Many people dream of escaping modern life. Most will never act on it—but in 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight did just that when he left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the woods. He would not have a conversation with another person for the next twenty-seven years.
Drawing on extensive interviews with Knight himself, journalist Michael Finkel shows how Knight lived in a tent in a secluded encampment, developing ingenious ways to store provisions and stave off frostbite during the winters. A former alarm technician, he stealthily broke into nearby cottages for food, books, and supplies, taking only what he needed but sowing unease in a community plagued by his mysterious burglaries. Since returning to the world, he has faced unique challenges—and compelled us to reexamine our assumptions about what makes a good life. By turns riveting and thought-provoking, The Stranger in the Woods gives us a deeply moving portrait of a man determined to live his own way.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Knight lived in the dirt but was cleaner than you. Way cleaner. Pine needles and mud don’t make you dirty, except superficially. The muck that matters, the bad bacteria, the evil virus, is typically passed through coughs and sneezes and handshakes and kisses. The price of sociability is sometimes our health. Knight quarantined himself from the human race and thus avoided our biohazards. He stayed phenomenally healthy. Though he suffered deeply at times, he insists he never once had a medical emergency, or a serious illness, or a bad accident, or even a cold.
During the summers, especially in the early years, he was strong, fit, and spry. “You should have seen me in my twenties—I ruled the land I walked upon, it was mine,” Knight said, exposing the prideful streak that runs below his surface of contrition. “Why shouldn’t I claim it as my own? No one else was there. I was in control. I controlled it as much as I wanted. I was lord of the woods.”
Poison ivy grows throughout the area; its prevalence prevented some people from searching for his site. Knight kept a little jingle in his head—“leaves of three, let it be”—and so ably memorized where each patch grew that even at night he didn’t brush against it. He says he was never once afflicted.
Lyme disease, a bacterial illness transmitted through tick bites that can cause partial paralysis, is endemic to central Maine, but Knight was spared that as well. He brooded about Lyme for a while, then came to a realization: “I couldn’t do anything about it, so I stopped thinking about it.”
Living in the woods, subject to the whims of nature, offers a great deal of autonomy but not much control. At first, Knight worried about everything: snowstorms might bury him, hikers could find him, the police would capture him. Gradually, methodically, he shed most of his anxiety.
But not all. Being too relaxed, he felt, was also a danger. In appropriate doses, worry was useful, possibly lifesaving. “I used worry to encourage thought,” he said. “Worry can give you an extra prod to survive and plan. And I had to plan.”
At the conclusion of each thieving mission, he was absolved temporarily of worry. The order in which he ate his food was governed by the pace of spoilage, ground beef to Twinkies. When he was down to little more than flour and shortening, he’d mix those together with water and make biscuits. He never stole homemade meals or unwrapped items, for fear someone might poison him, so everything he took came sealed in a carton or can. He ate every morsel, scraping the containers clean. Then he deposited the wrappers and cartons in his camp’s dump, stuffed between boulders at the boundary of his site.
The dump was scattered over an area of about a hundred square feet. One section was devoted to items like propane tanks and old mattresses and sleeping bags and books, another to food containers. Even in the food area, there was no odor. Knight added layers of dirt and leaves to aid with composting, which eliminated any smell, but most of the packaging was waxed cardboard or plastic, slow to disintegrate. Upon excavation, the colors on many boxes remained garish, superlatives and exclamation points and rococo typography popping from the soil while robins chirped in the branches above.
The archeological record contained in his dump revealed why Knight’s only significant health issue was his teeth. He brushed regularly, he stole toothpaste, but did not see a dentist and his teeth began to rot. It didn’t help that his culinary preferences never progressed beyond the sugar-and-processedfood palate of a teenager. “ ‘Cooking’ is too kind a word for what I did,” he said.
