Christopher Knight was only 20 years old when he walked away from society, not to be seen again for more than a quarter of a century. He had been working for less than a year installing home and vehicle alarm systems near Boston, Massachusetts, when abruptly, without giving notice to his boss, he quit his job. He never even returned his tools. He cashed his final pay cheque and left town.
Knight did not tell anyone where he was going. "I had no one to tell," he says. "I didn't have any friends. I had no interest in my co-workers." He drove down the east coast of America, eating fast food and staying in cheap motels - "the cheapest I could find". He travelled for days, alone, until he found himself deep into Florida, sticking mostly to major roads, watching the world go by.
Eventually, he turned around and headed north. He listened to the radio. Ronald Reagan was president; the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had just occurred. Driving through Georgia and the Carolinas and Virginia, blessed with invincibility of youth, buzzed by "the pleasure of driving", he sensed an idea growing into a realisation, then solidifying into resolve.
All his life, he had been comfortable being alone. Interacting with others was so often frustrating. Every meeting with another person seemed like a collision.
He drove north to Maine, where he had grown up. There aren't many roads in the centre of the state, and he chose the one that went right by his family's house. "I think it was just to have one last look around, to say goodbye," he said. He didn't stop. The last time he saw his family home was through the windscreen of his car.
He kept going, "up and up and up". Soon he reached the shore of Moosehead Lake, the largest in Maine, and the point where the state begins to get truly remote. "I drove until I was nearly out of gas. I took a small road. Then a small road off that small road. Then a trail off that." He went as far into the wilderness as his vehicle could take him.
Knight parked the car and tossed the keys on the centre 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.
A forest tree canopy in Rockport, Maine. Photograph: Mauricio Handler/Getty Images/National Geographic Magazines
Why would a 20-year-old man abruptly abandon the world? The act had elements of a suicide, except he didn't kill himself. "To the rest of the world, I ceased to exist," said Knight. Following his disappearance, Knight's family must have suffered; they had no idea what had happened to him, and couldn't completely accept the idea that he might be dead.
His final gesture, leaving his keys in the car, was particularly strange. Knight was raised with a keen appreciation of the value of money, and the car was the most expensive item he had ever purchased. Why not hold on to the keys as a safety net? What if he didn't like camping out?
"The car was of no use to me. It had just about zero gas and I was miles and miles from any gas station," he said. As far as anyone knows, the car is still there, half-swallowed by the forest. Knight said that he didn't really know why he left. He had given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at a specific answer. "It's a mystery," he declared.
There have been hermits - also known as recluses, monks, misanthropes, ascetics, anchorites, swamis - at all times in recorded history, across all cultures. But there are really only three general reasons why people leave the world.
Most do so for religious purposes, to forge a closer bond with a higher power. Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha all spent significant time alone before introducing a new religion to the world. In Hindu philosophy, everyone ideally matures into a kind of hermit, and today at least four million people live as wandering holy men in India, surviving off the charity of strangers, having renounced all familial and material attachments.
Other hermits opt out of civilisation because of a hatred of what the world has become - too much war, or environmental destruction, or crime, or consumerism. The first great literary work about solitude, the Tao Te Ching, was written in China in the sixth century BC by a hermit named Laozi, who was protesting the corrupt state of society. The Tao Te Ching says that it is only through retreat rather than pursuit, through inaction rather than action, that we acquire wisdom.
The final category includes those who wish to be alone for reasons of artistic freedom, scientific insight or deeper self-understanding. Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond in Massachusetts to journey within, to explore "the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being". English historian Edward Gibbon said that "solitude was the school for genius".
Knight fit into none of these categories - he did not follow any formal religion; he was not protesting modern society; he produced no artwork or philosophical treatise. He never took a photograph or wrote a sentence; not a single person knew where he was. His back was fully turned to the world. There was no clear reason for what he chose to do. Something he couldn't quite pinpoint had tugged him away from the world with the persistence of gravity. He was one of the longest‑enduring solitaries in history, and among the most fervent as well. Christopher Knight was a true hermit.
"I can't explain my actions," he said. "I had no plans when I left, I wasn't thinking of anything. I just did it."
Knight's goal was to get lost. Not just lost to the rest of the world but actually lost in the woods by himself. He carried only rudimentary camping supplies, a few articles of clothing and a little food. "I had what I had," he said, "and nothing more."
It is not easy to get truly lost. Anyone with basic outdoor skills generally knows which way they are heading. The sun burns west across the sky, and from there it is natural to set the other directions. Knight knew that he was heading south. He said that he didn't make a conscious decision to do so. Instead, he felt pulled in that direction, like a homing pigeon. "There was no depth or substance to the idea. It was at the instinctual level. It's instinct among animals to return to home territory, and my home ground, where I was born and raised, was that way."
