How Do You Convince the Most Solitary Person in Human History to Trust You?
Talking with Michael Finkel about the man who checked out of society and became the world’s last and most extreme hermit.
In 2013, law enforcement officers caught up with a mysterious burglar who had plagued the residents of North Pond, in central Maine, for over a quarter of a century. The man they arrested, Christopher Knight, was clean-shaven, neatly dressed and polite. At first he was reluctant to speak, but when pressed, he confirmed what many had believed to be a myth — a bogeyman or a folk hero, depending on your attitude toward modern-day society, not to mention whether you were one of the many hundreds of homeowners victimized by the so-called “North Pond Hermit.”
Christopher Knight told officers that he’d been camping in the woods of central Maine, without any human contact or active support, for over twenty-seven years.
It began as an impulse. One day, driving home after a long trip south, Knight pulled over to the side of the road, parked his car and went into the woods with no intention of ever returning to civilization. He found a clearing near North Pond and set up camp. He built no fires and left no tracks. Drinking water was easy to collect. The waste, he buried. On moonless nights before the arrival of snow, he left camp and broke into cabins, raided for supplies, then let himself back out again.
After the arrest, Knight’s story was national news, a curiosity at the end of the six-thirty broadcast. One of those watching was the journalist, Michael Finkel.
Like many others, Finkel wrote to Knight, who was in jail awaiting trial on buglary charges. In that first letter, Finkel wished Knight well and attached a few magazine articles. The odds that the Long Pond Hermit would write back were exceedingly slim, but Finkel remembers believing a response would come. He avoids using words like “fate,” but that, more or less, is how it felt. His interest was sincere and profound. And whether through fate or some other mechanism, remarkable stories seem to find their way into Finkel’s orbit.
In 2002, after having been drummed out of The New York Times following the revelation that he had conflated the stories of several figures in a cover article on the slave trade in modern-day Africa, Finkel learned about Christian Luongo, an Oregon man who had killed his wife and children and fled to Mexico, where it turned out he was living under an assumed identity — journalist Michael Finkel’s identity, to be exact. Finkel went to meet with Luongo and eventually wrote about their shared experience in True Story, a true crime ‘memoir’ that was later made into a movie.
For his latest work, Finkel found himself once again, notebook in hand, entering a prison during visiting hours, hoping to learn what he could from a man whose actions very nearly defy all comprehension.
After receiving a response from Knight, Finkel decided to go to Maine to meet him in the flesh. Very cautiously, Knight began to reveal his story. Meanwhile, Finkel spoke with relatives and locals, read widely in the literature of hermitage, and went into the woods of Maine himself.
Out of this came The Stranger in the Woods, an utterly captivating story that brings readers into close contact with the world’s “last true hermit” and wrestles with profound questions about society, why we seek it out, and what happens when one of us wishes to be removed from it.
Last week, Finkel passed through Brooklyn for the book’s release, and I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the enduring appeal of hermits, burglary as a lifestyle, and how Finkel’s own fall from grace sparked an interest in criminals.
Dwyer Murphy: There’s a passage in The Stranger in the Woods where you sum up Christopher Knight’s situation and come to a striking conclusion: “[H]e persisted a total of twenty-seven years while speaking a total of one word and never touching anyone else. Christopher Knight, you could argue, is the most solitary known person in all of human history.” So, was he the most solitary person? How did you sort out the contenders?
Michael Finkel: Well, I fell into the rabbit hole of hermit literature, which is tremendously broad, starting with Tao Te Ching, going past Walden into today. I kept trying to figure out who was more secluded than Chris Knight. I must have read a hundred books, a thousand articles, plus I hired a full time researcher. No stone was left unturned. And in the end, I couldn’t find a single example of another human being in all of history who spent twenty-seven years alone. Someone always snuck up on these people, or brought them food, or there was communication of some kind. For Chris Knight, there is an asterisk: he stole, and he once encountered a group of hikers who said hello. But in terms of pure and complete seclusion, he was the ultimate. Right here in the 21st century, in the age of Facebook, with seven billion people crowding the planet, we have the most secluded known person who ever lived. I’m staking my claim to that. I’m confident it’s true.
“Right here in the 21st century, in the age of Facebook, with seven billion people crowding the planet, we have the most secluded known person who ever lived.”
