In 1986 twenty-year old Chris Knight parked his Subaru Brat at the end of a northern Maine woods road, set the keys inside and walked away into the woods. What might have been expected in the days ahead was for Chris to get tired of the woods and start trying to find his way back home or for search parties to find him, dead or alive. But neither of these alternatives suited Chris well as he started making his way back south through the woods.
In The Stranger in the Woods, author Michael Finkel tells the story of what did happen to Christopher Knight over the following 28 years.
The western Maine woods is not a pleasant place to saunter through, at any time of year. I doubt anyone really “saunters” through it. Young spruces crowd the forest floor and the twisted root masses of mature trees intertwine with jagged rock. From cracks between the rocks grow the thorny shrubs and these thickets mingle with blow-downs and the remnant wood of logging cuts. I know this all too well – I moved to western Maine a couple of years after Christopher Knight disappeared. I would sometimes spend most of a day out in the woods: Knight didn’t emerge till 2013.
After 27 years of hiding out in one campsite near North Pond, authorities apprehended him one night as he burglarized a kid’s camp in search of food. Aside from learning the ways of the forest, he’d mastered the art of thievery and had enjoyed over 1000 successful forced entries before his fateful careless night.
For 27 cycles of winter, spring, summer and fall he had gone without human communication or touch. He had contemplated the creatures and nature’s long cycles. He had kept up with “housework” around his large but extremely well- hidden camp. And he’d watched the people of the nearby lake and stole from them like just another opportunist but more dexterous creature. It is simply impossible for any of us to imagine that life. But later, typically concise, conversations with him revealed that this absence of contact would have been just fine for him – forever, in a way equally incomprehensible to the rest of us.
This is where the author, Mr. Finkel comes in, attempting in The Stranger in the Woods, to describe the realities of that life and moreover to reach deep for the motivations within his protagonist’s heart. Through much perseverance the author gained as much of Knight’s confidence as anyone ever could and relayed many of his words to us, verbatim. Did he plumb the depths of “hermit wisdom?” Did he do Knight justice? Well, that’s hard to say. Knight himself had one view of justice, the author another, the State of Maine still another and finally each reader will act as end arbiter.
Upon finishing the read, I didn’t immediately know how I should react (or pass judgement) – what I should take away from either Christopher Knight’s life or the author’s rendition of that life. I sympathized greatly with the impulse that sent Chris off into the forest – I spent much of my life on the cusp of it and then I acted on the impulse in 2007, beginning my own long walks. But he wasn’t me, I wasn’t him. I’m not uncomfortable around people and I want to communicate – to give my side of the story and engage in dialogue. In the end I felt that the book resonated perhaps because I was something between the book’s protagonist and its author – loving the wild and a self-centered world view but wanting to understand and then to communicate something honestly and creatively. Knight just wanted to live.
Is it best for a biographer to be of the same persuasion as his subject? I’m not sure. But Mr. Finkel clearly was not cut from the same fabric as Mr. Knight. A different kind of world view certainly showed through at points, something perhaps not recognizable to most of Mr. Finkel’s readership but something noticeable to those of us a little closer to Mr. Knight’s persuasion. That persuasion is one that begins with the self, alone in a natural world and works outward from there to understand other people. The author’s worldview seems something more collaborative and something that places more faith in psychology, in the ability to know other people’s minds and how they got that way. The North Pond Hermit and I would recoil from this hubris.
Still, even my own book looks outward, beyond the forest, to society and tries to diagnose some of its ills. I found, after a time, that I couldn’t help it. The stark juxtaposition of the natural order and the artifice of civilization was stark.
In Chapter 14, I find myself back in Pittsburgh at the end of my second trek, visiting my workplace:
The whole visit was mostly discouraging. Christine wasn’t as happy to see me as I’d hoped and others just didn’t seem to be able to relate at all to where I’d just been and what I’d done. They’d been in a different kind of environment for the last four months, in fact, for their whole lives in most cases. Those around me now seemed to be focused on other people and what they were doing or might be doing and to a lifecycle of work, entertainment and sleep. People asked whether I’d had fun again this year and I guess it was a natural question, coming from people who drove to wild places to look for a bit, take a nature hike or park the RV. They also asked whether I thought I’d like to go on any more hikes next year. The most simple underlying idea behind the Eastern Brook Trout Solo Adventure was that I was on a mission. A mission that had a destination and goals along the way, and this was lost on almost everyone.
Then, as I enter the Adirondacks:
It seemed that I’d been moving toward this place, toward this morning for a long time. There had always been an impulse to explore the north woods. At times my fantasies of the untamed life had been about escape. Escape from people I didn’t like and who didn’t like me. Or escape from the noise – I couldn’t really hear myself think at times. Or a retreat from all the complexities of life that seemed to distract from the important things, or just eat up time. But there was a more profound impulse than escapism at play, I felt these days. I was trying to stay in touch with reality out here and I’d been closer to it as the miles, and now years, had passed. It’s a strange claim to make but only when I left civilization behind could I see, in retrospect, the difference between the fabricated world and the “real,” the natural. The whole social edifice I left behind year after year seemed to stand on no foundation. People seemed to believe those things they most wanted to convince themselves of while concurrently claiming a right not to suffer consequences when wrong. “Rights” were invented out of thin air, rights that came with expanding senses of entitlement. Their “real” world was shiftless and temporary. The ideas put forward by the psychologists today as law would be forgotten tomorrow when the sensationalism had passed. But out here, no credit or quarter was given for imagination. Consequences were administered dispassionately, unerringly. The absence of drama, intrigue or machination was palpable. None of it was fair and all of it was fair. As I took a long look north into the unknown, none of this perturbed me. It’s why I was back again. And, thinking about it, I wondered at times if it wasn’t the rest of civilization who suffered chronic escapism.
It’s always been tempting to bundle people like me and Christopher Knight into the category of “misanthrope,” a category that enable us to live quietly in the woods, where we don’t have to be confronted.
Michael Finkel, at the very least comes close to understanding, opening this work on aloneness with this epigram from Socrates:
How many things there are that I do not want.
I want to write a bit more on this, I’m not quite done with The Stranger yet.