Cover image for The stranger in the woods : the extraordinary story of the last true hermit / Michael Finkel.
Title:
The stranger in the woods : the extraordinary story of the last true hermit / Michael Finkel.
ISBN:
9781101911532
Edition:
First Vintage Books edition.
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New York : Vintage Books 2018.

©2017
Physical Description:
203 pages : maps ; 21 cm
Abstract:
The unforgettable true story of Christopher Knight, who found refuge from the pressures of modern society by living alone in the Maine woods for twenty-seven years.
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1 Nechako Branch 974.122043092 KNI FIN Book Adult General Collection
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Summary

Summary

A National Geographic Best Book of the Year

National Bestseller

Many people dream of escaping modern life. Most will never act on it--but in 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight did just that when he left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the woods. He would not have a conversation with another person for the next twenty-seven years.

Drawing on extensive interviews with Knight himself, journalist Michael Finkel shows how Knight lived in a tent in a secluded encampment, developing ingenious ways to store provisions and stave off frostbite during the winters. A former alarm technician, he stealthily broke into nearby cottages for food, books, and supplies, taking only what he needed but sowing unease in a community plagued by his mysterious burglaries. Since returning to the world, he has faced unique challenges--and compelled us to reexamine our assumptions about what makes a good life. By turns riveting and thought-provoking, The Stranger in the Woods gives us a deeply moving portrait of a man determined to live his own way.


Author Notes

Michael Finkel is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which was adapted into a 2015 major motion picture. He has written for National Geographic, GQ, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in western Montana.


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

On a summer morning in 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight didn't show up for his job installing alarm systems in Waltham, Mass. Nearly three decades passed before he reappeared and revealed he'd spent most of that time camping in the woods of central Maine. In this fascinating account of Knight's renunciation of humanity, Finkel (True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa) struggles to comprehend the impulses that led Knight to court death by hypothermia even though his family home was less than an hour's drive away. To survive, Knight relentlessly pilfered supplies from vacation houses around his campsite, infuriating and terrifying homeowners and baffling a generation of cops. Finally apprehended during one of his raids, the "Hermit of North Pond" battled depression and contemplated suicide as he was forced to rejoin society. Drawn by the details that followed Knight's arrest, Finkel reached out to him through letters and visits. Despite frequent rebuffs, enough of a relationship developed for Finkel to broadly outline Knight's wilderness solitude. A fellow outdoorsman, Finkel places Knight in the long tradition of hermits, a category that has been admired and distrusted over the centuries. Yet even as Finkel immerses himself in Knight's life-researching hermits, consulting psychologists, even camping at Knight's hideaway-his subject's motivations remain obscure, leaving the book somehow incomplete. The book doesn't penetrate the mystery of Knight's renunciation, but the questions it raises remain deeply compelling. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

