Do you ever think about getting away from the world? Ever contemplate taking a break and relaxing out in the woods by yourself for while? Well, one guy decided to do just that…for 27 years.
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel is the true story of the hermit Christopher Knight. In 1986, 20-year-old Knight decided to completely leave society and disappear into the woods of Maine. For the next three decades, Knight lived completely by himself, surviving by pilfering off the summer cabins that surrounded the nearby lake. To the locals, he became known as the North Pond Hermit. It wasn’t until 2013 that a determined resident finally caught him stealing food from the lake’s summer camp, and the hermit and his hideout were revealed.
Okay, so this story, which seems almost too bizarre to be true, is extremely fascinating. Journalist Finkel, after hearing about Knight’s arrest and his strange claim to have been by himself for that many years, began sending letters and eventually visited Knight in jail. By gaining Knight’s trust, Finkel was able to delve further into the mind of the hermit.
Finkel expertly tells this nonfiction tale. He spends each chapter focused on a particular element of Knight’s experience: how he survived, what his camp was like, his stealing escapades, and even the differing opinions of the locals. Woven throughout is Finkel’s personal interactions with Knight. It was interesting to read about Knight trying to adapt and re-enter a society that had changed so much.
What I found most fascinating about this story was how Finkel used outside sources to create a rich discussion of the various types of hermits and why people choose a life of solitude. What’s interesting is how Knight doesn’t feel he quite fits into any particular kind of hermit. Was he trying to make a political statement? Was he on a spiritual or creative quest? No, Knight says, he just felt like doing it.
Finkel also brings in expert opinions to try and identify Knight’s mental state and why he had such a low need for human interaction. Apart from a brief encounter with a hiker in the mid-90s, in which he said a simple “hi,” Knight never talked to a single person for almost 30 years.
It may be hard to believe that Knight was able to be on his own for so long, that he committed over a thousand burglaries before getting caught, that he never had any serious injuries, or that he was able to survive the brutal winters of Maine without ever lighting a fire. Despite his abnormal tendencies, Knight is actually an intelligent man. He’s definitely someone who questions social norms and is quite open about his beliefs. Though I think Finkel kind of romanticizes Knight a little too much, there is still a lot the reader can learn from his solitary experience. Clearing out the noise and taking in the sounds of nature actually added significantly to Knight’s mind and health. He spent time reading books and simply being.
He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed. Observing the trees was indolent; cutting them down was enterprising. What did Knight do for a living? He lived for a living.
Overall, this book is one I couldn’t put down. If you enjoy true stories or documentaries of strange people, then this is the book for you. Maybe after you read it, you’ll want to go out and live in the woods by yourself for a while, too. But, please, don’t start breaking into people’s homes and stealing their food.