Source; full text
By Michael Finkel
For nearly 30 years, a phantom haunted the woods of Central Maine. Unseen and unknown, he lived in secret, creeping into homes in the dead of night and surviving on what he could steal. To the spooked locals, he became a legend—or maybe a myth. They wondered how he could possibly be real. Until one day last year, the hermit came out of the forest
...The thief complied, no resistance, and lay facedown, candy spilling out of his pockets. It was one thirty in the morning on April 4, 2013. Perkins-Vance soon arrived, and the burglar was placed, handcuffed, in a plastic chair. The officers asked his name. He refused to answer. His skin was strangely pale; his glasses, with chunky plastic frames, were extremely outdated. But he wore a nice Columbia jacket, new Lands' End blue jeans, and sturdy boots. The officers searched him, and no identification was located.
His name, he revealed, was Christopher Thomas Knight. Born on December 7, 1965. He said he had no address, no vehicle, did not file a tax return, and did not receive mail. He said he lived in the woods.
"For how long?" wondered Perkins-Vance.
Knight thought for a bit, then asked when the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster occurred. He had long ago lost the habit of marking time in months or years; this was just a news event he happened to remember. The nuclear meltdown took place in 1986, the same year, Knight said, he went to live in the woods. He was 20 years old at the time, not long out of high school. He was now 47, a middle-aged man.
Knight stated that over all those years he slept only in a tent. He never lit a fire, for fear that smoke would give his camp away. He moved strictly at night. He said he didn't know if his parents were alive or dead. He'd not made one phone call or driven in a car or spent any money. He had never in his life sent an e-mail or even seen the Internet.
He confessed that he'd committed approximately 40 robberies a year while in the woods—a total of more than a thousand break-ins. But never when anyone was home. He said he stole only food and kitchenware and propane tanks and reading material and a few other items. Knight admitted that everything he possessed in the world, he'd stolen, including the clothes he was wearing, right down to his underwear. The only exception was his eyeglasses.
Perkins-Vance called dispatch and learned that Knight had no criminal record. He said he grew up in a nearby community, and his senior picture was soon located in the 1984 Lawrence High School yearbook. He was wearing the same eyeglasses.
For close to three decades, Knight said, he had not seen a doctor or taken any medicine. He mentioned that he had never once been sick. You had to have contact with other humans, he claimed, in order to get sick.
Christopher Knight was arrested, charged with burglary and theft, and transported to the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, the state capital. For the first time in nearly 10,000 days, he slept indoors.
Knight's arrest, rather than eliminating disbelief, only enhanced it. The truth was stranger than the myth. One man had actually lived in the woods of Maine for twenty-seven years, in an unheated nylon tent. Winters in Maine are long and intensely cold: a wet, windy cold, the worst kind of cold. A week of winter camping is an impressive achievement. An entire season is practically unheard of.
Though hermits have been documented for thousands of years, Knight's feat appears to exist in a category of its own. He engaged in zero communication with the outside world. He never snapped a photo. He did not keep a journal. His camp was undisclosed to everyone.
There may have been others like Knight, whose commitment to isolation was absolute—he planned to live his entire life in secret—but if so, they were never found. Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid. He was an uncontacted tribe of one.
I decided to write him a letter. I wrote it by hand, pen on paper, and sent it from my home in Montana to the Kennebec County jail. I mentioned I was a journalist seeking explanations for his baffling life. A week later, a white envelope arrived in my mailbox. The return address, printed in blue ink in wobbly-looking block letters, read "Chris Knight." It was a brief note—three paragraphs; 272 words. Still, it contained some of the first statements Knight had shared with anyone in the world.
"I replied to your letter," he explained, "because writing letters relieves somewhat the stress and boredom of my present situation." Also, he didn't feel comfortable speaking. "My vocal, verbal skills have become rather rusty and slow."
I'd mentioned in my letter that I was an avid reader. From what I could tell, Knight was, too. Many victims of Knight's thefts reported that their books were often stolen—from Tom Clancy potboilers to dense military histories to James Joyce's Ulysses.
