Book review: ‘The Stranger in the Woods’ by Michael Finkel

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

What is the longest time you have gone without human contact? Christopher Knight was totally alone for 27 years. Author Michael Finkel labeled him “The Last True Hermit.” Finkel explores the concept of a solitary existence and the typical concepts ascribed to being a hermit.

Not long after his high school graduation, Christopher Knight drove into the woods of rural Maine, abandoned his car, and didn’t converse with another person for 27 years. After some initial wandering, Knight found a location where he settled in. Though it was not really far from civilization, the area was surrounded by thick undergrowth, with only one real entrance between two stones.

If abandonment of society was to work, Knight had to find a way to eat. Reluctantly, he turned to thievery. There were many summer homes nearby as well as a few year-round residences. There was also Pine Tree Summer Camp. Knowing that stealing was wrong, he still did so, as it was the only way he knew to live in the manner he needed to. Knight avoided the year-round homes, as he feared the accidental confrontation that might happen. In addition, he was a careful observer before he ever ventured into any place.

Knight feared detection so much that in 27 years, he never started a fire. He did steal propane tanks to use for cooking food. That still left him to face the severe Maine winters without heat. The mattresses and sleeping bags that he used for this purpose were stolen. So were the clothes he wore. While Knight strenuously avoided people, he was dependent on civilization. To avoid detection, Knight also avoided any situation in which he might leave tracks. When snow was on the ground, movement was limited to when more snow was falling. When it was muddy, roots and stones were the walkway.

Over the years, most of the cabins were victims several times. This was true even as more advanced security systems were used. His fallback food supply, though, was Pine Tree Summer Camp. This is where he was when he was eventually caught. In other words, it wasn’t his choice that he rejoin civilization after 27 years; it was circumstance and persistence on the part of a game warden.

Christopher Knight knew he was guilty of the crimes he was accused of. Consequently, after he got used to actually using his voice, he readily told his tale. That’s how Finkel got the story. Knight also chose to plead guilty. Most people who had their homes broken into, some many times, did not believe him. They felt no one could stand to live without human contact for that long, or without a fire. While some were quite forgiving, many felt that his intrusions had violated the very reasons they had a getaway cabin. And some had been scared or had children who were scared.

Michael Finkel explores the concepts of the hermit, solitary confinement, and the implication of such a solitary existence. He also tells “the rest of the story.”

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