A staple meal was macaroni and cheese. Dozens of macand-cheese boxes were buried between the rocks, along with several empty spice bottles—black pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, blackened seasoning. Often, when Knight was inside a cabin with a good spice rack, he would grab a new bottle and try it out on his macaroni and cheese.
Also in his dump was a flattened thirty-ounce container from cheddar-flavored Goldfish crackers, a five-pound tub from Marshmallow Fluff, and a box that had held sixteen Drake’s Devil Dogs. There were packages from graham crackers, tater tots, baked beans, shredded cheese, hot dogs, maple syrup, chocolate bars, cookie dough. Betty Crocker scalloped potatoes and Tyson chicken strips. Country Time lemonade and Mountain Dew. El Monterey spicy jalapeño and cheese chimichangas.
All of this came from a single kitchen-sink-sized hole, dug out by hand. Knight had fled the modern world only to live off the fat of it. The food, Knight pointed out, wasn’t exactly his choice. It was first selected by the cabin owners of North Pond, then snatched by him. He did steal a little money, an average of fifteen dollars a year—“a backup system,” he called it—and lived an hour’s walk from the Sweet Dreams convenience store and deli, but never went there. The last time he ate at a restaurant, or even sat at a table, was at some fast-food place during his final road trip.
He stole frozen lasagna, canned ravioli, and Thousand Island dressing. You can dig in the dump until you’re lying on your side, arm buried to the shoulder, and more keeps emerging. Cheetos and bratwurst and pudding and pickles. Quarry a trench deep enough to fight a war from—Crystal Light, Cool Whip, Chock full o’Nuts, Coke—and you still won’t reach bottom.
So he wasn’t a gourmet. He didn’t care what he ate. “The discipline I practiced in order to survive did away with cravings for specific food. As long as it was food, it was good enough.” He spent no more than a few minutes preparing meals, yet he often passed the fortnight between raids without leaving camp, filling much of the time with chores, camp maintenance, hygiene, and entertainment.
His chief form of entertainment was reading. The last moments he was in a cabin were usually spent scanning bookshelves and nightstands. The life inside a book always felt welcoming to Knight. It pressed no demands on him, while the world of actual human interactions was so complex. Conversations between people can move like tennis games, swift and unpredictable. There are constant subtle visual and verbal cues, there’s innuendo, sarcasm, body language, tone. Everyone occasionally fumbles an encounter, a victim of social clumsiness. It’s part of being human.
To Knight, it all felt impossible. His engagement with the written word might have been the closest he could come to genuine human encounters. The stretch of days between thieving raids allowed him to tumble into the pages, and if he felt transported he could float in bookworld, undisturbed, for as long as he pleased.
The reading selection offered by the cabins was often dispiriting. With books, Knight did have specific desires and cravings—in some ways, reading material was more important to him than food—though when he was famished for words, he’d subsist on whatever the nightstands bestowed, highbrow or low.
He liked Shakespeare, Julius Caesar especially, that litany of betrayal and violence. He marveled at the poetry of Emily Dickinson, sensing her kindred spirit. For the last seventeen years of her life, Dickinson rarely left her home in Massachusetts and spoke to visitors only through a partly closed door. “Saying nothing,” she wrote, “sometimes says the most.”
Knight wished he’d been able to procure more poetry written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, a fellow native of Maine, born in the coastal village of Rockland in 1892. He quoted her bestknown lines—“My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night”—and then added, “I tried candles in my camp for a number of years. Not worth it to steal them.”
If he were forced to select a favorite book, it might be The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer. “It’s concise,” Knight said, a quick twelve hundred pages, “and impressive as any novel.” He stole every book on military history he saw
He pilfered a copy of Ulysses, but it was possibly the one book he did not finish. “What’s the point of it? I suspect it was a bit of a joke by Joyce. He just kept his mouth shut as people read into it more than there was. Pseudo-intellectuals love to drop the name Ulysses as their favorite book. I refused to be intellectually bullied into finishing it.”
