Editor’s Note: This is a rebroadcast. The episode originally aired in November 2017.
Have you ever just wanted to get in your car, drive off into the middle of nowhere, leave behind the hustle and bustle of civilization, and just be by yourself?
Well, in 1986 a man named Christopher Knight did just that and lived alone in the Maine woods without any, any human contact for 27 years until he was discovered in 2013.
My guest today wrote a biography — The Stranger in the Woods — about this man who locals called “the Hermit of the North Pond.” His name is Michael Finkel and today on the show we discuss how Chris survived alone in the Maine woods by himself, but more importantly, why Chris wanted to be by himself for so long. By looking at the life of one of the modern world’s last true hermits, Michael and I explore the idea of hermitage, solitude, and why being an individual requires you to be alone.
- How Mike got drawn in to Christopher Knight’s story
- The folklore and legend of Knight in the Maine woods
- Knight’s backstory: his childhood, when he took to the woods, etc.
- Why did Knight “quit the world”?
- The history of hermits throughout the world
- Is Knight crazy? Is he on the autism spectrum?
- How Knight physically survived for 27 years in the woods
- What Knight’s camp was like
- The state of hermits today in the modern world
- The debate over whether Knight was a “true” hermit
- Why Christopher thought Thoreau was a phony
- The myth of utter self-reliance
- How folks responded to the “North Pond Hermit” breaking into their homes
- Why Chris reveled in absolute solitude, while solitary confinement is used as our prison system’s harshest punishment
- The benefits of voluntary solitude
- How Christopher Knight was eventually caught
- How is Chris Knight holding up now? Is he in jail?
- How Mike responded to Christopher’s story, and his suggestion for us today in regards to solitude
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Christopher Knight in photos
- The Spiritual Discipline of Solitude
- Leadership & Solitude
- AoM’s Outdoors & Survival archives
- A Man’s Guide to Self-Reliance
- Japan’s Hikikomori
- How to Avoid Living a Life of Quiet Desperation
- Walden by Thoreau
- “People would rather be shocked than left alone with their thoughts”
- Podcast: Why Boredom is Good for You
The Stranger in the Woods was a fun, insightful read. You’ll want to go off and find some place in the wilds to be by yourself after you finish reading this book.
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you ever wanted to get into your car, drive off to the middle of nowhere, leave behind the hustle and bustle of civilization, and just be by yourself? Well, in 1986, a man named Christopher Knight did just that, and lived in the Maine woods without any human contact, any human contact for 27 years, and was discovered in 2013.
My guest today wrote a biography, The Stranger in the Woods, about this man who locals called the Hermit of the North Pond. The author’s name is Michael Finkel. Today on the show we discussed how Chris survived in the Maine woods alone by himself. But more importantly, we discuss why Chris wanted to be by himself for so long, and by looking at the life of one of the modern world’s last true hermits, Michael and I explore the idea of hermitage, solitude, and why being an individual requires you to be alone.
Mike Finkel, welcome to the show.
Mike Finkel: Thanks. Happy to be here.
Brett McKay: So you wrote an interesting book. It’s sort of hybrid of looking at the life of a hermit named Chris Knight, and we’re going to talk about him, but also exploring the ideas of solitude, and being alone, and is that important to being a human, being an individual? Let’s talk about what drew you to the story of Chris Knight. This is a guy who lived in the Maine woods, in the middle of the Maine woods by himself for 27 years. How did you get connected with this story and why did you decide to write this book?
Mike Finkel: Yeah. I’ve been a journalist for 27 years. This is only my second book. I got three little kids. I have a short attention span. If a story doesn’t deserve to be a book length telling, then I’m going to avoid it. It’s just my tendency. I’m an impatient person, and, boy, this story of Christopher Knight, the Maine hermit, really just grabbed me by every sense possible. As you mentioned before, here’s a guy who lived completely alone in the woods of Maine, which is really, really cold, by the way, for 27 years, and claimed he not only didn’t speak with anyone, didn’t see the internet, didn’t make a phone call, never spoke a word aloud, except for one syllable once. He said, “Hi,” to a passing hiker. Never even lit a fire, which boggles the imagination, for fear that smoke might give his position away.
Also, over the 27 years, he also became this very odd legend. For food, and clothing, and a few survival things, and books, he broke into these small cabins. I’m sure we’ll talk about this further. He broke into these sort of summer cabins, simple summer cabins in the woods on the lake county of central Maine, and so there was this legend built up about him, and people had wildly different opinions of him. Some people thought that this guy breaking into houses was the worst thing that ever happened to them. If you break into someone’s house, you can get 10 years in prison, even if you don’t take anything. Other people thought this mysterious person might have some heroic qualities, and I love the fact that there was a myth. There was a person, and then, of course, the great questions, how did he survive? Why? And then what happens after a person who has been away for so long is thrown back into our very loud, very 24/7 365 society, what happens then?
How could you not be interested? It’s catnip for a journalist is what I’m trying to say.
