Is it me, or does there seem to be a global malaise running through our days? I want to be engaged, but the weight of the world gets me down, to quote Kansas, leaving me wondering if perhaps I, too, was born in the wrong century. The Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel, is a fascinating look at what happens when someone just decides to check out.
So it’s not hard to imagine what Mainer Christopher Knight felt like when only a year out of high school he quit his job working for a security company installing alarm systems and, following a road trip to Florida and back, kept on driving, past his family home and as deep into the Maine woods as he could get by car, the adventure culminating when he parked his Subaru, recently purchased with a loan co-signed by his brother, left the keys on the console, and equipped with only a tent, a backpack, a few clothes, and some foodstuffs — not the best laid plan, really — and hiking farther in, lived in the woods for the next 27 years.
During that time, Knight says he only spoke one word to another human, a hiker whom he passed on a trail. The word?
After 27 years of living off the unwitting and in some cases unwilling kindness of strangers, Knight was caught by local law enforcement for burglarizing a local camp for disabled kids where he stole food and other provisions, ironic when you figure his one and only job was installing alarm systems. The police had been trying to catch Knight for decades. The locals called him The Hermit. Some lived in awe and others in terror of this man who burgled their vacation cabins, rarely leaving any evidence of a break-in to tip them off, other than their missing items.
What makes a man walk away from everyone and everything he knows, including family, without so much as a backward glance? I think it may have something to do with the way the world alienates those who do not think like it, pushing them out so far beyond the circle of humanity that it’s impossible for them to see their way clear to a companionable future. Knight’s behavior has garnered many diagnoses from experts, but such nomenclature is ephemeral and not always quantifiable much less certain. Suffice it to say he’s probably got Asperger’s syndrome which is characterized by a significant amount of what others would call antisocial behavior.
Knight stole food and clothing to live a life where he didn’t have encounter other human beings for almost three decades — his ultimate expression of himself — and he was very happy doing it. His break-ins numbered over 1,000, putting him in the category of expert thief and making the locals more than a little uneasy. Knight reports he felt deep shame every time he burgled a cabin, but he didn’t see any other way to support his chosen lifestyle. The alternative meant facing civilization, and for a guy on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, burglary seemed the easier option. During those 27 years, he read many books, watched TV — Knight stole a lot of batteries to keep his appliances going — and created more and more elaborate structures to keep him dry and as warm as possible, an engineering marvel, actually, full-on of resilience and ingenuity. Kudos to Knight for engineering skills that allowed him to withstand 27 years of Maine winters without ever starting a single fire (for fear someone might see the smoke from his camp).
Burglaries aside, at the end, I felt I had more in common with Knight than not. As the state of the world continues to deteriorate and civility has become as out of reach as a fairy tale, I often wish I could travel to some distant shore where the population is of a kinder, gentler ilk — if such a place even exists anymore.
The Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating, psychological examination of one man’s quest to live his life his way.