Hemingway, I wrote, was one of my favorites. It seemed that Knight was shy about everything except literary criticism; he answered that he felt "rather lukewarm" about Hemingway. Instead, he noted, he'd rather read Rudyard Kipling, preferably his "lesser known works." As if catching himself getting a little friendly, he added that since he didn't know me, he really didn't want to say more.
Then he seemed concerned that he was now being too unfriendly. "I wince at the rudeness of this reply but think it better to be clear and honest rather than polite. Tempted to say 'nothing personal,' but handwritten letters are always personal." He ended with: "It was kind of you to write. Thank you." He did not sign his name.
I wrote him back and sent him a couple of Kiplings (The Man Who Would Be King and Captains Courageous). His response, two and a half pages, felt as raw and honest as a diary entry. He was suffering in jail; the noise and the filth tore at his senses.
"You asked how I sleep. Little and uneasy. I am nearly always tired and nervous." In his next letter, he added, in his staccato, almost song-lyric style, that he deserved to be imprisoned. "I stole. I was a thief. I repeatedly stole over many years. I knew it was wrong. Knew it was wrong, felt guilty about it every time, yet continued to do it."
We exchanged letters throughout the summer of 2013. Rather than becoming gradually more accustomed to jail, to being around other people, Knight was deteriorating. In the woods, he said, he'd always carefully maintained his facial hair, but now he stopped shaving. "Use my beard," he wrote, "as a jail calendar."
He tried several times to converse with other inmates. He could force out a few hesitant words, but every topic—music, movies, television—was lost on him, as was most slang. "You speak like a book," one inmate teased. Whereupon he ceased talking.
"I am retreating into silence as a defensive move," he wrote. Soon he was down to uttering just five words, and only to guards: yes; no; please; thank you. "I am surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable."
He wrote little about his time in the woods, but what he did reveal was harrowing. Some years, he made it clear, he barely survived the winter. In one letter, he told me that to get through difficult times, he tried meditating. "I didn't meditate every day, month, season in the woods. Just when death was near. Death in the form of too little food or too much cold for too long." Meditation worked, he concluded. "I am alive and sane, at least I think I'm sane." As always there was no formal closing. His letters simply ended, sometimes mid-thought.
He returned to the theme of sanity in a following letter. "When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me. Strange idea to me. I had never thought of myself as a hermit. Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy. See the ugly little joke."
Even worse, he feared his time in jail would only prove correct those who doubted his sanity. "I suspect," he wrote, "more damage has been done to my sanity in jail, in months; than years, decades, in the woods."
After four months in jail, Knight had no clue what punishment awaited. A sentence of a dozen or more years was possible. "Stress levels sky high," he wrote. "Give me a number. How long? Months? Years? How long in prison for me. Tell me the worst. How long?"
In the end, he decided he could not even write. "For a while writing relieved stress for me. No longer." He sent one last, heartbreaking letter in which he seemed at the verge of breakdown. "Still tired. More tired. Tireder, tiredest, tired ad nauseam, tired infinitum."
And that was it. He never wrote me again. Though he did finally sign his name. Despite the exhaustion and the tension, the last words he penned were wry and self-mocking: "Your friendly neighborhood Hermit, Christopher Knight."
[upon meeting Chris in a jail]: Rarely in my life have I witnessed someone less pleased to see me.
"The constant banging and buzzing in here," I said, "must be so jarring compared with the sounds of nature."
"It's jail," he said. There was nothing more. Silence again.
I shouldn't have come. He didn't want me here; I didn't feel comfortable being here.
..."Some people want me to be this warm and fuzzy person. All filled with friendly hermit wisdom. Just spouting off fortune-cookie lines from my hermit home."
He explained about the lack of eye contact. "I'm not used to seeing people's faces," he said. "There's too much information there. Aren't you aware of it? Too much, too fast."
Chris had just learned of Asperger's while in jail, and he seemed unfazed by the diagnosis. "I don't think I'll be a spokesman for the Asperger's telethon. Do they still do telethons? I hate Jerry Lewis." He said he was taking no medications. "But I don't like people touching me," he added. "You're not a hugger, are you?"