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. For sure. So let’s talk about Chris Knight’s back story. What year did he go off into the woods by himself? How old was he when he decided to do this?
Mike Finkel: Christopher Knight grew up in central Maine in an unusual family. He had four older brothers, one younger sister. They were a very private family. All the children, the Knight children got extremely good grades in school, but more than that, the family did not have a lot of money, but they learned how to hunt and fish. They learned how to fix everything from electrical, to automotive, to plumbing. Their house, according to people that had been inside, it was like a library. They all read everything from Shakespeare to poetry. In the evening, they studied theoretical physics and hydrodynamics. These guys built this crazy greenhouse, where they could grow food all winter and not pay a dime to the electric company.
Chris Knight, people that I spoke to that went to high school with him, considered him shy. Some people said nerdy, but no one expected him to do something as radical as he did.
Anyway, Christopher Knight quit the world at age 20, which is extraordinarily young for a hermit. Just imagine never getting another piece of advice from your elder after the age of 20. I mean I’m 48 years old, and I still call my father for advice frequently. He drove his car, a Subaru Brat, into the woods of Maine and abandoned it there. Threw the keys in the center console, and at the age of 20, with very little supplies, just the most scant amount of camping gear, no maps, no compass, walked into the woods of central Maine, and wasn’t seen again for 27 years.
It’s an incredible story, and I do want to emphasize that everything I’m saying tonight is not only true, but it has been thoroughly vetted by fact checkers, and lawyers, and police investigators, and everything. This is a true story. No fake news going on here at The Art of Manliness.
Brett McKay: What year was this? That’s another important factor, because he probably missed a lot in 27 years.
Mike Finkel: Yeah. So Chris Knight departed the world, I believe it was 1986, and wasn’t pulled out of the woods until 2013. So just imagine that. 1986, there had been … Reagan was president. There were no cell phones. Nobody had heard of the internet yet. It’s not just even the years. It’s like the years have passed by his life. Between the ages of 20 and 47, most people, more of less, live their entire life. Before that, you’re sort of a young kid, and after that, you’re sort of middle-aged men. This is when most people go to school, pick their job, get married, have a family, make all these massive life changes, buy a house, figure things out. But this guy lived by himself for basically the heart of his life.
Brett McKay: So the next question is why? What caused to do it? Was it a Unabomber thing, where he’s fed up with society, wanted to get away from it? Did he have some sort of spiritual motive? What caused him to drive his car into the middle of the woods and just give it up, and then walk out into it?
Mike Finkel: I think that’s the operative question, why, and, of course, that was the first question on my mind. It was like how did he survive, which we can get into. But why? Why would you quit the world for 27 years, and I’ll try to be as brief as possible, and the answer is actually sort of simple. But the reason why it’s very difficult to imagine is that most people, me, you I’m sure, the vast majority of people listening to this, don’t really spend much time alone, and really as humans, we don’t like to spend that much time alone. It’s clear. Watch anybody when they have 12 idle seconds, what’s the first thing most people do these days? They fish their cell phone out of their pocket and start to connect in some way or another.
But Chris Knight, despite the fact that 99.9% of us don’t like to be alone, there has been throughout human history, since the beginning of recorded time, which goes back about 5,000 years, in every culture, at all times, there’s been a thin but distinct stream of people that really wanted to be alone, and there is even a genetic component to this, and Chris Knight expressed many of the same things that hermits throughout history have said, which is that he always felt a little uncomfortable around other people, more than a little uncomfortable, and he really liked his own company, and it was like he described it as this gravitational pull.
When I was talking to Chris Knight, I was guessing did you commit a crime? Were you embarrassed about something? This was the 80s in central Maine, were you confused about your sexuality, something, and he said, “No, no. It was nothing specific like that,” and really anything like that is not going to keep you away for 27 years.
So Chris Knight had this radical idea of how he wanted to live his life, and he decided to attempt it. He decided to fulfill his most radical idea, pretty much more fully than … I’ll just speak for myself, more fully than I will ever dare, and probably most people listening will ever dare, and why did he leave the world? He left the world because he just didn’t feel comfortable being around other people. He felt this tug to be alone.
The better question, Brett, the better question is why did he stay, and the answer to that question I find really fascinating. He stayed alone because he really liked it. He expressed a great deal of contentment. Now, he definitely suffered during winters, and definitely suffered from hunger sometimes, but overall, he said he loved being alone. He expressed more contentment about his life than most people I meet out here in the world.
So he left because he felt this strong tug, but he stayed because he was happy. I mean what are we all searching for in life? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. He found it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ll get into how he was able to do this. I thought it was interesting, when he finally got caught, there was all these therapists and analysts trying to figure out what was that component. He felt uncomfortable around people. Was he autistic, or did he have some sort of other thing? But the consensus was there was no consensus that something was “wrong” with Chris Knight. He just had a tendency, he wanted to be by himself and he enjoyed it.