MICHAEL FINKEL is eating breakfast when a hermit jumps out of his newsfeed and into his heart. The hermit's name is Christopher Knight, and he would still be living undisturbed in the Maine woods had he not been caught stealing junk food from a summer camp kitchen one night. With neatly cropped hair and wearing dad jeans and glasses, Knight doesn't look very hermit-y, but he confesses to burglarizing camps, cabins and houses about 40 times a year for as long as he's lived in the woods. And just how long is that? the cops ask. Knight has to think. "What year was the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster?" Finkel, a journalist based in Montana, feels two things reading this local news story gone viral. The first is a need to know how someone could survive 27 years in the wild without death or detection. The second is kinship. Finkel presents himself as an introvert, an outdoorsman and the survivor of a 10-day silent retreat in India, among other spirit-seeking adventures. "The hermit appeared to have the same passions on an exponentially grander scale," he writes. "I thought about Knight as I vacuumed the breakfast crumbs, and I thought about him as I paid bills in my office. I worried that someone with no immunity to our lifestyle, physically or mentally, was now being exposed to all our germs." After several admiring letters, and a few not entirely truculent jailhouse responses, Finkel shows up uninvited for visiting hours, and "The Stranger in the Woods" launches on its short, short, short way. You may have noticed some repetition in that sentence. That's because "The Stranger in the Woods" started as a 2014 GQ magazine article, and its journey to a petite 200-page book is similar to the one a meatball takes on its way to becoming a meatloaf. There's something tasty here. There's also a good deal of filler. At the jail, Finkel optimistically registers as a friend of the prisoner. He may as well be a torturer registering as a masseuse. Knight scowls through the partition glass at a point somewhere over the author's shoulder, refusing eye contact or acknowledgment. "Rarely in my life have I witnessed someone less pleased to see me," Finkel writes a little despondently. But what the hermit lacks in warmth he makes up for in self-awareness. Knight: "Some people want me to be this warm and fuzzy person. All filled with friendly hermit wisdom. Just spouting off fortune-cookie lines from my hermit home." Finkel: "Your hermit home - like under a bridge?" Knight, after a Gene Wilder-worthy comedic pause: "You're thinking of a troll." Finkel shrewdly plays the punching bag while Knight alternates between jabs and details. We learn that the hermit had never spent a night in a tent before his abrupt departure from society at age 20, and that much of his survival depended on a miraculously hidden campsite. Tticked behind a tangle of brush and wind-breaking boulders, he spent decades just three minutes from the nearest cabin: "Towns and roads and houses surround his site; he could overhear canoeists' conversations on North Pond. He wasn't so much removed from humanity as sitting on the sidelines." Finkel camped at the site and tells Knight he was enchanted by its tranquillity, to which the hermit responds : "Do you think 1 was engaging in feng shui?" Once settled in, Knight treated the mostly empty vacation homes around him, as Finkel puts it, like his "own private Costco." He slept under a camouflage canopy on a twin-size mattress with fitted sheets and Tommy Hilfiger pillowcases. There was Purell by the portable cooler. Wildlife was abundant, but he preferred peanut butter, frozen burgers and, above all, sweets. In a survey of the damage to nearby cupboards and psyches, Finkel notes, "One kid lost all his Halloween candy; the Pine Tree Camp was short an industrial-sized tub of fudge." Knight also stole epic quantities of books, and he roars to life through his taste. He quotes Freud, Marx and Woody Allen, and recognizes himself in the narrator of Dostoyevsky's "Notes From the Underground." His fetish for stillness results in a fondness for Emily Dickinson. He hates Thoreau ("a dilettante") and fans of Kerouac, and may be the first person to have followed through on a threat to use John Grisham novels as toilet paper. Through culture and his opinions of it, Knight stayed in touch with the world and categorized it, without the vulnerability of human engagement. He was the Holden Caulfield of the woods. Which is not to say he lacked perspective. Knight swears he suffered no childhood trauma. His family, which never reported him missing, was flinty, self-reliant and "obsessed with privacy." ("They assumed I was off doing something on my own.") He didn't choose to become a hermit - he was born one, and the woods gave him exactly what he sought. "Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable, I can't dismiss that idea," Knight says. "Solitude increased my perception. But here's the tricky thing: When I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for.... To put it romantically, I was completely free." In one of their sweeter exchanges, relayed in an epilogue on his reporting methods, Knight calls Finkel his Boswell and tells him he likes long books. Finkel admits that his will probably be short - and it should have been shorter. Only in the epilogue do we learn that author and subject had just nine one-hour prison meetings. It's the kind of thing readers should know earlier, especially since the poverty of access leads to some bad decisions. In a search for more motive and meaning than the hermit will provide, Finkel chats with psychologists who never met Knight, a seeming violation of psychiatry's Goldwater Rule against diagnosing people from afar. There are also honkingly dull digressions into the spiritual meaning of becoming a hermit ("In Hindu philosophy, everyone ideally matures into a hermit"), some pseudoscience about solitude and brain function, and an unfortunate comparison with prisoners in solitary confinement, who hardly have the luxury of choosing their solitude. All this seems like obvious padding, but to give Finkel the benefit of the doubt, it may simply be that his affinity for his amazing hermit got the best of him. He does a remarkable job persuading one of the world's more recalcitrant individuals to open up, but Finkel wants more, and it's strange that he doesn't recognize Knight's limitations. At one of their last meetings, when a wall no longer separates them, the journalist asks the hermit to shake hands. "I'd rather not," Knight replies. ? JOSH TYRANGIEL is the executive vice president of news at Vice.


