The tale of the North Pond Hermit was one of the strangest stories to come out of the State of Maine in recent years.
Back in 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight decided to walk away from the world, heading off into the woods and staying there for nearly three decades. He lived in a small campsite near North Pond in central Maine and survived by breaking into various camps to steal food and other supplies. He did this thousands of times over the course of 27 years – right up until he was caught mid-burglary in 2013.
Other than a seconds-long encounter with a hiker back in the 1990s, that arrest was the first human contact he had had since walking away from society those many years ago.
It was a story that captured the imaginations of people all over the country – including that of a journalist named Michael Finkel, who saw the initial reports about the story and was intrigued. That intrigue led him to reach out to Knight – becoming the sole journalist to develop any sort of relationship with the man – and eventually write a longform piece for GQ - called “The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit” - that appeared back in August of 2014 However, Finkel felt there was even more of Knight’s story worth telling.
A book’s worth, in fact.
Finkel’s new book “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” published by Knopf, is set to come out on March 7. Finkel will be touring throughout Maine in the early part of March, conducting readings and discussions of this unique and fascinating tale.
The author took time to speak to The Maine Edge – all the way from France, no less – about his efforts to do justice to the stranger-than-fiction story of the North Pond Hermit and why he felt like he had to tell it.
“I grew up in Montana,” Finkel said via phone. “There’s a fair similarity to Maine – long winters, plenty of wilderness. And I spent a lot of time outdoors, though I was also in love with books.
“So I see this tiny report [about Knight], about this guy who spent 27 years living in the woods, and I notice that one of the details they mention is the fact that he was stealing books. That was what really spun my curiosity into something more. I mean, camping out and books – two things that I love. I wanted to know more.”
And so, Finkel took a shot and reached out.
“I wrote him a letter,” he said. “And he wrote back. The letter was something like three lines, but from those lines, I could tell that this was someone who was funny and smart and interesting.”
That initial bit of correspondence ultimately led to a series of interviews – conducted in the visiting area of the Kennebec County Jail – that subsequently became the foundation of the book.
“It seems that he would rather have chosen not to speak to any journalists at all,” said Finkel. “But I think he understood that people were going to hound him for his story. So he accepted my visits. He figured that by telling his story to one person, he could avoid that hounding.
“After I started talking to him, I said to myself ‘Wow, this guy is incredibly smart.’ If I were to sit down across from him in a chess game, he would almost certainly beat me.”
The book is about more than just Knight himself, however. Finkel spent a significant amount of time talking to many other people who were impacted by Knight’s actions, including the law enforcement officials who ultimately caught him and numerous residents whose homes fell victim to the long, slow burglary spree that played out over Knight’s decades in the woods.
Those residents were the ones who were particularly (and understandably) polarized by Knight, according to Finkel.
“Everyone has opinions about Chris Knight,” he said. “There are some that hate what he has done, while others are almost jealous. All I could do was write from my own perspective and try not to overly romanticize the story.
“I didn’t own a house [on North Pond]. And really, a break-in is one of the most intrusive acts there is. Even the law treats someone’s home as sacred; when someone comes in uninvited, it’s a real and true violation. [Knight] did that repeatedly, so I understood the fury that some of these people carried. This was something they witnessed again and again. People didn’t know who this person was; it was a real source of anger.
“I’d say it was about an 80-20 breakdown,” he continued. “Most people were truly angry, while some considered it something not worth really worrying about.”
But one thing was abundantly clear – regardless of what kind of reaction Knight’s story elicited, it was a strong one.
“The reactions were really all over the place, but they were all powerful. Nobody lacked for a reaction. And in some ways, I think how someone reacts to the story says something about the observer. Jealousy, anger, what have you – people felt deeply about it. And the reactions to the book might be [just as] varied.”
Perhaps the largest question of all is simply “Why did Christopher Knight do this?” And as the only journalist to have extended contact with the hermit, Finkel is uniquely qualified to offer up an answer.
“That’s the essential question, isn’t it?” he said. “And I have an inkling, one that is both kind of profound and not really profound. First, he’s not crazy. I’ve read a lot about people who have sought solitude, 50 books or more about why people left. [Knight] was never comfortable around others. He just felt uncomfortable in the world.