Mike Finkel: I mean, of course, you can’t blame anyone for thinking, “Oh, what’s wrong with this guy,” because that’s exactly what I thought. Chris Knight was examined by a state psychologist, who offered a couple of things, the obvious Asperger’s or something on the autism spectrum. But I spoke with many people who said they couldn’t make a specific diagnosis without actually talking to Chris Knight himself, but really reviewed the case, and as you just said, there really is nothing, no diagnosable syndrome you can pin on Chris Knight. Many autism experts said to me, “We just could not consider him to be on the autism spectrum. He had to plan ahead. In the annals of autism, there’s no examples of a person who survived by themselves for this long, who can plan ahead.” He just didn’t fit any diagnosis at all.
In fact, it would be like saying every hermit has a problem. In fact, and I don’t want to get too deep into this, but the truth is probably there’s two or three days a week where I’m driving my three kids around, and they’re fighting in the backseat, and I’m stuck in traffic, and there’s terrible news coming out of the radio, and six text messages, and my phone is binging constantly, and I’m late for not only my projects, but the meeting I’m supposed to be at, and I’m stressed out and I’m thinking, “It’s not really Chris Knight. It’s crazy. It’s the rest of us,” and I really mean that.
Brett McKay: Yeah. He was kind of self-aware of that. When you talked to him, he’d say, “I know people think I’m crazy. I understand that. But maybe you guys are the crazy ones.” He was very philosophical about his solitude, even though he wouldn’t say he’s being philosophical.
Mike Finkel: Right. Just briefly to keep the story a little coherent, Chris Knight planned to spend his entire life in the woods. He never wanted to come out, ever. Not 27 years, not ever. He planned to die completely anonymously. But as I mentioned, he did steal food and other survival supplies, and books, and was eventually caught. We can get into that, and so was forcibly removed from his solitude, and that’s the only reason I was able to talk to him. He was actually in jail, and so most of the time we met was in the jail visiting room.
If there is one thing I can say about Chris Knight, and there’s lots of things I can say about him, but he is extraordinarily intelligent. I have rarely encountered someone who could not just quote from a thousand books. He seemed to have a photographic memory, though he denied it. “I don’t have a photographic memory. I just remember everything it seems to me.”
He said he didn’t leave the world to make any statement. He wasn’t trying to make any of us feel bad about our decisions. He just did what he wanted to do. He did feel terrible about having to steal. That’s a whole other issue, whether Chris Knight should be forgiven or not for his crimes, and nobody is wrong on that one. He felt that he found the place where he was most content in the world, and if for other people it was in the middle of an office building, or sitting in front of a computer most of the day, or raising a family, then he never wanted anyone to feel bad about their own choices, but had this very sort of, I don’t know, sophisticated intelligence, this sort of inscrutable air about him where he felt that his choices were completely logical for him.
Brett McKay: It wasn’t like scary, because a lot of times, hermits or people who go out, they kind of scare you, because they go out for scary reasons. Like you said, he didn’t judge others. He was like, “I just want to do my thing and be left alone.”
Mike Finkel: Yeah. Unfortunately, and Chris Knight was aware of this, he did frighten other people. He broke into about … There are a couple of maybe 300 houses, second homes in the lake region, where Chris Knight, he camped in the same site, Chris Knight, for more than 25 of his 27 years. He basically spent a little more than a year wandering around the woods of central Maine, really not knowing exactly where he was, though sensing it, and then found this amazing spot in the woods, not too far from civilization, but certainly far enough so that he could be completely alone, and broke into … Approximately he had about 100 cabins in his repertoire, and really some people were extraordinarily disturbed by his actions, and he knew this, and didn’t feel great about it, but made the decision that he would rather be alone and steal than in the world and law abiding, and so it’s a very complicated and … He never quite, Chris Knight himself ever quite resolved the conundrum about being a thief.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how he survived for 27 years. So you’ve talked about he’s been stealing food. What was his camp like, because, as you said, Maine winters are crazy cold. During the springtime, they have this terrible black fly season, where they just swarm you and bite you. It’s terrible. He never lit a fire. How was he able to build himself a place to live comfortably? Yeah. Relatively comfortable for 25 years.
Mike Finkel: I mean Chris Knight’s story is literally unbelievable. Everybody I asked, I’d say about 80% of the residents of central Maine, the victims of his crime, and normally, the closer I get to a story, the more people explain it, the more believable it is. But this was almost the opposite. The closer I came to the area Chris lived, the less people could believe it, and a few other things people said to me were like, “How is it possible to go 27 years without lighting a fire? How is it possible to go 27 years without seeing a doctor? How is it possible to have a campsite not that far away that no one’s ever in? How did Chris Knight survive the great ice storm of 1998,” and on, and on, and on.
I was able to ask Chris Knight all of these questions, and I was searching for … When someone tells you a story, and you find one tiny thing that contradicts what they’re saying, well then the whole story falls apart, like a house of cards. Like if I’d gone to his site and found one charred piece of wood that indicated there was a fire, the whole thing would fall apart, and I’m going to tell you, I spent three years working on this book, I never found a single thing that contradicted anything Chris Knight said, and even the police officers that arrested him exclaimed how they had rarely met someone who seemed so honest as Chris Knight.