Library Journal Review

Journalist and memoirist Finkel (True Story) presents the strangely fascinating tale of modern-day hermit Christopher Knight, who spent 27 years living in a hidden tent in the frigid central Maine woods. In 1986, then 20-year-old Knight disappeared. He was not seen again until 2013, when he was arrested for theft. Knight later admitted to stealing food and other supplies frequently from frustrated locals, who dealt with years of repeated break-ins. Through interviews and other reporting with Knight and area residents, Finkel examines the solitary life story and unusual survival strategies of the mysterious figure known locally as the North Pond Hermit. Perhaps fittingly, this unsettling and thought-provoking work raises far more questions than answers. Finkel delves into thorny issues such as Knight's potential mental state, the truth of his claims (which are disputed by locals), and the deeper meaning of solitude, individuality, and personal freedom. The resulting tale is gripping but often unverifiable; readers will have to judge for themselves the veracity and ethics of both Knight's story and Finkel's reporting of it. -VERDICT With inevitable comparisons to Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, this book will appeal to recreational readers interested in outdoor adventure, survival stories, or escaping the mainstream.-Ingrid Levin, Salve Regina Univ. Lib., Newport, RI © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter 16 Knight lived in the dirt but was cleaner than you. Way cleaner. Pine needles and mud don't make you dirty, except superficially. The muck that matters, the bad bacteria, the evil virus, is typically passed through coughs and sneezes and handshakes and kisses. The price of sociability is sometimes our health. Knight quarantined himself from the human race and thus avoided our biohazards. He stayed phenomenally healthy. Though he suffered deeply at times, he insists he never once had a medical emergency, or a serious illness, or a bad accident, or even a cold. During the summers, especially in the early years, he was strong, fit, and spry. "You should have seen me in my twenties--I ruled the land I walked upon, it was mine," Knight said, exposing the prideful streak that runs below his surface of contrition. "Why shouldn't I claim it as my own? No one else was there. I was in control. I controlled it as much as I wanted. I was lord of the woods." Poison ivy grows throughout the area; its prevalence prevented some people from searching for his site. Knight kept a little jingle in his head--"leaves of three, let it be"--and so ably memorized where each patch grew that even at night he didn't brush against it. He says he was never once afflicted. Lyme disease, a bacterial illness transmitted through tick bites that can cause partial paralysis, is endemic to central Maine, but Knight was spared that as well. He brooded about Lyme for a while, then came to a realization: "I couldn't do anything about it, so I stopped thinking about it." Living in the woods, subject to the whims of nature, offers a great deal of autonomy but not much control. At first, Knight worried about everything: snowstorms might bury him, hikers could find him, the police would capture him. Gradually, methodically, he shed most of his anxiety. But not all. Being too relaxed, he felt, was also a danger. In appropriate doses, worry was useful, possibly lifesaving. "I used worry to encourage thought," he said. "Worry can give you an extra prod to survive and plan. And I had to plan." At the conclusion of each thieving mission, he was absolved temporarily of worry. The order in which he ate his food was governed by the pace of spoilage, ground beef to Twinkies. When he was down to little more than flour and shortening, he'd mix those together with water and make biscuits. He never stole homemade meals or unwrapped items, for fear someone might poison him, so everything he took came sealed in a carton or can. He ate every morsel, scraping the containers clean. Then he deposited the wrappers and cartons in his camp's dump, stuffed between boulders at the boundary of his site. The dump was scattered over an area of about a hundred square feet. One section was devoted to items like propane tanks and old mattresses and sleeping bags and books, another to food containers. Even in the food area, there was no odor. Knight added layers of dirt and leaves to aid with composting, which eliminated any smell, but most of the packaging was waxed cardboard or plastic, slow to disintegrate. Upon excavation, the colors on many boxes remained garish, superlatives and exclamation points and rococo typography popping from the soil while robins chirped in