Detachment and Re-attachment

The Mind of a Hermit No More

by Christopher John Stephens

20 April 2017

Christopher Knight disappeared into the woods at the age of 20 and returned at 47 without a masterpiece, without a testimony of life’s greater purpose, without anything profound to convey.
 
cover art

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

Michael Finkel

(Knopf)
US: Mar 2017

Deep into Michael Finkel’s moving and haunting book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, the narrative finally allows for some skepticism to intrude. This isn’t to say that Finkel was not initially skeptical of the story, but the highly questionable story he would uncover would prove extraordinary.

In 1986, a 20-year-old Massachusetts native named Christopher Knight drives north to the deep forests of Maine and disappears. For 27 years, he manages to build lodging for himself that suitably protects from the brutal Maine winters, effectively plan and execute approximately 1,000 break-ins of nearby cabins to acquire food and other goods, and create an area legend equal parts myth and reality. How did he do it? Why did he do it? Would he ever be caught?

It’s this tricky balance Finkel has to accept before entering the world of Christopher Knight. Are we supposed to like Christopher? Jon Krakauer had to ask himself the same question about Christopher McCandless, of Into The Wild (Anchor Books, 1996). A seemingly normal young man decides to leave society and live in the wild. Why should we care? The major difference between Krakauer’s subject and Finkel’s, one that makes the latter’s so confounding, is that Christopher Knight survived. That’s more Finkel’s triumph than Knight’s, but it’s also more than a little difficult to reconcile with logic.

For a little over half the book’s relatively brief 203 pages, we have been deep in the romantic sway of this story. After all, we have no obligation to investigate, validate sources, and meet journalistic standards. Finkel does, and it’s through the conclusiveness of (among several) a Pine Tree Camp employee:

“Everything that came from his camp stunk,” said Steve Treadwell, the Pine Tree Employee who’d observed the police interrogation of Knight and the dismantling of his site, “But he was clean-smelling. He didn’t live in the woods. His story doesn’t pass the smell test—literally.”

Up until this point, Finkel manages to carefully build his story with brief glimpses of his character. In the two pages of Chapter One, the hermit is furtive and careful to move without leaving trails. “He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken.” Soon enough, we meet Maine Game Warden Terry Hughes, the Ahab to Knight’s Moby Dick, and we enter the chase in its final moments. Game Warden Hughes and Maine State Trooper Diane Vance had been on the trail of this North Pond Hermit for decades, and they’re finally closing in.

The convenience of books like Krakauer’s Into The Wild, or Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man (Riverhead, 2002), is that the fate of their heroes is already known. Krakauer’s Christopher McCandless died, and Gilbert’s Eustace Conway seems to have been discredited as an authentic mountain man. However, with The Stranger In The Woods, the problem comes when we think about whether or not the authors imposed too much of themselves on their subject’s narrative.

Finkel’s subject is a difficult, troubled person, no matter how much he might want to dismiss that diagnosis. Finkel’s definitely done his deep research here, from childhood classmates who might have found him quiet and reserved to all sorts of expert sources about the typical profile of a hardcore loner. The question remains: should Finkel have produced a book profiling a man who clearly did not want to be at the center of anything society had to offer?

Fortunately, testimony from Christopher Knight himself, carefully sprinkled throughout through the course of this book, gives lie to the idea that this man (as distinctly a strange Maine / New England individualist character as there has ever been) was anything less than ready to talk. Some of Knight’s comments are refreshingly dismissive of the typical romantic hermits throughout American history: “Knight’s disdain for Thoreau was bottomless—‘he had not deep insight for nature.’” For Christopher Knight, Henry David Thoreau was little more than a dilettante. Knight was equally dismissive of Robert Frost, and he had an interesting way to clarify his relationship with Jack Kerouac: “I don’t like people who like Jack Kerouac.”