Just quickly, how do you go 27 years without getting sick or needing to see a doctor? Well, the way we get sick is by being around each other. We exchange bacteria. We exchange germs. We exchange viruses. If you’re not around other people, you don’t get sick. I mean you can still get something like diabetes or cancer, but when I talked to doctors, they said it made perfect sense that Chris Knight never get sick. In terms of the great ice storm of 1998, as Chris Knight himself said, it was 28 degrees during that great ice storm. It really wasn’t that cold. It was terrible for the electrical wires, and you couldn’t drive a car 10 feet without skidding off the road, but it was perfectly fine for him. Not only that, he actually liked it. It put a layer of ice over the snow, and he could walk around without leaving footprints. He wished there was a great ice storm every week.
Now, he told me to find his site, and a lot of the answers would be clear. I spent most of my life in Montana. I’ve spent a lot of time camping and hiking in the woods. I consider myself a decent woodsman, but wow, I have never seen woods as thick, as dense, as difficult to navigate as Chris Knight’s forest. Not only were there tons of trees tangled all over each other in a very thick undergrowth, the last ice age smothered Maine in glaciers were treated, they left behind these enormous automobile sized boulders, which are just everywhere in Chris Knight’s woods. The woods are so thick, not even that many deer walk through. It’s just impossible to navigate. Chris Knight learned to walk in these woods almost silently. He memorized all these patterns, where he could step on a root and on a rock. He could not snap a branch. He could not even leave a footprint.
And it took me a long time to find this site, even though I knew approximately where it was, and that it was very close … If you knew exactly where you were going, three minutes to the nearest mud driveway, and it was one of the most … I’m still imagining right now as I’m talking to you the first time I found the site. It was like the entrance was between these two boulder, that when you looked at it, in most directions, it looked like it was one big rock. I called it the elephant rock. But from a certain angle, you could see that there was a big crack in the rock, where I guess it had split during the glacial period, and you could twist your body and sneak between these two rocks, and I did that.
There was this site, and it was one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen, and I told you I spent a lot of times in the woods. Chris Knight had cleaned out a cube of forest. Imagine a forest as dense as a Brillo pad all around you, and suddenly, you walk into this clearing, but it even a roof overhead, because the tree branches linked. Chris Knight was aware of this, and a couple of police officers said they did a couple of flyovers looking for this guy’s camp and never found it, and it was understandable why, because there was a roof overhead.
It was completely cleared out. His floor was perfectly flat, and what Chris Knight had done for years and years and years, he stole and read a lot of magazines and books, and very often when he was finished with them, he would make what he called bricks. He would tie stacks of them together, tape them with electrical tape, which he stole, the electrical tape, and bury them in his site, and make a perfectly flat floor that, also, was excellent for draining rainwater, and so he had this perfectly flat floor, this beautifully cleared out space, impossible to find spot in a dense woods.
I spent five nights there across all seasons, and even to this moment right now talking to you, when I feel stressed out, when I feel like the world is getting a little too loud and crazy, I think about that spot. I never went there with anybody else. I spent that time alone, and it was amazing. You could hear the forest. You could see not too far into the forest, because it was so dense, but you really felt like you were in this … I don’t know. Have you ever been to one of those aquariums where there’s a tube where you can walk through and you’re underwater? I felt like I was in a room in the forest, but yet able to breathe and have my own little space. I don’t think I could really overstate how fantastically lovely this spot was, and I understood why he wanted to stay there. I don’t know if I want to stay there 25 years, but, boy, I could use a couple of long weekends there now and again.
Brett McKay: As I said earlier, this book, you use it to explore the idea of solitude and hermitage. As you mentioned earlier, since the beginning of recorded history, there have been hermits. Can you give us the rough thumbnail sketch of the history of hermitage in humanity?
Mike Finkel: Yeah. Some of the very first writings we have, that exist, some writings etched on animal bones from ancient China and some writings scratched onto clay tablets from Mesopotamia mention wild men or shamans, people living alone in the wilderness, and so, as I said, certainly before recorded history and for all of recorded history, there have been people that wanted to be by themselves.
The majority of these people did it for religious reasons, to seek a closer relationship with God. There’s the famous desert fathers of early Christianity. Many Buddhists, of course, go on long retreats. Now, Chris Knight did not follow a formal religion and did not escape for any religious reasons, but religion is the main reason.
A secondary reason is what I call protestor hermits. A lot of people left the world because of war, because of pollution, even right now in Japan there are approximately a million young kids, most of them called hikikomori, which means pulling away, people that live in their rooms, often for more than a decade. There’s more than a million of them. It’s sort of an epidemic in Japan. There’s even therapists that offer counseling through the internet. But people just quit the pressure cooker society that’s especially prevalent in Japan. These are people that are protesting.
Then the last type of hermit is someone like a Henry David Thoreau, someone who leaves for maybe artistic or self-fulfillment reasons.