Murphy: It seems like Knight’s story had a special grip on you. I’ll admit it had a hold on me, too. Maybe there’s a whole subset of the population just clamoring for stories about hermits.
Finkel: I love hanging out with my friends, and I can go to Burning Man for a week, but I also really crave solitude. Years before this story, I went to India for a ten-day silent retreat. You might think it would be boring, but it wasn’t. It was terrible, crazily difficult, and it just scared the shit out of me.
Going into yourself is unnerving. We almost never do it. And I was so frightened by this ten-day retreat, I never did it again. But that experience was in my mind when I first heard about Christopher Knight. I thought: he went to the very depths of it. I wanted to pick his brain. So I reached out to him. People ask me now if I was shocked that he wrote back. After all, he’d been contacted by hundreds of other journalists. But really, I wasn’t. I was maybe a little surprised. But the truth is, I thought he would write me back, because my curiosity wasn’t prurient in any way. It was genuine.
Murphy: I wanted to talk a little about Chris Knight’s woodsmanship. You write about the way he moved in the woods, how easy and expert he was at navigating the harshest conditions. That ability seems central to his story. I was wondering if you could try to put this into context for me. How does he compare to say, an experienced camper or a skilled hunter?
Finkel: There are some aspects of this story where, if I tell you the truth, it’s just going to sound ridiculous. But I’m going to tell you the truth. Now, I’m a decent woodsman, like a minor league ballplayer. But let’s take as an example Sergeant Terry Hughes, the officer who arrested Chris Knight. Terry Hughes is an amazing woodsman. He can move through the forest better than anyone you or I will ever meet. On the night of the arrest, Hughes followed Chris Knight through the woods for forty-five minutes, on the way to see his camp. Chris walked out front and the officers followed behind. Now Hughes and those officers are the only human beings to witness Chris Knight moving through the woods. I interviewed Hughes about it — I have a two-minute video that I sometimes like to show — and you can see it on Hughes’ face. Describing Chris’ movements, he was beside himself. He was in a state of shock, just remembering it.
I try to think of comparisons for Chris. I could say he moved like a cat and left no footprints; or I could talk about Usain Bolt, if Bolt was winning the hundred-meter dash by five seconds. This guy, Chris Knight, in the woods he was like a God. He could move in a way nobody else can even imagine moving. It sounds so hyperbolic, but I’m just telling you the way it is. It’s a phenomenon.
That’s why I don’t really think the comparison to Chris McCandless [from Into the Wild] is fair. Chris McCandless died after six months in the wild. Chris Knight walked out healthy as a rock after twenty-seven years.
Knight had a ridiculous brain. Sometimes I felt taunted by his brainpower. He said he didn’t have a photographic memory, but he could quote from any of a thousand books. He had a Library of Congress in his head. He could also fix electrical and automotive and plumbing. He understood thermodynamics and theoretical physics and could talk basic gardening and hunting and fishing. He was too smart for this world. If you study hermits throughout history, you find out that’s not an unusual thing. Isaac Newton basically invented physics, but he never had any friends and died celibate. There’s such a thing as being too smart.
Murphy: One of the most memorable parts of the story is Chris Knight’s camp: this little clearing in the woods where he spent most of his time for twenty-seven years, where no one ever found him, even though they were looking pretty intensely. You describe it vividly:
“[T]wenty feet on each side, with ideally flat ground cleared of stones and situated on a slight rise that allowed just enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes away but not so much as to cause severe windchill in winter. It felt to me as if a cube of forest had disappeared.”
Even so, I had a hard time imagining this space, or rather, I spent a lot of time imagining it, but I have no idea whether my image of it is close to life. It feels almost apocryphal. Do you remember your first time entering the camp?
Finkel: Everyone seemed to have a point of disbelief when it came to Chris Knight. For the people around North Pond, there were a few questions they would get hung up on: how do he go twenty-seven years without a fire, without a doctor? Or how did he survive the Ice Storm of 1998? How does a guy not talk for twenty-seven years and then speak so eloquently?
My point of disbelief was this: how do you live on a piece of private property with three hundred houses around and nobody finds you for a quarter of a century? I couldn’t get my head around it. Until I went to those woods. It took about fifteen minutes for me to figure out how it was possible. Those woods — man, I’ve lived twenty-something years in Montana. I spend a lot of time in the woods. But around that pond, I couldn’t walk. It wasn’t just that there was no trail. The trees were all wove together and there were massive boulders everywhere coated with slick moss. I’ve never seen nastier woods. Imagine a brillo pad the size of Manhattan. And then…You find this site.