the branches above. The archeological record contained in his dump revealed why Knight's only significant health issue was his teeth. He brushed regularly, he stole toothpaste, but did not see a dentist and his teeth began to rot. It didn't help that his culinary preferences never progressed beyond the sugar-and-processedfood palate of a teenager. " 'Cooking' is too kind a word for what I did," he said. A staple meal was macaroni and cheese. Dozens of macand-cheese boxes were buried between the rocks, along with several empty spice bottles--black pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, blackened seasoning. Often, when Knight was inside a cabin with a good spice rack, he would grab a new bottle and try it out on his macaroni and cheese. Also in his dump was a flattened thirty-ounce container from cheddar-flavored Goldfish crackers, a five-pound tub from Marshmallow Fluff, and a box that had held sixteen Drake's Devil Dogs. There were packages from graham crackers, tater tots, baked beans, shredded cheese, hot dogs, maple syrup, chocolate bars, cookie dough. Betty Crocker scalloped potatoes and Tyson chicken strips. Country Time lemonade and Mountain Dew. El Monterey spicy jalapeño and cheese chimichangas. All of this came from a single kitchen-sink-sized hole, dug out by hand. Knight had fled the modern world only to live off the fat of it. The food, Knight pointed out, wasn't exactly his choice. It was first selected by the cabin owners of North Pond, then snatched by him. He did steal a little money, an average of fifteen dollars a year--"a backup system," he called it--and lived an hour's walk from the Sweet Dreams convenience store and deli, but never went there. The last time he ate at a restaurant, or even sat at a table, was at some fast-food place during his final road trip. He stole frozen lasagna, canned ravioli, and Thousand Island dressing. You can dig in the dump until you're lying on your side, arm buried to the shoulder, and more keeps emerging. Cheetos and bratwurst and pudding and pickles. Quarry a trench deep enough to fight a war from--Crystal Light, Cool Whip, Chock full o'Nuts, Coke--and you still won't reach bottom. So he wasn't a gourmet. He didn't care what he ate. "The discipline I practiced in order to survive did away with cravings for specific food. As long as it was food, it was good enough." He spent no more than a few minutes preparing meals, yet he often passed the fortnight between raids without leaving camp, filling much of the time with chores, camp maintenance, hygiene, and entertainment. His chief form of entertainment was reading. The last moments he was in a cabin were usually spent scanning bookshelves and nightstands. The life inside a book always felt welcoming to Knight. It pressed no demands on him, while the world of actual human interactions was so complex. Conversations between people can move like tennis games, swift and unpredictable. There are constant subtle visual and verbal cues, there's innuendo, sarcasm, body language, tone. Everyone occasionally fumbles an encounter, a victim of social clumsiness. It's part of being human. To Knight, it all felt impossible. His engagement with the written word might have been the closest he could come to genuine human encounters. The stretch of days between thieving raids allowed him to tumble into the pages, and if he felt transported he could float in bookworld, undisturbed, for as long as he pleased. The reading selection offered by the cabins was often dispiriting. With books, Knight did have specific desires and cravings--in some ways, reading material was more important to him than food--though when he was famished for words, he'd subsist on whatever the nightstands bestowed, highbrow or low. He liked Shakespeare, Julius Caesar especially, that litany of betrayal and violence. He marveled at the poetry of Emily Dickinson, sensing her kindred spirit. For the last seventeen years of her life, Dickinson rarely left her home in Massachusetts and spoke to visitors only through a partly closed door. "Saying nothing," she wrote, "sometimes says the most." Knight wished he'd been able to procure more poetry written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, a fellow native of Maine, born in the coastal village of Rockland in 1892. He quoted her bestknown lines--"My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night"--and then added, "I tried candles in my camp for a number of years. Not worth it to steal them." If he were forced to select a favorite book, it might be The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich , by William Shirer. "It's concise," Knight said, a quick twelve hundred pages, "and impressive as any novel." He stole