Knight’s disdain for Thoreau was bottomless—“he had no deep insight into nature”—but Ralph Waldo Emerson was acceptable. “People are to be taken in very small doses,” wrote Emerson. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” Knight read the Tao Te Ching and felt a deep-rooted connection to the verses. “Good walking,” says the Tao, “leaves no tracks.”
Robert Frost received a thumbs-down—“I’m glad his reputation is starting to fade”—and Knight said that when he ran out of toilet paper, he sometimes tore pages from John Grisham novels. He mentioned that he didn’t like Jack Kerouac either, but this wasn’t quite true. “I don’t like people who like Jack Kerouac,” he clarified.
Knight stole portable radios and earbuds and tuned in daily, voices through the waves another kind of human presence. For a while he was fascinated by talk radio. He listened to a lot of Rush Limbaugh. “I didn’t say I liked him. I said I listened to him.” Knight’s own politics were “conservative but not Republican.” He added, perhaps unnecessarily, “I’m kind of an isolationist.”
Later he got hooked on classical music—Brahms and Tchaikovsky, yes; Bach, no. “Bach is too pristine,” he said. Bliss for him was Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. But his undying passion was classic rock: the Who, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and, above all, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Nothing in all the world received higher praise from Knight than Lynyrd Skynyrd. “They will be playing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs in a thousand years,” he proclaimed.
On one raid he stole a Panasonic black-and-white fiveinch-diagonal television. This was why he needed so many car and boat batteries—to power the TV. Knight was adept at wiring batteries together, in series and parallel. He also carried off an antenna and hid it high in his treetops.
He said that everything shown on PBS was “carefully crafted for liberal baby boomers with college degrees,” but the best thing he watched while in the woods was a PBS program, Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War. He was able to recite parts of the show verbatim. “I still remember Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife,” said Knight. “It brought tears to my eyes.” Ballou, a major in the Union army, wrote to Sarah on July 14, 1861, and was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run before the letter was delivered. The note spoke of “unbounded love” for his children, and Ballou said his heart was attached to his wife’s “with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break”—an expression of human connection that made Knight weep, even if he wasn’t compelled to seek it himself.
Knight was aware of world events and politics, but he seldom had any reaction. Everything seemed to be happening far away. He burned through all his batteries after September 11, 2001, and never watched television again. “Car batteries were so heavy and difficult to steal anyway,” he said. He repurposed the ones he had as anchor weights for guylines, and after he stole a radio that received television audio signals, he switched to listening to TV stations on the radio; “theater of the mind,” he called it. Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond were his television-on-the-radio favorites.
“I do have a sense of humor,” Knight said. “I just don’t like jokes. Freud said there’s no such thing as a joke—a joke is an expression of veiled hostility.” His favorite comedians were the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and George Carlin. The last movie he saw in a theater was the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters.
He never bothered listening to sports; they bored him, every one of them. For news, there were five-minute updates at the top of the hour on WTOS, the Mountain of Pure Rock, out of Augusta. Also, he said, he sometimes listened to French news stations out of Quebec. He didn’t speak French, but he understood most of it.
He liked handheld video games. His rule for stealing them was that they had to appear outdated; he didn’t want to take a kid’s new one. He’d be stealing those in a couple years anyway. He enjoyed Pokémon, Tetris, and Dig Dug. “I like games that require thought and strategy. No shoot-’em-ups. No mindless repetitive motion.” Electronic Sudoku was great, and crossword puzzles in magazines were welcome challenges, but he never took a deck of cards to play solitaire, and he doesn’t like chess. “Chess is too two-dimensional, too finite of a game.”
He didn’t create any sort of art—“I’m not that type of person”—nor did he spend any nights away from his camp. “I have no desire to travel. I read. That’s my form of travel.” He never even glimpsed Maine’s celebrated coastline. He claimed that he did not speak to himself aloud, not a word. “Oh, you mean like typical hermit behavior, huh? No, never.”