Early in the book, as a way to perhaps gain Knight’s confidence and position himself as a flawed but sincere journalist, Finkel provides some refreshing honesty about past mistakes. There’s a clear environmental connection between author and subject. Finkel lived in Montana, a land of wide open spaces and people who could hide for years in plain sight. He’d also employed a tactic of creating composite characters, based on various interviews, to manipulate the narrative of a story about child labor.

“Maybe the admission that I was a sinner within my profession, while Knight was a confessed thief, unable to live in solitude without pilfering from others, would engender a sense of connection—both of us striving, and failing, to achieve lofty ideals.”

Finkel clearly understands the need to sometimes disconnect and isolate for reasons of spiritual renewal or general contemplation. He argues that fervently devout Christian solitaries frightened the authorities. “Hermits were unsupervised thinkers, pondering life and death and God, and the Church, with its ingrained schedules and rote memorization, did not approve of many hermits’ ideas.” Whether or not Knight follows in the unbreakable chain of brooding isolationists seems to be purely in Finkel’s hands, and that’s a difficult responsibility the author handles with extreme sensitivity.

However, what will frustrate any reader of The Stranger In The Woods— and it’s no fault of Finkel’s—is that Knight adamantly refuses to conform to any image or script of the typical hermit. He was a voracious reader, probably because books were as easily accessible as items to pilfer from nearby cabins, but he left behind no tangible sense of art, visual or written. One might think he protests too much when he claims he did not speak to himself, a trademark characteristic of a Hollywood film hermit. Of Journals, the other expected by-product of a prototypical hermit, Knight never saw any sense of honesty in them. “It [a journal] either tells a lot of truths to cover a single lie… or a lot of lies to cover a single truth.” Finkel slips up a little here because this was a great opportunity for him to ask specific follow-up questions. What specific example represents the worst of nature journals? Why? 

The story of Christopher Knight seems to be one of major extremes. He hated National Geographic from childhood because they had apparently once published a photograph of a Peruvian shepherd boy in tears. Knight comments: “He had failed his family, who had entrusted him with the herd. It’s disgusting that everybody can see a little boy’s failure.” Finkel does take the opportunity here to ask Knight if he had done something unspeakably shameful that might have triggered his trip into the woods, and Knight insists he had not.

The flipside of this apparent empathy is seen with Knight’s fixation on a book like Frederick Drimmer’s Very Special People (1973), a collection of stories and photographs about human oddities. Did he fancy himself among the marginalized? Was he romanticizing his condition as a way to rationalize approximately a thousand cabin break-ins? These questions, understandably, go unanswered.

Knight was a Stoicist, a follower of Socrates, but for all his tendencies to align himself with high-minded principles and philosophies, he was born into a living society and still had to live with the consequences of his actions. “I wasn’t consciously judging society or myself,” he notes. “I just chose a different path.” His clinical diagnosis from the state of Maine included three possible conditions: Asperger’s disorder, depression, schizoid personality disorder. “I don’t want to be in the position of victim,” he notes. “It’s not my nature. There’s not much… that I can do about my diagnosis…”

By the end of The Stranger In The Woods, Finkel offers a truly heartbreaking scene of closure and departure. After many months awaiting trial, Christopher Knight accepts (because he has no choice) the state’s verdict and continues to adjust (more or less) to life in the world he’d chosen to escape nearly 30 years earlier. Knight has accepted that Finkel will create the story we’re reading, no matter what, and he’s apparently at peace with that:

“ ‘You’re my Boswell,’ he declares. He no longer cares what’s written about him… ‘You can make T-shirts with my image on them if you wish, and have your kids sell them on the corner.’”

This is a beautifully rendered, carefully researched story that’s not necessarily about Christopher Knight, a 47-year-old hermit who’d disappeared at the age of 20 and returned without a masterpiece, without a testimony of life’s greater purpose, without anything profound to convey. Finkel knows that there has to be about a bigger picture. Can any of us truly be alone? Can we survive on a diet of stolen fast food, an endless series of great books, and a fervent desire to take our deepest secrets to our grave? Finkel doesn’t solve any of these mysteries. His mission is to uncover the questions.

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