The Knight of the Last Hermit

My Review of Stranger In The Woods by Michael Finkel

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In September of 1986, twenty year-old Christopher Knight quit his job installing home alarm systems, cashed his last check, jumped in his car and drove. He drove south from Waltham, Mass down to the Florida line, then turned around and went back north, past Waltham to his native state of Maine. He drove further north and in to Maine, the roads narrowed until his car, almost of out of gas, could go no further into the woods. He got out, tossed the keys on the center console, of that Subaru Brat, the most expensive thing he ever owned (even if he only had cosigned for it with his brother Joel). And walked into the deep north woods of Maine, everything he had, was just what he had on.

He walked south, to a less inhospitable woods, ending up almost 30 miles from his childhood home in Albion . He walked for ten days. He was starving. Corn stood in stalks waiting to be picked, Chris helped himself. But the harvest season in Maine is short. Winter follows quickly on its heels and lasts until April. Even in the lowlands, twenty below and four months of snow on the ground should be expected. Chris had nothing and little time to make choices. He seemed to be on autopilot from the day he quit his job. He’d never spent a night in the woods. Food, shelter, and clothing — all essential. A November Maine night would expose those deficiencies, mortally. Would Chris stay in the woods or return home. How could he ever survive?

He stole.

He stole candy, food, clothes, tarps, tents, propane tanks, camping stoves, hiking boots, sleeping bags, mattresses, clothes pins, toiletries, paint, thermometers (he had three — mercury, digital, and spring loaded), watches, books (high brow, low brow, Steven King, and Harlequin) magazines (National Geographic, Vanity Fair, People, Playboy), booze (chocolate red wine liquor, anything in the liquor cabinet but skinny girl martini), radios, a portable TV, batteries, batteries, batteries and couple dollars here and there. Cash was the only thing he stole and didn’t use and re-purpose. He needed to steal ten propane tanks a year, so he could melt drinking water through the winter; no telling of the other supplies he needed for surviving those deep winters.

He stole for all twenty-seven years he lived in the woods. One owner put the number at 50, the number of times he’d been stolen from, which is basically twice a year. That coincides with Chris’ main crime sprees: in the late spring, before the summer people came up to their cabins and in early fall — right after Labor Day. During the winter, Chris didn’t leave his camp because the snow would make for easy tracking — he was a smooth criminal.

He located his camp, on a remote, densely wooded patch of rocky Maine woods, on a part of the private property its year-round owner never visited. He constructed his camp, where Sun Tzu would advise, half way between the bottom and top of the hill, just enough air to shoo the black flies away without being exposed to the brunt of the north winds. He erected his tent, an A-frame constructed of tarps and garbage bags, facing east to west as if he had survivalist training. He camouflaged naturally and with some paint and duct tape. Chris camped within earshot of vacationers on the lake, in boats in the summer, in ice huts in the winters.

He couldn’t be too far from his marks — the hundred or so summer camps people had been coming to for generations. His best mark — Pine Tree Camp — was a summer camp for the disabled.

The Romantic Hermit

He stole under the cover of darkness, with the new moon, not the full moon. After midnight he’d leave his camp, stepping on roots and rocks, avoiding the ever present mud in the short summers, still drying out from winters’ snow and spring’s rain. He’d wait, patiently, with his ever present stoicism. He’d go through his mark, taking all that he needed or wanted as far as reading materials. The one thing he never found — glasses with a stronger prescription than his own.

Chris remained out of sight, once in the nineties; he came around a trail too quickly and bumped into a hiker. They both said, Hi. He kept off the trails after that. Chris kept clean shaven in the summer to avoid the look of man who lived in the woods. Once he broke in when someone was home — they hadn’t parked their big truck on the narrow road and so Chris thought no one was home, but he wasn’t seen, though the occupant yelled at him. In his final winter, he heard voices, too close for comfort; he got out of his den and saw three ice fishermen — three generations, grandfather, father and son. The grandfather knew at once, sensed, intuited, that the man in the ski mask was the famed hermit of North Pond. The grandfather instructed father and son to keep it a secret. Most summer retreats have their own campfire tales, but the author found no tales or wild stories about Chris’ description, no Bigfoot sightings or Loch Ness monster stories, it’s safe to say that except for that ice fisherman encounter he was never recognized and rarely seen for twenty-seven years.

His twenty-seven years came to an end on an early spring night in April of 2012, a game warden who had installed the latest motion detectors in the Pine Tree Camp kitchen, caught him red handed, stealing frozen lasagna. Chris confessed everything that night. All witnesses believed his confession, honestly, completely. Chris took them to his camp, before going to jail. His camp with the stacks of bundled magazines buried to form floorboards and rotting tarps, gave the archaeological and forensic proof that he did in fact live in the woods for twenty-seven years and stole everything he ever used.

The Hermitage

Chis, a model prisoner, was only charged with 13 counts given the statue of limitations and most victims never filing a formal report. Breaking and entering Pine Tree Camp was one of the thirteen charges. He did his short time in jail. Jail was probably the worst place for Chris, the opposite of the pristine freedom he held in his camp. He was paroled and followed the terms, which included weekly drug tests, and was declared fully free, incorporated back into society.

