Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods.
12 April 2017
It's been a couple of weeks since I read a book I wasn't able to put down. The last book with which I had that experience was Michael Finkel's investigative/character portrait The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.
Finkel relates the story of Christopher Knight, who walked away from his job, car, and life in 1986, and did not really reappear among society until he was arrested for multiple thefts in 2013. Where did he go? Well, into the woods in central Maine, but the fascinating part of the story is that he didn't really go very far; there were numerous cabins and people within walking distance:
"...Knight chose to disappear well within the bounds of society. 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. From the nearest cabin to his hiding spot is a three-minute walk, if you know where you're going." (p. 53.)
So how did he survive nearly twenty-seven years sleeping outside in Maine, when he had walked to his campsite carrying nothing? Well, he stole. A lot. His tent, his tarps, his supplies, his food, his clothing, everything came from the cabins and a summer camp facility not far away. He even stole National Geographics and used them (and other magazines) as a sort of floor for his site. He did not hunt or grow any food; that probably would have drawn notice long before his other activities. Nonetheless, the residents of the nearby cabins were more than a bit spooked about break-ins and supplies gone missing over the course of more than twenty-five years.
So what did Knight do? Well, in addition to stealing enough food and other necessaries to eat, he sat by himself and enjoyed the woods. A lot. This is a man who has sheer dedication to living outside, and to living apart from other people. You can see that when you read about how he survived some of the Maine winters:
"It's natural to assume that Knight just slept all the time during the cold season, a human hibernation, but this is wrong. 'It is dangerous to sleep too long in winter,' he said. It was essential for him to know precisely how cold it was, his brain demanded it, so he always kept three thermometers in camp: one mercury, one digital, one spring-loaded. He couldn't trust just a single thermometer, and preferred a consensus.
When frigid weather descended, he went to sleep at seven-thirty p.m. He'd cocoon himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags and cinch a tie-down strap near his feet to prevent the covers from slipping off. If he needed to pee, it was too cumbersome to undo his bedding, so he used a wide-mouthed jug with a good lid. No matter what he tried, he couldn't keep his feet warm. 'Thick socks. Multiple socks. Boot liners. Thin socks, thinking it was better to have my feet together, using the mitten theory. I never found a perfect solution.' Still, he did not lose a toe or a finger to frostbite. Once in bed, he'd sleep six and a half hours, and arise at two a.m.
That way, at the depth of cold, he was awake...The first thing he'd do at two a.m. was light his stove and start melting snow. To get his blood circulating, he'd walk the perimeter of his camp..." (p. 118-119.)
The author, Michael Finkel*, originally made contact with Knight by writing a letter to him in prison (Knight was convicted of several felony burglaries--although it is estimated that he performed more than a thousand break-ins over the course of his self-exile) and was surprised when Knight wrote back and agreed to let Finkel come to Maine to speak with him in jail. It's not a perfect book; at times I found Finkel's voice and persona a bit irritating, and I was never quite sure why Knight was allowing him to tell the story. But overall it was a good read. And I liked that Knight didn't really offer any explanation or justification for what he did (although Finkel tries to tie his story to historical examples of hermits and solitude-seekers); it seems that he really just wanted to sit around by himself, a lot, and that's what he went and did. Anyone looking for greater understanding than that will not really get it from this narrative, because Finkel didn't really get a whole lot of introspective answers from Knight.
I liked it. It's drawing a lot of comparison's to Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, but that one was a lot longer and the main character died, so I much preferred this very odd story.
*Finkel admits to Knight and in this book that he has erred in his journalism ways; he was fired by the New York Times for creating a "composite character" based on interviews with numerous individuals.