every book on military history he saw He pilfered a copy of Ulysses , but it was possibly the one book he did not finish. "What's the point of it? I suspect it was a bit of a joke by Joyce. He just kept his mouth shut as people read into it more than there was. Pseudo-intellectuals love to drop the name Ulysses as their favorite book. I refused to be intellectually bullied into finishing it." Knight's disdain for Thoreau was bottomless--"he had no deep insight into nature"--but Ralph Waldo Emerson was acceptable. "People are to be taken in very small doses," wrote Emerson. "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself." Knight read the Tao Te Ching and felt a deep-rooted connection to the verses. "Good walking," says the Tao , "leaves no tracks." Robert Frost received a thumbs-down--"I'm glad his reputation is starting to fade"--and Knight said that when he ran out of toilet paper, he sometimes tore pages from John Grisham novels. He mentioned that he didn't like Jack Kerouac either, but this wasn't quite true. "I don't like people who like Jack Kerouac," he clarified. Knight stole portable radios and earbuds and tuned in daily, voices through the waves another kind of human presence. For a while he was fascinated by talk radio. He listened to a lot of Rush Limbaugh. "I didn't say I liked him. I said I listened to him." Knight's own politics were "conservative but not Republican." He added, perhaps unnecessarily, "I'm kind of an isolationist." Later he got hooked on classical music--Brahms and Tchaikovsky, yes; Bach, no. "Bach is too pristine," he said. Bliss for him was Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades . But his undying passion was classic rock: the Who, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and, above all, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Nothing in all the world received higher praise from Knight than Lynyrd Skynyrd. "They will be playing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs in a thousand years," he proclaimed. On one raid he stole a Panasonic black-and-white fiveinch-diagonal television. This was why he needed so many car and boat batteries--to power the TV. Knight was adept at wiring batteries together, in series and parallel. He also carried off an antenna and hid it high in his treetops. He said that everything shown on PBS was "carefully crafted for liberal baby boomers with college degrees," but the best thing he watched while in the woods was a PBS program, Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War . He was able to recite parts of the show verbatim. "I still remember Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife," said Knight. "It brought tears to my eyes." Ballou, a major in the Union army, wrote to Sarah on July 14, 1861, and was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run before the letter was delivered. The note spoke of "unbounded love" for his children, and Ballou said his heart was attached to his wife's "with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break"--an expression of human connection that made Knight weep, even if he wasn't compelled to seek it himself. Knight was aware of world events and politics, but he seldom had any reaction. Everything seemed to be happening far away. He burned through all his batteries after September 11, 2001, and never watched television again. "Car batteries were so heavy and difficult to steal anyway," he said. He repurposed the ones he had as anchor weights for guylines, and after he stole a radio that received television audio signals, he switched to listening to TV stations on the radio; "theater of the mind," he called it. Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond were his television-on-the-radio favorites. "I do have a sense of humor," Knight said. "I just don't like jokes. Freud said there's no such thing as a joke--a joke is an expression of veiled hostility." His favorite comedians were the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and George Carlin. The last movie he saw in a theater was the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters . He never bothered listening to sports; they bored him, every one of them. For news, there were five-minute updates at the top of the hour on WTOS, the Mountain of Pure Rock, out of Augusta. Also, he said, he sometimes listened to French news stations out of Quebec. He didn't speak French, but he understood most of it. He liked handheld video games. His rule for stealing them was that they had to appear outdated; he didn't want to take a kid's new one. He'd be stealing those in a couple years anyway. He enjoyed Pokémon, Tetris, and Dig Dug. "I like games that require thought and strategy. No