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

This book (225 pages) was published in March of 2017 by Knopf. The book takes you to the forest in Maine. David read The Stranger in the Woods and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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The Stranger in the Woods

The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

Michael Finkel

This is the true story of a guy who walked into the woods of Maine, alone, unprepared in 1986 — and did not come out again until April 2013.

In 27 years of living outdoors in pristine solitude, Christopher Knight spoke to one person, once, during that time. When a hiker walked by, Knight said simply, ‘Hi.’

Knight survived by understanding the woods and by being an excellent thief — both in the sense that he was good at getting his hands on what he needed, and in the sense that he was, as much as it’s possible to be one, a conscientious thief. To keep himself afloat, he’d break into locals’ cabins when they were away and steal low-cost items with high value to him: a sleeping bag, a year’s worth of National Geographic, all the batteries in the house, paperbacks. At one point, he stole someone’s backpack from their home but left behind the passports that were inside.

This continued for so long that some community members got to know his tastes. He would take Budweiser, never Bud Lite. Peanut butter over tuna fish. Yes, to candy — and he’s a reader. So after a while, the locals started leaving bags of books for him.

Knight was really good at evading detection. People took a long time to accept that someone was out there. But when the community came to accept someone might be living in the woods, four law enforcement agencies began the hunt. There were foot searches and flyovers. At one point, they got a picture of him stealing from someone’s refrigerator. But after 27 years, they didn’t even have a name to attach to the face.

He was only caught when a local game warden, Terry Hughes, borrowed high-tech surveillance equipment from a friend at a government agency, set it up a campground, and waited.

This remarkable book begins with Knight’s arrest. Like everything else he does, it’s quiet: Hughes catches him in the act, and Knight goes without incident. When Hughes starts asking questions, he’s unsure whether to believe Knight because his story is so extraordinary. Knight says he doesn’t have an ID or an address or a vehicle, and he lives in the woods. And it’s Maine. Winter in Maine is serious business — howling winds, well below zero, wet, and cold. When Hughes asks how long he’s been in the woods, Knight pauses and asks, ‘What year was the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster?’

The narrative takes a run at why Knight would do what he did. You might expect some kind of trauma, and there’s room for that, but it sounds more like he was disenfranchised. Knight just decided to leave one day. He parked his car and walked into the woods. Less Rambo and more Holden Caulfield.

The book also investigates the reactions of the people around him, including a woman traumatized by his actions (he stole her peace), the sympathetic woman who owned the land on which he’d trespassed for 27 years, and the man determined to take up a collection to buy Knight his own piece of land.

This is a gripping yarn that doesn’t supply easy answers but does paint a vivid portrait of Maine in all its brutal beauty.

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. — Michael Finkel

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