13 Mar 2017

The story of the last true hermit

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 13 March 2017

US journalist Mike Finkel talks to Jesse Mulligan about Christopher Knight, who spent 27 years living alone in a forest in Maine on the US east coast.

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight drove 302km from his home to a forest in Maine on America's East coast, he walked in and stayed there for 27 years. He had no tent, no sleeping bag and no plan. 

After he eventually re-joined civilisation in 2013 he would only talk to one journalist about his experience, Mike Finkel.

Finkel, who has now written a book called A Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, told RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan the fact that Knight talked to him was partly down to luck.

“For whatever reason Chris Night felt we had some sort of connection.

“I knew from that first letter, he had one heck of a story to tell.”

He says there were some glaring questions about Knight’s time in the forest – how was it possible to go 27 years without seeing a doctor? And how did he survive the bitter winters?

But Finkel says he visited Knight and went over everything point by point.

“Every single part of this story, as hard as it is to believe, is true.”

As Knight never saw anyone, he wasn’t exposed to the spread of germs and never got sick. And as for the weather, he would wake every morning at 2am and pace around the camp to avoid getting frostbite.

Knight was determined not to be discovered or make contact with anyone and the freezing ice storms that came through would create a layer of ice on top of snow to help disguise his footprints.

Knight set up camp in dense forest on a 70 hectare private property and never lit a camp fire for fear he’d be discovered.

“It was one of the most beautiful and magical spots I have ever been in,” Finkel says.

The campsite remained undiscovered for more than 20 years.

“Just before he was arrested one person stumbled across it.”

Because Knight was so fanatical about being in solitude, he kept a separate tent and extra sleeping bag hidden nearby so he could start another site if needed.

During his 27 years living at the camp, Finkel says Knight only spoke one syllable out loud, once coming across a hiker in the woods and uttering ‘hi’.

Finkel says for all his oddities, Knight is an extremely intelligent individual.

“He could recall every page of every book he’d ever read.”

Knight had an ‘interesting renaissance youth’, and grew up in a poor family where they read books every night and every day they learned to fix things, such as engines, electronics and plumbing.

Finkel says Knight didn’t understand the concept of boredom during his time alone.

But his years as a hermit weren’t all romantic, with Knight occasionally breaking into nearby cabins to survive.

“This guy stole food, flash lights, clothing and thousands of books but he was a master thief.”

He never broke into full time homes, only cabins and never broke anything, making sure he manipulated locks and secured properties again before he left.

While some of his victims were furious about his intrusions, others were impressed, with responses ranging from hatred to awe.

Now back living in civilisation, Finkel says Knight’s story has a much happier ending than that of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild.

“He was happy and it’s really profound to hear him talk about it”

And Knight’s advice after 27 years living alone?

“Get enough sleep.”