Christopher Knight spent 27 years living alone in the woods of Maine, stealing from nearby houses to survive. Author Michael Finkel recreates Knight's story in The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. The book, published this year by Alfred A. Knopf, is the basis for the author's interview with Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.
The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves. He waits until midnight, shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools, and sets out from camp. A penlight is clipped to a chain around his neck, but he doesn’t need it yet. Every step is memorized.
He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken. On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud—springtime, central Maine—but he avoids all of it. He bounds from rock to root to rock without a bootprint left behind.
One print, the hermit fears, might be enough to give him away. Secrecy is a fragile state, a single time undone and forever finished. A bootprint, if you’re truly committed, is therefore not allowed, not once. Too risky. So he glides like a ghost between the hemlocks and maples and white birches and elms until he emerges at the rocky shoreline of a frozen pond.
It has a name, Little Pond, often called Little North Pond, though the hermit doesn’t know it. He’s stripped the world to his essentials, and proper names are not essential. He knows the season, intimately, its every gradation. He knows the moon, a sliver less than half tonight, waning. Typically, he’d await the new moon—darker is better—but his hunger had become critical. He knows the hour and minute. He’s wearing an old windup watch to ensure that he budgets enough time to return before daybreak. He doesn’t know, at least not without calculating, the year or the decade.
His intention is to cross the frozen water, but this plan is fast abandoned. The day had been relatively warm, a couple of ticks above freezing—the temperature he knows—and while he’d hunkered in his camp, the weather had worked against him. Solid ice is a gift to trackless stealth, but this touch of softness will emboss every footfall.
So the long way it is, back in the trees with the roots and the rocks. He knows the whole hopscotch for miles, all around Little North Pond and then to the farthest reaches of North Pond itself. He passes a dozen cabins, modest wood-sided vacation homes, unpainted, shut tight for the off-season. He’s been inside many of them, but now is not the time. For nearly an hour he continues, still attempting to avoid footprints or broken branches. Some roots he’s stepped on so often that they’re worn smooth from repetition. Even knowing this, no tracker could ever find him.
He stops just before reaching his destination, the Pine Tree summer camp. The camp isn’t open, but maintenance has been around, and they’ve probably left some food in the kitchen, and there’s likely leftovers from last season. From the shadow of the forest he observes the Pine Tree property, scanning the bunkhouses, the tool shop, the rec center, the dining hall. No one. A couple of cars are in the lot, as usual. Still, he waits. You can never be too cautious.
Eventually he’s ready. Motion-detecting floodlights and cameras are scattered around the Pine Tree grounds, installed chiefly because of him, but these are a joke. Their boundaries are fixed—learn where they are and keep away. The hermit zigzags across the camp and stops at a specific rock, turns it over, grabs the key hidden beneath, and pockets it for later use. Then he climbs a slope to the parking lot and tests each vehicle’s doors. A Ford pickup opens. He clicks on his penlight and peeks inside.
Candy! Always good. Ten rolls of Smarties, tossed in the cup holders. He stuffs them in another pocket. He also takes a rain poncho, unopened in its packaging, and a silver-colored Armitron analog watch. It’s not an expensive watch—if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it. He has a moral code. But extra watches are important; when you live outside with rain and snow, breakage is inevitable.
He vectors past a few more motion cameras to a back door of the dining hall. Here he sets down his canvas gym bag of break-in tools and unzips it. Inside is a pair of putty knives, a paint scraper, a Leatherman multi-tool, several long-necked flathead screwdrivers, and three backup flashlights, among other items. He knows this door—it’s already slightly scraped and dented from his work—and he selects a screwdriver and slots it into the gap between the door and frame, near the knob. One expert twist and the door pops open, and he slips inside.
Penlight on, clamped in his mouth. He’s in the large camp kitchen, light flashing over stainless steel, a ceiling rack of sleeping ladles. Right turn, five paces, and to the pantry. He removes his backpack and scans the metal shelves. He grabs two tubs of coffee and drops them into his pack. Also some tortellini, a bag of marshmallows, a breakfast bar, and a pack of Humpty Dumpty potato chips.
What he really desires is at the other end of the kitchen, and he heads there now, takes out the key he’d collected from beneath the rock, and inserts it into the handle of the walk-in freezer. The key is attached to a plastic four-leaf-clover key chain with one of the leaves partially broken off. A three-and- a-half-leaf clover, perhaps still lucky yet. The handle turns and he enters the freezer, and the evening’s entire mission, all the meticulous effort, feels immediately rewarded.
He is deeply, almost dangerously hungry. Back at his tent, his edible supplies are a couple of crackers, some ground coffee, and a few packets of artificial sweetener. That’s it. If he’d waited much longer, he would have risked becoming tentbound from weakness. He shines his light on boxes of hamburger patties and blocks of cheese, bags of sausage and packs of bacon. His heart leaps and his stomach calls and he sets upon the food, loading it into his backpack; smorgasbord.
Excerpted from The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Finkel. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Penguin Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Watch Nam Kiwanuka's interview with Michael Finkel on The Agenda in the Summer tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., or streaming on Twitter @TheAgenda.
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.