"I'm glad this is between us," he said, indicating the glass. "If there was a set of blinds here, I'd close them."
"I'm not sorry about being rude if it gets to the point quicker," he told me.
He was raised in the community of Albion, a forty-five-minute drive east of his camp; he has four older brothers and one younger sister. His father, who died in 2001, worked in a creamery. His mother, now in her eighties, still lives in the same house where Chris grew up, a modest two-story colonial on a wooded fifty-acre plot.
The family is extremely private and did not speak with me. Their next-door neighbor told me that in fourteen years, he hasn't exchanged more than a word with Chris's mom. Sometimes he sees her getting the paper. "Culturally my family is old Yankee," Chris said. "We're not emotionally bleeding all over each other. We're not touchy-feely. Stoicism is expected."
Chris insisted that he had a fine childhood. "No complaints," he said. "I had good parents." He shared vivid stories of moose hunting with his father. "
He drove the Brat to Maine, went through his hometown without stopping—"one last look around"—and kept driving north. Soon he reached the edge of Moosehead Lake, where Maine begins to get truly remote.
"I drove until I was nearly out of gas. I took a small road. Then a small road off that small road. Then a trail off that." He parked the car. He placed the keys in the center console. "I had a backpack and minimal stuff. I had no plans. I had no map. I didn't know where I was going. I just walked away."
It was late summer of 1986. He'd camp in one spot for a week or so, then hike south, following the natural geology of Maine, with its long, glacier-carved valleys. "I lost track of where I was," he said. "I didn't care."
"It took a while to overcome my scruples. I was always scared when stealing. Always." He insists he never encountered anyone during a robbery; he made sure there was no car in the driveway, no sign of anyone inside. "It was usually 1 or 2 A.M. I'd go in, hit the cabinets, the refrigerator. In and out. My heart rate was soaring. It was not a comfortable act. I took no pleasure in it, none at all, and I wanted it over as quickly as possible." A single mistake, he understood, and the outside world would snatch him back.
The majority of North Pond residents I spoke with found it hard to believe Knight's story.
"Never once did I sleep inside," he said. He never used a shower. Or a toilet.
"I'm a thief. I induced fear. People have a right to be angry. But I have not lied."
He slept in a simple camping tent, which he kept covered by several layers of brown tarps. Camouflage, he felt, was essential; he didn't want to risk anything shiny catching someone's eye, so he spray-painted, in foresty colors, his garbage bins and his coolers and his cooking pot. He even painted his clothespins green.
"Don't mistake me for some bird-watching PBS type," he warned, but then proceeded to poetically describe the crunch of dry leaves underfoot ("walking on corn flakes") and the rumble of an ice crack propagating across the pond ("like a bowling ball rolling down an alley").
When the worst of a Maine winter struck, all rules were suspended. "Once you get below negative twenty, you purposely don't think," he told me. His eyes went wide and fearful from the memory. "That's when you do have religion. You do pray. You pray for warmth."
Chris lived by the rhythms of the seasons, but his thoughts were dominated by surviving winter. Preparations began at the end of each summer as the lakeside cabins were shutting down for the year. "It was my busiest time," he said. "Harvest time. A very ancient instinct. Though not usually associated with crime."
His first goal was to get fat. This was a life-or-death necessity. "I gorged myself on sugar and alcohol," he said. "It's the quickest way to gain weight, and I liked the inebriation." The bottles he stole were signs of a man who'd never once, as he admitted, ordered a drink at a bar: Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy, Seagram's Escapes Strawberry Daiquiri, something called Whipped Chocolate Valley Vines (from the label: "fine chocolate, whipped cream & red wine").
As the evenings began to chill, he grew his beard to the ideal length—about an inch, long enough to insulate his face, short enough to prevent ice buildup. He intensified his thieving raids, stocking up on food and propane. The first snow usually came in November.
Chris was always fearful about leaving a single boot print anywhere, which is impossible to avoid in a blanket of snow. And so for the next six months, until the spring thaw in April, Chris rarely strayed from his clearing in the woods.