There’s been, also, some sort of tangential hermits. In the early 1880s, there was a fad in England among the aristocracy. If you had a large estate, it was a fad to hire a hermit. They were called ornamental hermits, and people put advertisements in newspapers offering to pay, it was like $7 a month, for a person who was willing to grow a long beard and live in a cave on an estate in the British countryside, and these aristocrats felt that hermits had the air of wisdom and maybe, I don’t know, mystery or something, and it became this very amusing fad that lasted thirty or so years.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Are there hermits still today that … I mean I’m sure there are hermits today. You just mentioned people in Japan. But I think you mentioned there’s internet forums dedicated to being a hermit, which seems counterintuitive, paradoxical.
Mike Finkel: Yeah. Actually I have hermit-ish tendencies. I am certainly by no means a hermit, but my job, writing, involves spending a lot of time by myself, and sometimes I even find it enjoyable, and I’m a long-distance runner and things like that. While I am by no means a hermit, I get the need to be apart from people. I do need my alone time.
There are hermits today. I want to say one more thing, which I sometimes am almost I don’t know if shy is the right word. Sometimes there’s things that are so extraordinary that you just don’t bother to say it, because people don’t believe, but I’m just going to say one more thing. I lost my mind researching hermits. Now, I will not brag about too many things in this world, but I will tell you, you might never speak to anyone who knows more about hermits than I do. I read more than 100 books about hermits. I read thousands of articles about hermits. I read everything there was to know.
I just wanted to compare Chris Knight’s experiences with other hermits, and I’m going to tell you I never found a single example of another person who went 27 years without at least somebody checking up on them, bringing them food, just asking if they were okay. Never did I find a single example. I will say with pretty fair authority, that Chris Knight, right here with seven billion or so people on planet Earth in the age of Facebook and Twitter, I think Chris Knight might be the most solitary known human who ever lived.
Brett McKay: That’s great. What’s interesting, you talk about how even the hermits, they debated whether Chris Knight was a true hermit. What was going on there? Yeah. He didn’t see anybody, except for a lone hiker.
Mike Finkel: There’s this little hermit community, which sounds like an oxymoron, but, yes, there’s a wonderful website called Hermitary.com. Check it out. I read every single article on it. If you’re at all interested in hermits, this is a great storehouse, and they actually have a … I guess you could call it a chatroom. Now, you have to prove that you’re a hermit, and I did not quality to join the chatroom, but I was privy to some of the things that people write. It’s not like they’re chatting with each other. You just post a message and logoff. Usually there was only one or two people on the site at a time, and even Chris Knight said to me that the internet sounded interesting to him, because you could send a message to someone without actually talking to them via telephone or meeting them in person. So in a very strange way, if you are a very shy person or have hermit tendencies, email is a great way to communicate with someone, because there is no face-to-face. There is no back and forth. There’s no conversation at all. It sort of makes sense if you think about it.
But this community really debated whether you could consider Chris Knight to be a hermit, because he stole, and that goes against the ideal of hermits. Now, there are no official rule books for hermits, by the way. It’s not baseball here. It’s not like you could do the replay and decide whether he’s a hermit or not a hermit. But they thought that anyone who invaded other people’s privacy or their lives didn’t deserve the lofty label of hermit, and Chris Knight himself said he didn’t care whether he was a hermit or not. He didn’t put a label at all on what he did, and putting a label on anything is a really worthless exercise. I mean I sometimes love talking with Chris Knight, because he always made me feel that even writing an entire book about him was just an egotistical trip on my part, and sometimes he’s like, “Oh, you’re going to take your thoughts and package them, and it will come and you’ll ask people to spend money to read it. Well, very, very good for you.”
Brett McKay: You mentioned Thoreau. He’s held as America’s prototypical hermit. When you brought up Thoreau with Chris, he said, “No, he’s a dilatant. He’s a phony.” Why did Knight have so much disdain for Thoreau?
Mike Finkel: Oh, man. I think that Walden is one of the most … I reread Walden doing this research for this book, and maybe I was too young when I read it the first time, because I was like, “All right. I’ll give Walden a shot. It’s a very difficult thing.” But, boy, I really found it to be beautifully written, and I’m a fan of Thoreau now. So I was like, of course, Walden’s Pond was in Massachusetts. New England, crotchety people, guys going off by themselves, and, of course, I’m going to compare you to Thoreau. I meant it as a compliment.
Chris Knight had such a humorously negative reaction to Thoreau. Now, let me just tell you a couple of things about Henry David Thoreau. First of all, Thoreau spent only two years in his cabin in Walden Pond. He walked into the town of Concord frequently. His mother did his laundry. He once had a dinner party that had 20 guests, and the worst thing Thoreau did, of course, was write Walden, and the reason why Chris Knight felt that Thoreau did not deserve to be a hermit is because when you write a book, you’re basically telling everyone in the world, “Look at me. Here I am. This is what I think.” Chris Knight didn’t care about anybody else. His back was totally turned to the world. He didn’t even write one sentence down his entire time in the woods, didn’t take one photo, didn’t draw any pictures. These were all for other people to see. Chris Knight just really wasn’t interested in anybody else, and he thought that anybody who went off by themselves to write a poem, or paint a picture, or do an opera, was really just spending time alone so that they could show off for the rest of the world, and Chris had no interest in that.
