The Stranger in the Woods
By Miriam Kramer
Those of us who live in Washington, DC’s political tangle or even in the bustling historic environment of Old Town, Alexandria might take a long weekend or week-long trip glamping near the Grand Canyon, hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, or sailing the Potomac to reconnect with nature. What would it be like to melt into the wilderness only to emerge over a quarter century later into an accelerated culture bombarded with information and technology? This life path is barely possible to fathom. In The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel pens an entirely compelling account of Christopher Thomas Knight, a twenty-year-old who impulsively parked his car on a remote trail in 1986, abandoning it and his family to disappear into the Maine woods without direct human contact for 27 years.
The news item he read about Knight’s capture in 2013 transfixed Finkel, an introverted national magazine and newspaper reporter living and occasionally camping in western Montana. Communicating by mail with Knight in prison, he unraveled Knight’s story thread by tiny thread as the incommunicative Knight moved through the courts and began to re-integrate involuntarily into modern life.
Christopher Knight grew up as one of six children on a farm in Albion, Maine. His parents, rock-ribbed Mainers who practiced self-sufficiency, raised their children with skills in farming, building, and thermodynamics. They split logs, picked fruit, and packed jugs of water next to each other in the ground to form a heat sink for a greenhouse on their sixty wooded acres of land, thus enabling them to grow vegetables all year long without paying for warmth. Intensely private, they socialized little. Following his family’s pattern as a bright, very introverted teenager, Chris mostly kept to himself in high school. After graduation, he took an electronics course that led to a job installing security systems. His skill set and natural ingenuity came in handy after he quitted the world on a whim.
Hiking south from northern Maine, Knight instinctively stopped on the outskirts of Little North Pond in central Maine, only thirty miles from his hometown. After building a camp, item by stolen item, he spent years living inside a ring of boulders in a secret snarl of woods, a tract of land so difficult to penetrate that he received no unwelcome human visitors during that time. Yet his carefully constructed escape paradoxically sat within earshot of seasonal civilization on the outskirts of Little North Pond in central Maine.
To survive, he used his box of tools from his former workplace to carefully and repeatedly break into summer cabins and the local Pine Tree camp, gaining a reputation over the years as a living ghost, the Hermit of North Pond. Careful to leave as few traces as possible, he would steal peanut butter, soap, paperbacks, radios, batteries, or propane tanks, depending on what he found and needed. Brilliant at woodcraft and intensely secretive, he never lit a fire, left a footprint, or revealed a trace of his presence through stepping on twigs and leaves. His goal was to keep away from others, take only what he needed, and live in communication with nature, with no social strictures or pressures to meet any needs but his own.
Finkel’s fascination with Knight is contagious. He analyzes multiple aspects of Knight’s life in solitary freedom: how it was possible for Knight to manage psychologically without others, to survive physically through brutal Maine winters and a lack of medical care, and to ponder existence philosophically with stolen books and magazines as his sole texts. Weaving together the global cultural significance of hermits, neurological and chemical reasons for the human need for connection, and Knight’s possible placement on the autism spectrum, Finkel pulls together an absorbing, vibrantly written story of a recluse’s navigation of a natural world existing adjacent to and bleeding into one he abandoned. He also reports the reactions of local residents, vacationers and those around the world. Many were either repelled by Knight’s stealing and parasitic existence, awed by his quixotic retreat from human overcrowding and unhappiness, or perhaps both.
As a child, I spent weeks at a time at a cabin on a lake in western Maine, although I rarely visited after the mid-Eighties. Reviewing my intense ping-pong trajectory living, studying and working in various cities and countries since then, I wanted to understand how and why he could spend that same period of time living a seemingly monotonous, difficult, but singularly satisfying life. I’ve thin-sliced that beauty, enough to love lying quietly on a lake shore with a cold wind blowing tears into my eyes, gazing up at sparkling swarms of stars with no light pollution acting as a veil between me and the universe. What a treat it could be to measure a long period of time with no formal calendars: only sunlight, moons, and seasons punctuated by snow, rain, flowers unfurling, leaves twirling in the breeze, and wild animals crackling through nearby twigs. Time itself would take on a completely different significance. While ultimately unrealistic and impossible for most of us, the idea of plunging oneself immersively into a fairy-tale-dark wood to find the Beast’s castle within and an ensuing “happily ever after” pulls at the human heart.
After reading The Stranger in the Woods, I think of C.S. Lewis’s classic The Chronicles of Narnia, in which children entering a wardrobe find a fascinating parallel world in which animals and mythological creatures talk, endless winter prevails before an unexpected spring, and time passes far faster than in their home country focused on dislocation through war, train schedules, and rote memorization at schools that dull the imagination. In a way, Christopher Knight’s experience must be like reading a transformative work of literature or nonfiction: diving into a sea of immersive, rhythmic pages that lead us to a different perspective on nature, time, space, and our own existence.