Not for a moment did he consider keeping a journal. He would never allow anyone to read his private thoughts; therefore, he did not risk writing them down. “I’d rather take it to my grave,” he said. And anyway, when was a journal ever honest? “It either tells a lot of truths to cover a single lie,” he said, “or a lot of lies to cover a single truth.”
Knight’s ability to hold a grudge was impressive. Though many National Geographic magazines were buried beneath his tent, he despised the publication. “I didn’t even like stealing them,” he said. “I only looked at them when I was desperate. They’re really only good for burying in the dirt. That glossy paper lasts a long time.”
His aversion to National Geographic extends back to his youth. When Knight was in high school, he was reading a copy and came across a photo of a young Peruvian shepherd standing beside a road, crying. Behind him were several dead sheep, struck by a car as the boy had been trying to guide them. The photograph was later reprinted in a book of National Geographic’s all-time greatest portraits.
It incensed Knight. “They published a photo of the boy’s humiliation. He had failed his family, who had entrusted him with the herd. It’s disgusting that everybody can see a little boy’s failure.” Knight, still furious about the image thirty years later, was a man acutely attuned to the ravages of shame. Had he done something shameful before he’d fled to the forest? He insisted that he had not.
Knight had a strong distaste for big cities, filled with helpless intellectuals, people with multiple degrees who couldn’t change a car’s oil. But, he added, it wasn’t as if rural areas were Valhalla. “Don’t glorify the country,” he said, then tossed off a line from the first chapter of The Communist Manifesto about escaping “the idiocy of rural life.”
He acknowledged, forthrightly, that a couple of cabins were enticing because of their subscriptions to Playboy. He was curious. He was only twenty years old when he disappeared, and had never been out on a date. He imagined that finding love was something like fishing. “Once I was in the woods, I had no contact, so there was no baited hook for me to bite upon. I’m a big fish uncaught.”
One book that Knight never buried in his dump or packed away in a plastic tote—he kept it with him in his tent—was Very Special People, a collection of brief biographies of human oddities: the Elephant Man, General Tom Thumb, the DogFaced Boy, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and hundreds of sideshow performers. Knight himself often felt that he was something of circus freak, at least on the inside.
“If you’re born a human oddity,” says the introductory chapter of Very Special People, “every day of your life, starting in infancy, you are made aware that you are not as others are.” When you get older, it continues, things are likely to get worse. “You may hide from the world,” advises the book, “to avoid the punishment it inflicts on those who differ from the rest in mind or body.”
There was one novel above all others, Knight said, that sparked in him the rare and unnerving sensation that the writer was reaching through time and speaking directly to him: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. “I recognize myself in the main character,” he said, referring to the angry and misanthropic narrator, who has lived apart from all others for about twenty years. The book’s opening lines are: “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.”
Knight also expressed no shortage of self-loathing, but it was offset by a fierce pride, as well as an occasional trace of superiority. So, too, with the unnamed narrator of Underground. On the final page of the book, the narrator drops all humbleness and says what he feels: “I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what’s more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves. So that perhaps, after all, there is more life in me than in you.”
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about The Stranger in the Woods,Michael Finkel’s absorbing and clear-eyed account of a man who spent decades living in complete solitude in the forests of Maine, only to be discovered and forced to return to society.
1. Discuss the significance of the Socrates epigraph that opens The Stranger in the Woods. How does this set the tone for the book? How does it relate to the book’s larger discussion of needs versus wants?
2. In the early pages of the book, Finkel states that Knight has “stripped the world to his essentials.” Consider the lifestyle that Knight leads in North Pond. What are his essentials? How many of these essentials are material versus immaterial? What does he value the most?
3. On page 5, Finkel states that Knight has a “moral code” that he lives by, which determines what he will and will not steal. How would you describe his moral code? How does his moral code relate to larger ideas about capitalism and materialism in the United States?