Brett McKay: As I was reading your book, reading about the history of hermits and being alone, and even Chris Knight, I thought it was interesting that being a hermit, both conceptually and practically requires other people. Right? They just said that these hermits in the past, they had people bring them food, make pilgrimages to check on them. Even Chris, even though he didn’t see people, he still depended on people and their cabins to provide food for him. It’s pretty much like this idea of the self-contained, self-reliant person is kind of a myth. We need other people.
Mike Finkel: I think you’re absolutely right. I mean there’s no shortage of contradictions in this tale, and even Chris Knight would nod and say that Chris Knight, of course, he relied on other people. He stole everything he needed to survive. In fact, when he was arrested after 27 years, the only thing in the world he had, that he could say were his that he didn’t steal were his eyeglasses.
In fact, the arresting officers were, also, disbelieving of his story. They found a high school photo of Chris Knight. He actually went to school in central Maine, not too far away from where he was arrested, and the high school yearbook was brought to them, and low and behold, there was Chris Knight in a high school yearbook at the age of 18 wearing the same set of glasses that he was arrested in at age 47, and when they saw that they were the same pair of glasses, both arresting officers said to me that there was something in their head that clicked that this guy was telling the truth. It would have been really, really complicated for a shy person not seeking publicity to make this all up. It just didn’t make sense that he would make this up, and the pair of glasses really was the moment when people realized that Chris Knight was telling the truth.
Brett McKay: Did Chris ever describe to you what it felt like being alone all those years?
Mike Finkel: He did, yeah, why, how and then what did it feel like, and I have to tell you, again, this is one of those topics that just defies imagination. Chris Knight, he read a lot. He even played a couple of old handheld video games that he stole. He had a handheld video game policy. He only stole them that were at least two generations old. He didn’t want to deprive any children of their Christmas presents, he said, and besides, in a couple of years, he’d be stealing them anyway.
But he listened to the radio a little bit. But for the most part, what Chris Knight did, what do you do for 27 years all by yourself? For the most part, what Chris Knight did was you and I would term nothing. He just sat there. But Chris Knight told me that he was never for an instant bored. In fact, he said that he didn’t really even understand the concept of boredom, and then what’s even more impressive, and I don’t think I could capture the poetry of Chris Knight as well as … He spoke very beautifully and I tried to capture it in the book, but I’ll paraphrase.
He said to me that he didn’t actually even feel alone. In fact, he told me, and this sentiment was repeated in various forms in dozens upon dozens of books written by hermits, religious and nonreligious alike. He said that rather than feeling alone, he felt absolutely and entirely connected to the rest of the universe, the world. There was not even a mirror in his camp, so he didn’t even know what he looked like. He said that after a very short period of time alone, he wasn’t entirely aware of where he ended and the forest began. He said he just felt intimately connected with everything and never lonely. The way he described it was … Frankly, it sort of gave me chills. It’s like I feel that people in this outside world, as opposed to Chris Knight’s world, where we have a billion video games, and a million books, and a lot of things to occupy our mind, people often express that they’re bored or have nothing to do, and Chris Knight without any of these distractions, never felt that for a second.
Brett McKay: So why is it that Chris Knight and these other hermits can feel that, and then we use solitude as punishment in our prisons? There’s research that says people basically go crazy when they’re alone like that. So what’s the difference? What’s going on there?
Mike Finkel: Right. As you mentioned, the harshest punishment in the United States penal system, besides the death penalty, is solitary confinement, and, in fact, Amnesty International has declared that spending more than two weeks in solitary confinement is torture. A huge percentage of prisoners that are in solitary confinement lose their mind and go crazy. Solitude is a very interesting state. Some people seek it and love it. Most people avoid it at all costs, and absolutely hate it. It is one of the reasons why it is fascinating.
When I talk about people finding solace and people finding joy, I’m talking about voluntary solitude. Involuntary solitude is practically torture, and it’s one of the reasons why the subject is extremely fascinating. Most of us just hate it.
There was a study conducted by the University of Virginia a couple of years ago in which they showed that about 60% of women and 35% of women would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly with nothing to do for 15 minutes. We really don’t like to be alone with ourselves. Humans, one of the reasons most anthropologists consider humans to be the dominant species on the planet isn’t because we’re the fastest animal or the strongest animal, or because we have really big brains, but more importantly, we’re able to link them up and work together. We’re programmed to work together. Even in Genesis in the Bible, it said God did not want Adam to be alone. It was one of the first things God did was he can’t be alone.