I asked him if he just slept all the time, a human hibernation. "Completely wrong," he replied. "It's dangerous to sleep too long in winter." When seriously frigid weather descended, he conditioned himself to fall asleep at 7:30 P.M. and get up at 2 A.M. "That way, at the depth of cold, I was awake." If he remained in bed any longer, condensation from his body could freeze his sleeping bag. "If you try and sleep through that kind of cold, you might never wake up."
When he heard the song of the chickadees, he told me, he could finally relax. "That alerted me that winter is starting to lessen its grip. That the end is near. That spring is coming and I'm still alive."
The cold never got easier. All his winter-camping expertise felt offset by advancing age. "You should have seen me in my twenties," he boasted. "I was lord of the woods. I ruled the land I walked upon. I was tough and clever." But over time, like an aging athlete, his body began to break down. The biggest issue was his eyesight. "For the last ten years, anything beyond an arm's length was a blur. I used my ears more than my eyes." If he saw a pair of glasses during a break-in, he always tried them on, but was unable to find a better prescription. His agility faded; bruises took longer to heal. His teeth constantly hurt.
On October 28, 2013, Chris appeared in Kennebec County Superior Court and pleaded guilty to thirteen counts of burglary and theft. He was sentenced to seven months in jail—he'd already served all but a week of this, waiting for his case to be resolved. The sentence was far more lenient than it could have been, though even the prosecutor said a long prison term seemed cruel in this case. Chris was ordered to meet with a judge every Monday, and avoid alcohol, and either find a job or go to school. If he violated these terms, he could be sent to prison for seven years.
Before his release, I met with Chris again. He said he'd be returning home, to live with his mother. His beard was unruly—"my crazy hermit beard," he called it. He was alarmingly skinny; he itched all over. We still didn't make much eye contact.
"I don't know your world," he said. "Only my world, and memories of the world before I went into the woods. What life is today? What is proper? I have to figure out how to live." He wished he could return to his camp—"I miss the woods"—but he knew by the rules of his release that this was impossible. "Sitting here in jail, I don't like what I see in the society I'm about to enter. I don't think I'm going to fit in. It's too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia."
When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: "dilettante."
True hermits, according to Chris, do not write books, do not have friends, and do not answer questions. I asked why he didn't at least keep a journal in the woods. Chris scoffed. "I expected to die out there. Who would read my journal? You? I'd rather take it to my grave." The only reason he was talking to me now, he said, is because he was locked in jail and needed practice interacting with others.
[My pal's comment:
I found his observation of solitude very interesting, very similar to the Buddhist concept of emptiness of "selfness"]:
"I did examine myself," he said. "Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free."
"What I miss most," he eventually continued, "is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness." He said he'd watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp. I'd noticed the mushroom when I visited—it was enormous—and he asked me with evident concern if anyone had knocked it down. I assured him it was still there. In the height of summer, he said, he'd sometimes sneak down to the lake at night. "I'd stretch out in the water, float on my back, and look at the stars."
At the very end of each of our visits, I'd always asked him the same question. An essential question: Why did he disappear?
He never had a satisfying answer. "I don't have a reason." "I can't explain why." "Give me more time to think about it." "It's a mystery to me, too." Then he became annoyed: "Why? That question bores me."
But during our final visit, he was more reflective. Isn't everybody, he said, seeking the same thing in life? Aren't we all looking for contentment? He was never happy in his youth—not in high school, not with a job, not being around other people. Then he discovered his camp in the woods. "I found a place where I was content," he said. His own perfect spot. The only place in the world he felt at peace.
That was all he had to tell me. He'd grown weary of my visits. Please, he begged, leave me alone; we are not friends. I don't want to be your friend, he said, I don't want to be anyone's friend. "I'm not going to miss you at all," he added.
I liked Chris, a great deal. I liked the way his mind worked; I liked the lyricism of his language. But he was a true hermit. He could no longer disappear into the wild, so he wished to melt away into the world.