Of course he was not incorporated into society. He fit poorly in society before he spent twenty-seven years on its furthest fringe. In his only interview as a free man, he told the author, he’d like to visit the lady of the woods. The lady of the woods who came to him in those twenty-below nights in his cold, fireless, camp. She didn’t take him, but he may return her once more — this time for good. He later recanted his suicide threat.

That’s where Chris' story ends for now.

The author, Michael Finkel, did an amazing job of getting one of the most reclusive people known to history to talk to him. To tell him his story, recite the facts, answer the B.S. detector questions — Finkel got it all. Finkel wrote about his several jailhouse interviews with Chris in a 2014 GQ long-form article. It was one of the most widely read long reads in 2014 and Finkel parlayed that success into a 200 page book.

Yet the book doesn’t improve on the article, on the original story of Chris Knight.

Finkel was stymied for more material, by Knight’s family who will not talk to him and pressured Chris from holding further conversations. So Finkel looked to other sources to embellish the core story. However, many of the same hurdles remain: Knight didn’t say more than Hi to another person for twenty-seven years, who else knows anything of value of his time in the woods? Just as the residents/victims were reticent to come forward to the police, they were reticent to come forward to Finkel.

Maine’s Beatuy

So Finkel turns to the experts in a number of fields to reflect Knight’s experience through different lenses. This sort of multi-disciplinary reflection belongs in the book, however, Finkel adds the expert sources like a tenth-grader giving a report on the causes of the Civil War — forced, disjointed, and not discussed beyond a surface level.

In one example of appealing to the experts, Finkel lists the number of famous recluses or hermits and he includes Flannery O’Connor among them. O’Connor was no recluse. She graduated college, attended the renowned Iowa Writers workshop, and stayed in New York long enough to hate it. Her complete works, the Library of Congress edition, contain over a hundred pages of selected letters. O’Connor did live at home her for most of her thirty-nine years. She lived at home because that’s what single women did in her time and place. She had no other job besides writing. She had lupus, which prevented her from even doing that job more than three hours a day and ultimately the Wolf of the blood claimed her life.

Finkel, cites Merton, the famous Trappist monk and also a prolific writer, for a one liner or two on solitude. Merton, raised in Europe, graduated from and taught at Columbia University. As important as solitary prayer, charity through action was his goal. He sought solitude for short finite intervals, so he could deepen his love of God, the source of his service to others. While a monk, he was no hermit. He did not seek escape from the world, but rather to understand it better, so he could serve it better.

Neither a writer or a contemplative, Knight read anything he could get his hands except the most popular book of all time, present in so many of the homes he broke into — the Bible. Raised Protestant, Knight knew this book, but had no use for it in his world. Religion is a social construct and Knight rejected the constructs of society, though he maintained a belief in a higher power or powers.

Winter’s deadly beauty

Misusing O’Connor and Merton are just two examples of several short comings in the attempt to convert the long form article to a full length book. Finkel inappropriately compares Knights’ wilderness outpost to prisoners in solitary confinement or a spelunking experience in a cave. For prisoners, their time is involuntary, meant for punishment. I can relate, my sport — running, is other sport’s punishment — it’s different when it’s on your terms. Also in a cave or a cell, the inmate is cut off from the rising and setting sun, the rhythms of nature, whereas Knight experienced the vicissitudes of the environment for a quarter century.

I would have preferred some more in depth of analysis as to what extent Knight followed survival tactics and a judgement as to whether he was true survivalist or just a wilderness hobo. Did Knight have a pathological disorder or did he sanely choose this life? Did he form his own moral code or was he an equivocal opportunist? Could society have helped him? What does our fascination with Knight say about us? How does that fascination compare with the popular of stories about escape in the wilderness from well worn novels like Robinson Caruso, Call of the Wild, and Hatchet to contemporary reality shows like Mountain Men, Life Below Zero, and Alaskan Bush People?

For all the focus on solitude and hermitage, Knight’s example reveals how interconnected we all are. His need for propane tanks, taps into our global energy market. His need for reading materials, batteries for his radio and TV, signifies our need for intellectual interaction with the world. These forms of entertainment are forms of conversation. Although, Knight didn’t communicate in person, bidirectionally, he was in contact with our world. He saw the footage of the twin towers on September 11th and listened to the news of the first social media using, African-American President.

Knight’s story reveals how much we need each other just as much as it makes us realize all the things we can live without.

His reclusive nature leaves many unanswered questions, and Finkel did as good as anyone to pry what details he gathered. I commend Finkel for parlaying his article into a book deal. While I read his book as eagerly as the article, I think he missed a larger opportunity to offer insights into what does Knight say about our human capabilities and contemporary society.

But then, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and maybe Knight’s story is no more than a tale told by idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

More Reviews:

Man’s Search For Meaning

How to Make A Myth: Absalom, Absalom

Heat and Light — Needful Things

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