To be alone voluntarily, for most of us, seems to go against everything we have ever felt or heard. But, like I said, those that love it, speak so highly of it, and talk about such rich experiences. This is voluntary aloneness. There have been 20 studies done around the world that examine the effects of solitude and quiet on humans, and every study has come up with the exact same conclusions, which is that time alone, time in nature, time by yourself makes you calmer. It makes you healthier. All the stress hormones are reduced. It makes you smarter. There are tests of memory and reading retention, and it makes you happier. Time alone, voluntary time alone is great for you. Humans are, what, our species is about two million years old, and for 99% of the time that we’ve been humans, we all lived in small groups of hunter gatherers, and spent a lot of time alone or in tiny groups, in quiet situations, and every single one of our senses is calibrated to that.
Technology changes very quickly. Evolution is very slow. Take a hike in the woods. All of us feel good about it. Why? Because that’s what all of our senses are calibrated to, being quiet in the woods. Not playing Nintendo.
Brett McKay: Right. 27 years Knight was alone, how did he eventually get caught? What changed?
Mike Finkel: So, as I mentioned, there was this legend that built up. There’s several hundred houses around these lakes, and people were missing steaks, their Stephen King novel, their flashlights, their batteries, their sleeping bag. But there were no smashed windows. There was no kicked in doors. Your TV is there. Your computer is there. Your jewelry is there. People were very confused.
But there was definitely something going on. When people examined their cabins very closely, they saw that sometimes the hasp on their window, the lock on their window was open, and there were file marks and even some file shavings, so someone had been inside, and the police had been called, and they couldn’t find it, and nobody knew was it a neighbor? Was it some Vietnam vet that was disgruntled? Was it a gang initiation? Was it two brothers that both owned cabins on a pond, thought the other was the one who was stealing. Nobody knew, and this went on for five, 10, 15, 20, 25 years, and became this legend, and the people around the lake gave the legend a name. They called it the North Pond Hermit, but they really didn’t know if there was a hermit. In fact, most people assumed no way would a guy be out there for that long. It was probably some neighbor, some gang initiation, some pranks, something.
Anyway, finally, after more than a quarter century and intermittent police searches, I mean really it just sort of fell between the cracks. There’s a lot of problems in central Maine, and somebody stealing hamburger meat and batteries just never made it to the number one problem for the police department. But a game warden named Terry Hughes, who lived in the area where this legend took place realized that this was not the Loch Ness Monster or the Himalayan Yeti. There was something happening, and damn it, he was going to solve it.
Terry Hughes is a great guy, but when he puts his mind to something, he puts his mind to it. He contacted Homeland Security, and I won’t get into all the details, but he put electric eyes around in the forest, and he had silent alarms that would ring his cell phone in the middle of the night, and finally, after 27 years, Terry Knight caught to the North Pond Hermit red-handed stealing some hamburger meat and cheese from a local summer camp that was closed for the season, and the 27 year reign of the hermit came to an end.
Brett McKay: What was that like for Knight to have his reign in the woods ended?
Mike Finkel: Well, Knight was an extremely cautious thief, but he knew that every time he left his camp in the woods, and even in his camp in the woods, which, by the way, was on private property, a 200 acre lot, he knew that his time in the woods could come to an end at any moment, and he sort of sensed it. Over the 27 years, he saw technology improve. First there was no security system. Then there was these very large clunky cameras, and then they got so small that they could hide inside smoke detectors, and he knew that technology was getting better. Locks were getting better, and that he hoped to stay out there all his life, but while he was certainly startled and shocked, there was always a piece of his mind … As I mentioned, he was a very bright person. There was no part of him that thought, “This is a sure thing that I can live out here forever.” Let’s just say he was stoic. He was certainly not happy, but realized that this was a possibility.
Terry Hughes, the straight up law and order man, has spent a decade in the Marines before he spent 18 years as a forest game warden, had a very, very interesting reaction, a man who did most of the arrest. There was another officer named Diane Vance, who was also involved. But Terry Hughes did most of the heavy lifting. He had a very interesting reaction to Chris Knight. Terry Hughes is an extraordinarily able woodsman, has found many lost hikers, children that were lost in the woods. Has just a sixth sense to be able to read the woods so well looking for any snapped branches or even a trace of a partial footprint, can notice these things, and never was able to find Chris Knight. The night of his arrest, he asked Chris Knight to show him his camp in the woods, and Chris Knight led him to it, and Terry Hughes followed Chris Knight step for step, and is the only known person ever to have witnessed Chris Knight walk in the woods, and he watched Chris Knight walk absolutely silently through this crazily dense forest, stepping on roots that he had stepped on for 20 years, moving, bending, twisting, striding, didn’t need a flashlight, didn’t break a branch, had memorized the patterns of branches on hundreds of trees. You had to duck and weave, and brought him to his magical site between the elephant rocks, and Terry Hughes said to me, “It was possibly the most extraordinary event he had ever witnessed in his life.” He thought he was a great woodsman, and then he basically met the king woodsman of all the world, and told me that here is a law and order guy that just arrested someone who confessed to breaking into homes a thousand times, a thousand felonies, and he actually felt a little bit bad for arresting the hermit.
Brett McKay: I mean what’s Chris Knight doing now?