“What is it that we’re all looking for? Happiness. Everyone hopes for happiness. Our whole lives are focused on finding contentment. For some, it’s the accumulation of money or the satisfaction of a job. For others, it’s not so straightforward.
“This was that thing for Chris,” continued Finkel. “He found this spot – and let me tell you, this spot really is magnificent - in Rome, Maine. He found a place that made him content for the first time ever. He left to find something and actually found it, so why would he bother to come back? A lot of us never find it.”
It’s worth noting that at this point of the interview, Finkel was actually driving through rush hour traffic. He laughed at the juxtaposition and the coincidental clarity that it provided.
“There are times when I understand the reasons to be jealous of him,” he said. “To find contentment like that is something amazing.”
One of the more fascinating details revealed in “The Stranger in the Woods” is the fact that while Knight had no human contact, there was still at least one living thing whose well-being he genuinely cared about.
I had to ask about the mushroom.
According to Knight, he had been observing the fungi – a shelf mushroom growing at roughly knee height from the trunk of one of the hemlocks in the camp – since it was the size of a watch face. At the time of his capture, it had grown to roughly the size of a dinner plate. It was a constant companion, analogous to something like Wilson the volleyball in the Tom Hanks movie “Cast Away.”
“He loved that mushroom,” Finkel said. “It’s fascinating; of all the things he was worried about, it was the mushroom that stood foremost in his thoughts. Upon hearing of the investigation of his campsite, his primary hope was that the mushroom would be left unharmed.”
Despite the amount of time spent talking with Knight about his experience, Finkel wouldn’t go so far as to call the hermit a friend, but there’s no disputing the impact the relationship has had on the author – an impact that permeates the book.
“Our relationship more or less ended after he had told me what he wanted to tell me,” said Finkel. “The last time we met, he gave me one of the kindest compliments I’ve ever received. He told me that I was his Boswell.”
(Note: this is a reference to the 18th century writer James Boswell, whose biography of Samuel Johnson is considered by many to tbe the greatest biography ever written in the English language.)
“He gave his approval,” Finkel continued. “He allowed and permitted me to tell his story. He said ‘You’re the guy I wanted to write this.’”
The end result is “The Stranger in the Woods,” a book that attempts to explain and explore the experience of a man who, one day, simply walked into the woods by himself and spent the next 27 years alone. Christopher Knight will always be the North Pond Hermit, a man whose motivations will likely remain largely opaque.
Thanks to Michael Finkel, we have garnered a glimpse beneath that placid surface covering half a lifetime’s worth of solitude.
Maine tour dates for “The Stranger in the Woods”
Finkel will be touring all over the state of Maine in the early part of March, paying visits to six cities before venturing forth out into New England and beyond.
Rest assured, however, that this will not be your usual book tour.
“I promise that these events aren’t what people typically expect when they hear ‘book tour,’” said Finkel. “It’s not going to be some old guy with his nose in a book. I’m going to have artifacts from [Knight’s] campsite; there will be slides and video.
“I don’t really read during readings,” he said with a laugh.
The tour schedule is as follows:
March 5 – Portland
Book talk and film screening of “The Hermit,” co-sponsored by Maine Public Radio and the Bangor Daily News. A conversation between the author and the director will follow. Time and location TBD.
March 6 – Farmington
DDG Booksellers event. 6:30 p.m.; 193 Broadway.
March 7 – Portland
Print Bookstore event at The Space Gallery. A conversation with Brian Kevin of Down East Magazine. 7 p.m.; 538 Congress Street.
March 8 – Augusta
Barnes & Noble event. 7 p.m.; 9 Market Place Drive.
March 9 – Waterville
Bull Moose Books event in partnership with the Waterville Library and Waterville Creates. 6 p.m.; Waterville Opera House.
March 10 – Bangor
Bangor Daily News event at Bangor Public Library. A conversation with BDN outdoors reporters Aislinn Sarnacki and Sarah Walker-Caron. 5:30 p.m.; 145 Harlow Street.
March 11 – Camden
Owl & Turtle Bookshop event. 2 p.m.; 33 Bay View Street.