4. In the first few chapters of the book, Knight is referred to solely as “the hermit,” before his name and identity are revealed to the reader. Why do you think Finkel chose to employ this narrative device? Explore the significance of the lore around Knight as “the hermit,” and how the mythos of “the hermit” is complicated once his identity is made publicly known.
5. How would you describe the locals’ attitudes toward the hermit over time? Discuss the varied experiences of those who were victimized by his crimes and how these incidents affected their perceptions of their hometown, their domicile, and their safety. After his arrest, how does the narrative of the hermit change, if at all?
6. How do you feel about Knight? On the North Pond camp owners’ scale of “Lock Knight up forever” to “Let him go immediately,” where do you reside?
7. In chapter six, Finkel describes the fanfare surrounding Knight’s arrest, pronounced “a circus” by some local officials. Consider the irony of Knight’s fame in relation to his desire for solitude. How does Knight play into the public’s idea of what a hermit “should” be?
8. In chapter seven, the narrative lens of The Stranger in the Woods shifts to allow for the author’s point of view to emerge. What spurs Finkel to reach out to Knight, initially? Discuss their early exchanges, as well as Finkel’s first visit. How does their relationship evolve?
9. Early in their relationship, Finkel reveals to Knight that he is a “flawed journalist,” based on past actions during his reportage. Why does he choose to do this? Discuss the “lofty ideals” that both men strive for in their lives. How are they both committed to seeking truth?
10. Discuss Knight’s time in jail. How does the movement from complete solitude to imprisonment affect his morale? What tactics from his time in the woods does he use to pass the time?
11. Throughout The Stranger in the Woods, Knight is defined by many labels: He is a hermit, a thief, a prisoner, a purist, a son, a brother. Which of these labels does he associate himself with, if any? How much of a person’s identity is shaped by socialization, and how much is self-determined?
12. On page 50, Finkel states that Knight “seemed to say exactly what he was thinking, raw and true, unfiltered by the safety net of social niceties.” Discuss this statement. How does Knight’s time in the woods affect his understanding of human interactions? What is his general standpoint toward humanity? How does his exposure to media (books, radio) keep him connected to society at large?
13. When reading Notes from the Underground, Knight felt that Dostoyevsky was reaching through time and speaking directly to him. What books have made you feel that way?
14. Discuss Knight’s childhood and family. How does the idea of rugged individualism and self-reliance color his upbringing? The value of privacy? Consider his absence in the lives of his family members, and his sudden return to them. Does he feel any guilt about his decision to disappear? How does his family interpret his return?
15. On page 78, Finkel notes that Knight’s decision to retreat to the woods “had elements of a suicide, except he didn’t kill himself.” Unpack this statement. Considering Knight’s promise to go back into the woods at the end of the book, how does he view death in relation to the natural world?
16. Consider Finkel’s discussion of various hermits or secluded individuals in societies around the world. What does Knight share with these other historical examples of hermits? Is there a mutual moral commitment that underpins their solitude? How much of Knight’s decision to isolate himself seems to come from a place of idealism versus personal preference? How does his existence in Little North defy the typical categorization of what a hermit is?
17. Discuss the discipline inherent to Knight’s existence in the woods. How is his life reliant on patterns and consistency? How does he use fear as motivation?
18. On page 112, Knight wonders if “modern society, with its flood of information and tempest of noise, was only making us dumber.” Reflect on this statement. What are the pitfalls of technology in relation to modern living? How does our reliance on technology undercut some of the most essential human functions?
19. Stranger in the Woods asks complicated, fundamental questions about solitude, self-reliance, and humans’ relationship with nature, with an extraordinary, singularly unique human at the center. Consider your own life as it relates to these concepts. How often are you completely alone? Do you ever seek out solitude, particularly in nature? How is nature both restorative and challenging for the human spirit? By the end of the book, how did your feelings toward Knight evolve?