The Stranger in the Woods

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?  

“Hi.”

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.

pamlazos 6.5.22

About Pam Lazos

writer, blogger, environmentally hopeful
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31 Responses to The Stranger in the Woods

  1. hilarymb says:

    Hi Pam – apologies for late arrival – just been overwhelmed with too many things. What an amazing story – and how interesting … I’m not going to read it now – but when it hits my radar in the future – I’ll know it’s a book I should pick up. Thanks for an excellent review – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This looks really good. 3900 reviews on Amazon! Checking it out of the library.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ally Bean says:

    Absolutely fascinating. His life choices are unique, to say the least. And that he admitted to being aware that he *might* be doing something wrong when he stole things suggests a mind capable of ethical reasoning. I applaud him and want to *tsk, tsk* at him simultaneously.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. da-AL says:

    fascinating! will check it out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Linda Schaub says:

    Pam – this is the story I mentioned about the hermit in Italy. They did wrong evicting this gentleman in my humble opinion:
    https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/italian-hermit-leaving-budelli/index.html

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Linda Schaub says:

    I’ve heard of this gentleman Pam, but just bits and pieces of the story and none of the backstory, so thank you for the synopsis of the book. I am going to get this book as the story intrigues me, (even though I am perpetually behind in reading). As a person who lives alone and has no family, I appreciate my own company and prefer it, especially at the Park so I can appreciate the peace and quiet of nature. If not for walking, I’m sure some people might think I am a hermit. I have worked from home the last eleven years and keep in touch with friends via social media. Truthfully, I communicate more with fellow bloggers than people I’ve known for decades. I’m not a hermit, but the state of the world makes me afraid to venture out except for excursions to parks … we have too many crazies these days. This gentleman reminds me a little of the fellow who lived on an island in Italy for 32 years and was suddenly evicted. If you’ve not read that story, I’ll send you the link to the CNN article in a separate comment.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Pam Lazos says:

      Oh yes, please send the link, Linda. I think the Kai difference is this guy never had any human contact except for a few chance encounters which is quite interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        Reading the synopsis makes you want to offer him a sandwich, somewhere to rest his head and engage in some conversation. It was odd that he worked in an alarm business and there he was breaking into places to stay alive. It takes guts to be that extreme to get away from it all. Maybe how he was treated because of having Asperger’s had a role in his departure and wanting to separate himself from the rest of the world.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. A powerful post, Pam, that captures the challenges of these times. It’s the first thing I read this morning after arising from morning reflections. “Ah, Creator, why must I be a planter and repairer of gardens surrounded by those who don’t seem to value other living beings?”

    I have looked for others who care. Lived on a commune in my youth and off the grid surrounded by forest for 10 years. But I didn’t find others who could share and carry the burden of creating while knowing everything eventually passes, like sand castles in high tide and rain. The answer to my query? “It matters, little one. You just need to keep caring. Rewards come in the scent of blooming flowers, the hum of bumble bees in spring, and the songs of birds cheering you on as you weed.”

    Thank you for your sharing a timely, deeply touching, and thought-provoking message. 💜

    Liked by 2 people

  8. lampmagician says:

    It seems I have another read. Thank you, Pam, for this excellent proposal.🙏🤗 And the song fits perfectly. I know Kansas through Dust in the Wind.😉😅

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Sounds like a very interesting read, Pam. I’m with you, ready to leave if I could for a kinder and saner place wherever that is.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This brought to my mind Leave No Trace, a movie from a few years ago. Have you seen it? It’s one of my faves.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Susan Scott says:

    Tough one this one. On the one hand – and on the other. Lovely review Pam, sounds intriguing 🦋

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Bill says:

    Thanks for this review and for letting me know about this book. My wife’s from Maine, and I spend a lot of time in the state. I’ve heard about this guy but didn’t know his backstory.

    Liked by 2 people

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