He wanted to be in the woods, alone, not in society.

He drove his Subaru Brat to the end of a road to a trailhead and then threw the keys into the console. He took just the bare necessities, a tent, sleeping bag, and a few provisions. For the rest of what he’d need to survive, he’d tap the resources of the many summer camps and cottages that surrounded one of the two nearby lakes.  He would become a house robber for the next 27 years, picking out books, booze, fresh and frozen food, and any boots, tents, batteries or socks he cared to nick.

This caused the residents to begin questioning and mistrusting each other, as so many things began to go missing. Locals would even take supplies they thought he would need and leave them outside for him. But Knight never ever took anything they offered.

Buy this book. Highly recommended! The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

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