His camp — honestly I thought I might never find it. I knew where it was, but only within a couple football fields. I was on the verge of giving up, and then I found these weird rocks with an opening between them. It looked like an optical illusion. You could only see the opening from certain angles. I’ll never forget walking through it for the first time. Right now, I’m sitting on this couch in Brooklyn, and I crave being there. I don’t like terms like magical, but it was magical. If you have any cravings for peace and solitude, this was everything you could ever want. It was cleared out. Overhead, branches formed natural trellises. You were in the middle of a dense forest, and yet you were in a room and it felt secure. I ended up spending five nights there, by myself. Each time, I didn’t want to leave. It’s an incredible little spot. I’d be sorry for the homeowner, but I feel like everyone in the world should spend an hour there.
Murphy: There’s one thorny issue that complicates the romance around Chris Knight. He stole. He broke into homes and took what he needed, not just a few times, but thousands of times. It was part of his lifestyle. How do you think the public view of him might have been different if he’d survived by hunting and fishing?
Finkel: If Chris Knight had hunted and fished for his food on public land up in northern Alaska, I don’t know if I would have written the book. He’d be too clear a hero. I found the thieving and the moral murkiness riveting. I would read someone else’s book about Chris Knight the pure hero, but I wouldn’t write it myself. To me, if the book is successful, you’ll consider how you feel about Chris Knight and your own life and your own choices and the things you’re willing to do. You can’t call the man purely evil or purely angelic, and where you put him on that scale says a lot about you. Probably more than it says about Chris.
“You can’t call the man purely evil or purely angelic, and where you put him on that scale says a lot about you. Probably more than it says about Chris.”
Murphy: You mentioned before the points of disbelief people have in hearing Knight’s story. Are there points of belief, too? Was there something you heard from him that convinced you, no matter how implausible the story sounded, he was telling you the truth?
Finkel: He was telling me about the moment when he was parked in the woods and was about to take the most radical leap a human can make — he was going to walk away, leave civilization. And in the middle of this story, our time expired. Visiting hours were over. The next visit, I rewound things a bit, I said, okay, you were parked in your car in the woods and you tossed your keys in the center console. He asked, ‘did I say tossed my keys?’ I checked my notes: he had. He said, ‘I would like to change that. It’s an exaggeration. I placed them.’ He was about to leave the world for twenty-seven years, but he thought it was an exaggeration to say that he’d tossed the keys. I thought, man he must be telling me the truth.
Believe me, I tried hard to overturn his story. I never could. From the outset, he assured me he was either going to tell me the truth or not tell me anything at all.
Murphy: I want to ask you about building rapport in the incredibly strange context of jailhouse visiting hours. In the process of researching and writing your last book, True Story, you spent time with Christian Luongo, a man accused of killing his wife and children (and who posed as you when he was a fugitive in Mexico). In The Stranger in the Woods, you’re getting sporadic time with a hermit who’s just come out of twenty-seven years of solitude. I’m not trying to compare the two men, necessarily, but the situations presented some of the same difficulties for you, the journalist.
Finkel: Obviously you know about my crack up with The New York Times fifteen years ago. It changed me. It made me a better journalist, I think. I was someone who’d fucked up, like everyone else in the world. That humbles you. After being busted for a journalistic crime, I got attracted to real criminals. Now, when I reach out to someone who’s made craven errors, I’m not on my high horse. I’m not trying to hide my humanity, my mistakes from anyone. And bizarrely, the reaction to that has been respect — respect that I’m open about my flaws. I don’t mean to say that I’m using it as some kind of chess move. It’s more organic than that. I just talk to other people who’ve acted criminally, and I’m a mess-up, too.
“After being busted for a journalistic crime, I got attracted to real criminals.”
Murphy: Aside from responding to your letter, Knight never explicitly encouraged you to take on this project. But was there a change in your relationship as time went on, something that told you he was willing to open up?