Mike Finkel: What do you do with a guy like Chris Knight? I think one of the things that, also, interested me about this story is that Chris Knight is not clearly completely crazy, and if someone is crazy, we have mental hospitals for them, and Chris Knight is clearly not a violent and evil criminal, and if you are that way, then we have jails for you. Well, what do you do with a person who is not a criminal, and not clearly mentally insane, but just doesn’t fit into the world? What do we do with that person, and the answer is we don’t have any spot for that person. We just don’t know what to do with them.
What do you do with Chris Knight. There was a huge debate. Without getting into too many details, he ended up spending seven months in the county jail. Now, even one break-in, as I mentioned, one unauthorized break-in can get you 10 years in the state penitentiary. He confessed to one thousand of them, so it was possible that he could have spent his entire life locked up in a cell, but even the District Attorney realized that someone who had just spent 27 years completely free in the woods, being locked in a cage with another person, whether or not he deserved it, was not a just thing, and he spent seven months, and was given an extremely harsh probation, that if he broke it, he would spend seven years in jail, and Chris Knight observed his probation to the very letter, and never made a tiny misstep.
Where is he now? Well, Chris Knight gave me the most valuable thing he owns in all the world, which was his story, and he asked for nothing in return. He did not want me to pay him. He told his story, because he realized that he would be hounded by journalists probably all his life. I was one of 500 journalists that requested an interview, and as far as I know, he only spoke to me. I’m very, very fortunate, and I will remain grateful to Chris Knight for sharing his story with me for all my life. Thank you, Chris.
He told me his story. He realized that he would be hounded all his life, and if he told me his story that he could use it as a rampart, as a wall, as a defense. If you want to read about Chris Knight, take a look at the book, but please leave him alone. He told me a story, and then he said, “Please, Mike, we’re not friends. There was no phony journalist subject friendship going on here.” He is a real true hermit, Chris Knight. When he was done, he said, “I really don’t want to see you again. I’m done talking to you,” and while I would love to receive a letter or a call from Chris Knight one day, I have left him completely alone. We’re not in contact, so I’m not exactly sure where he is, but to the best of my knowledge, he’s still living in central Maine, has carved out … He’s just truly a survivor. Has carved out a very quiet life for himself, and as far as I know, is not being disturbed by the outside world.
Brett McKay: So writing this story and interacting with Chris all these years, what did you learn about solitude, and did you find yourself looking for more of it in your life after interacting with Chris?
Mike Finkel: Yeah. I sort of touched on this during our conversation about how our senses are calibrated to the woods, and how it seems like we avoid being by ourselves at all costs, literally to the point that if we have an extra 90 seconds, we will fish out our phone and send a text message or view our Twitter feed. We feel this crazy need to be in constant connection.
I have a weird idea, and it’s possibly the simplest suggestion that anyone could ever make. I bet you I’m not alone here in thinking that the tone, the tempo, the discourse, the public, what’s going on in society right now seems a little bit crazy. I think we are tearing ourselves apart. I think that it doesn’t matter where you are in the political spectrum, I think that we are really, really feeling … Anger comes before any sort of understanding or compromise. I think we’re all going crazy, to be honest with you.
I have an idea. This is something that I have been doing. It would be wonderful if every single person who is listening to this spends … I’m not saying 27 years alone. I’m saying 10 minutes. The next time you have nothing to do, do nothing. Don’t pull out your phone. Don’t call anyone. Don’t check your email. Don’t do anything. Just be there quietly. I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a city street, or in your bedroom, or in a city park, don’t do anything for just a couple of minutes. Try it. How can that be a hard thing to do? I’m just asking people to do nothing. I’m not asking you to go and take some crazy meditation class, or lift weights every morning for two hours, or take yoga. Just do nothing. I think if everybody in the entire world did nothing for 10 or 15 minutes a day, the temperature of the society, this craziness that’s going on would be decreased by an essential margin. We might all actually get alone a little better. It’s just my idea.
Brett McKay: I like that, do nothing. Well, Michael, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go learn more about the book? After you guys read this book, you’re going to want to go out in the Maine woods by yourself, literally.
Mike Finkel: Yeah. Take a long weekend, and maybe take this book alone. It’s called The Stranger in the Woods.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Take a long weekend.
Mike Finkel: I have a website. I go by Michael Finkel, a very funny rhyming name, so www.MichaelFinkel.com. If you’re inspired to, there’s a contact tab. Send me a note. It takes me sometimes a little while to get back in touch, but I answer everybody, even if you want to say something negative, positive, questions. Feel free to get me on my website, MichaelFinkel.com.
Brett McKay: Michael Finkel, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Mike Finkel: Thank you for having me on. It really is a fun and rich topic to discuss. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today is Michael Finkel. He’s the author of the book, The Stranger in the Woods, The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Find that book on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can, also, find out more information about Michael’s work at MichaelFinkel.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/Hermit. You can find links to resources, and we can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoyed the podcast and got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you would take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps out a lot, and if you’ve already done that, please share the show with your friends and family. The more you talk about the show, the more the merrier around here.
As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.