shoot-'em-ups. No mindless repetitive motion." Electronic Sudoku was great, and crossword puzzles in magazines were welcome challenges, but he never took a deck of cards to play solitaire, and he doesn't like chess. "Chess is too two-dimensional, too finite of a game." He didn't create any sort of art--"I'm not that type of person"--nor did he spend any nights away from his camp. "I have no desire to travel. I read. That's my form of travel." He never even glimpsed Maine's celebrated coastline. He claimed that he did not speak to himself aloud, not a word. "Oh, you mean like typical hermit behavior, huh? No, never." Not for a moment did he consider keeping a journal. He would never allow anyone to read his private thoughts; therefore, he did not risk writing them down. "I'd rather take it to my grave," he said. And anyway, when was a journal ever honest? "It either tells a lot of truths to cover a single lie," he said, "or a lot of lies to cover a single truth." Knight's ability to hold a grudge was impressive. Though many National Geographic magazines were buried beneath his tent, he despised the publication. "I didn't even like stealing them," he said. "I only looked at them when I was desperate. They're really only good for burying in the dirt. That glossy paper lasts a long time." His aversion to National Geographic extends back to his youth. When Knight was in high school, he was reading a copy and came across a photo of a young Peruvian shepherd standing beside a road, crying. Behind him were several dead sheep, struck by a car as the boy had been trying to guide them. The photograph was later reprinted in a book of National Geographic 's all-time greatest portraits. It incensed Knight. "They published a photo of the boy's humiliation. He had failed his family, who had entrusted him with the herd. It's disgusting that everybody can see a little boy's failure." Knight, still furious about the image thirty years later, was a man acutely attuned to the ravages of shame. Had he done something shameful before he'd fled to the forest? He insisted that he had not. Knight had a strong distaste for big cities, filled with helpless intellectuals, people with multiple degrees who couldn't change a car's oil. But, he added, it wasn't as if rural areas were Valhalla. "Don't glorify the country," he said, then tossed off a line from the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto about escaping "the idiocy of rural life." He acknowledged, forthrightly, that a couple of cabins were enticing because of their subscriptions to Playboy . He was curious. He was only twenty years old when he disappeared, and had never been out on a date. He imagined that finding love was something like fishing. "Once I was in the woods, I had no contact, so there was no baited hook for me to bite upon. I'm a big fish uncaught." One book that Knight never buried in his dump or packed away in a plastic tote--he kept it with him in his tent--was Very Special People , a collection of brief biographies of human oddities: the Elephant Man, General Tom Thumb, the DogFaced Boy, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and hundreds of sideshow performers. Knight himself often felt that he was something of circus freak, at least on the inside. "If you're born a human oddity," says the introductory chapter of Very Special People , "every day of your life, starting in infancy, you are made aware that you are not as others are." When you get older, it continues, things are likely to get worse. "You may hide from the world," advises the book, "to avoid the punishment it inflicts on those who differ from the rest in mind or body." There was one novel above all others, Knight said, that sparked in him the rare and unnerving sensation that the writer was reaching through time and speaking directly to him: Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground . "I recognize myself in the main character," he said, referring to the angry and misanthropic narrator, who has lived apart from all others for about twenty years. The book's opening lines are: "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man." Knight also expressed no shortage of self-loathing, but it was offset by a fierce pride, as well as an occasional trace of superiority. So, too, with the unnamed narrator of Underground . On the final page of the book, the narrator drops all humbleness and says what he feels: "I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what's more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves. So that perhaps, after all, there is more life in me than in you." Excerpted from The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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