Finkel: So the question is basically: how do you feel about disturbing a guy who didn’t want to be disturbed? I’ve thought about that a lot. I was never morally clear about it. I’m not just some pit-bull journalist. I’m a human being. I reached out in the gentlest way possible: a letter in the mail. Chris got hundreds of letters and ignored almost all of them. With me, he chose to respond. Now, I also went to the jail, which I was nervous about it. It seemed a little morally murky. But he could always decline my visits. He said no to other people, but he took every one of my visits. And in the very end, he said to me, ‘You’re my Boswell.’ I was extremely grateful to hear that. He was basically saying, you write my story. He asked for nothing in return, no money, nothing more than that I leave him alone. Hopefully everyone else will leave him alone, too. I took that extremely seriously. I didn’t write a single sentence for Chris Knight. He had no editorial control. I just wanted to honor the story and to do it as well as it could possibly be done.
Murphy: Do you think people will leave him alone? Or is there a risk this book ignites curiosity and drives people to make some sort of pilgrimage, the way some still visit the site where McCandless died?
Finkel: I hope he doesn’t get a single visitor. Chris and I didn’t discuss this thoroughly. But I think I understand his reasoning. In addition to the other things he’s quite adept at, he’s adept at game theory. He saw the press requests. He knew he was going to be hounded for the rest of his life. I believe he figured the best way to regain a modicum of privacy would be to tell his story to one person. It’s kind of odd. He told me exactly what he wanted to tell me. I asked for more, but there’s no way to talk an intelligent guy — who’s been silent for twenty-seven years — into speaking. He’d just say I don’t want to talk about that, and it was on to the next subject. I think he considered this book to be a fence, or a shield: I’ve told my story, I have nothing more to say, don’t bother me now. I really hope that’s the case. I’ll be dismayed if anybody reads this book and goes up there and looks for him. How could you come to that conclusion?
“I believe he figured the best way to regain a modicum of privacy would be to tell his story to one person.”
Murphy: Well, if he does inspire some sort of following, he’s in the right part of the country. I thought abut J.D. Salinger, how he lived all those years in that town in New Hampshire, and when people went looking for him, locals would offer up misdirection, send them on a wild goose chase. They were protective of his privacy.
Finkel: You know, that’s a lovely comparison. There might be the stray person who goes looking for him, but you’re right, Chris Knight is living in the ideal spot for someone who wants to be private. He’s been out of the woods going on four years, and really he hasn’t been bothered. People have stuck their business cards in his mailbox, and I’d say that’s too much, but in terms of being bothered, that’s not too bad. And also, when I was worrying about invading Chris’ privacy, Terry Hughes, the officer who arrested, him, mentioned something I found helpful. He said, ‘Mike that man committed a thousand felonies, breaking into all those houses. He sort of deserves to have someone bug him a bit.’
Murphy: At one point after Knight was released from jail, you went to visit him, and he said something that convinced you he was going to commit suicide. That really seemed to unnerve you, and you went to his relatives, a therapist. This question may sound a bit callous, or indelicate, but reading that section of the book, I found myself wondering, why were you determined to prevent that suicide? I had some trouble understanding that. Maybe it’s just me, though.
Finkel: Chris told me he was planning a specific suicide, and I believed him fully. It wasn’t that I was determined to prevent it. But I had to think, what do I do with this information? Holy shit. Am I supposed to stop him? Am I supposed to let him do it? I felt like I had been handed something explosive, a bomb, and I didn’t know whether to let it go off or to try and defuse it. This had never happened to me before, not in my career, not in my life. What would you do if your friend told you he was going to kill himself in the morning? Do you go to the police? Do you try to stop him? There’s no handbook for that situation.
Murphy: One final thing. I’m wondering, since writing this book, have you found yourself changed — your relationship to solitude? To the woods?
Finkel: It warped my sense of time. I spent three years writing a hundred and ninety pages. I still had reality and bills to pay, but I didn’t care. Time floated weirdly for Chris Knight, and it seemed to do the same for me. I was working on this as a magazine story before it was a book, and at some point, Chris said to me, ‘How about we take a break and you can come back in a couple years?’ He was dead serious. And I thought it was a great idea. But I also had a deadline in four weeks.
One more thing changed. This is going to sound like a cliché…I have three little kids. I’m always late to shit. There’s traffic and the kids are fighting and I have six text messages coming in and I’m listening to fucking news about Trump. Twice a day I think: it’s not Chris Knight who’s crazy, it’s the rest of us.