The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
Best for: Anyone looking for a profile of an interesting man doing something unthinkable to most of us.
In a nutshell: Man lives alone in the woods for nearly three decades, uttering words to only one person. Gets arrested.
Line that sticks with me: “He parked the car and put the keys on the center console. He had a tent and a backpack but no compass, no map. Without knowing where he was going, with no particular place in mind, he stepped into the trees and walked away.” (p 77)
Why I chose it: NPR.
Review: Christopher Knight was 20 years old when he abandoned his car and walked deep into a forest in Maine. He was 57 when arrested for breaking into a camp to steal food. This is the story of the 27 years in between, a bit of what came first, and more of what came next.
Author Michael Finkel has written a book before; you might recognize his name from his being fired for essentially making up a story (he says he combined a bunch of people to make a composite without saying so). I was not familiar with that background, but even knowing that, I believe what he is sharing in this profile of Christopher Knight, aka the Hermit. Over 27 years, Mr. Knight lived just a few minutes from other people, but was so fully hidden and so committed to being alone that the only person who saw him for nearly 25 years was a hiker he accidentally crossed paths with.
This story is fascinating to me. On the one hand, this man desperately wanted to be alone, to be away from everyone else, ideally for the rest of his life. But he didn’t choose the strict survivalist route: he stole. And although he followed a strict code when stealing from others, never taking anything that appeared valuable, always going into what he thought were empty houses, for nearly three decades some families were terrified that this burglar would come into their home (and he often did repeatedly) when they were there.
Mr. Finkel does a great job telling this story, about a person it can be difficult to understand. He also provides some background and context to the idea of a hermit – people who leave all of society for years at a time, if not longer. He also provides room for all of us to contemplate what happens when someone like Mr. Knight is forced back into society. Is there space in this world for someone who wants to be all alone, forever? Should there be?