Maine is partitioned into a series of long north-south valleys, the geologic clawmark left by glaciers surging and retreating. Separating the valleys are strings of mountains, now weather-worn and bald-topped like old men. The valley floors at the time of year when Knight arrived were a summer soup of ponds and wetlands and bogs.
A television found at Christopher Knight's camp. Photograph: Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
"I kept largely to the ridges," Knight said, "and sometimes crossed swamps going from one ridge to another." He worked his way along crumbled slopes and muddy wetlands. "Soon I lost track of where I was. I didn't care." He would camp in one spot for a week or so, then head south yet again. "I kept going," he said. "I was content in the choice I had made."
Content except for one thing: food. Knight was hungry, and he really didn't know how he would feed himself. His departure from the outside world was a confounding mix of incredible commitment and complete lack of forethought - not all that strange for a 20-year-old. It was as if he went camping for the weekend and then didn't come home for a quarter of a century. He was an able hunter and angler, but he took neither a gun nor a rod with him. Still, he didn't want to die, at least not then. Knight's idea was to forage. The wilds of Maine are monumentally broad, though not generous. There are no fruit trees. Berries sometimes have a weekend-long season. Without hunting or trapping or fishing, a person is going to starve.
Knight worked his way south, eating very little, until paved roads appeared. He found a road-killed partridge, but did not possess a stove or a way to easily start a fire, so he ate it raw. Neither a tasty meal nor a hearty one, and a good way to get sick. He passed houses with gardens, but was raised with rigid morals and a great deal of pride. You make do on your own, always. No handouts or government assistance, ever. You know what's right and what's wrong, and the dividing line is usually clear.
But try not eating for 10 days - nearly everyone's restraints will be eroded. Hunger is hard to ignore. "It took a while to overcome my scruples," Knight said, but as soon as his principles began to fall away, he snapped off a few ears of corn from one garden, dug up some potatoes from another, and ate a couple of green vegetables.
Once, during his first weeks away, he spent the night in an unoccupied cabin. It was a miserable experience. "The stress of that, the sleepless worry about getting caught, programmed me not to do that again." Knight never slept indoors after that, not once, no matter how cold or rainy the weather.
Christopher Knight's camp. Photograph: Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
He continued moving south, picking through gardens, and eventually reached a region with a familiar distribution of trees, along with a diversity of birdcalls and a temperature range he felt accustomed to. It had been colder up north. Knight wasn't sure precisely where he was, but he knew that it was home ground. It turned out that he was less than 30 miles, as the crow flies, from his childhood home.
In the early days, nearly everything Knight learned was through trial and error. He had been gifted with a good head for figuring out workable solutions to complicated problems. All his skills, from the rigging of the tarps that formed his shelter, to how to store drinking water, to walking through the forest without leaving tracks, went through multiple revisions and were never considered perfect. Tinkering with his systems was one of Knight's hobbies.
Over the next few months, Knight tried living in several places in the area - including inside a dank hole in a riverbank - all without satisfaction. Finally, he stumbled upon a region of nasty, boulder-choked woods without so much as a game trail running through it; far too harsh for hikers. He liked it immediately. Then he discovered a cluster of boulders, one with a hidden opening that led to a tiny, wondrous clearing. "I knew at once it was ideal. So I settled in."
Still, he remained hungry. Knight was beginning to realise that is almost impossible to live by yourself all the time. You need help. Hermits across history often ended up in deserts or mountains or woodlands - the sorts of places where it was extremely difficult to find or catch all your own food. To feed themselves, some of the Desert Fathers - third-century Christian Hermits from Egypt - wove reed baskets and sold them. In ancient China, hermits were shamans, herbalists and diviners. Later, a fad for hermits swept 18th-century England. It was believed that hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, so advertisements were placed in newspapers for "ornamental hermits" who were lax in grooming and willing to sleep in caves on the country estates of the aristocracy. The job paid well and hundreds were hired, typically on seven-year contracts. Some of the hermits would even emerge at dinner parties and greet guests.
Knight, however, felt that anyone's willing assistance tainted the whole enterprise. He wished to be unconditionally alone; an uncontacted tribe of one.
The cabins around the ponds in central Maine, Knight noted, had minimal security measures. Windows were often left open, even when the owners were away. The woods offered excellent cover, and with few permanent residents, the area would always be empty during the off-season. A summer camp with a big pantry was nearby. The easiest way to become a hunter-gatherer here was obvious.
And so Knight decided to steal.
To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience, daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. "I looked for patterns," Knight said. "Everyone has patterns."
He perched at the edge of the woods and meticulously observed the habits of the families with cabins along the ponds. He watched their quiet breakfasts and dinner parties, their visitors and vacancies, the cars moving up and down the road. Nothing Knight saw tempted him to return to his former life. His surveillance was clinical, informational, mathematical. He did not learn anyone's name. All he sought was to understand migration patterns - when people went shopping, when a cabin was unoccupied. After that, he said, everything in his life became a matter of timing. The ideal time to steal was deep in the night, midweek, preferably when it was overcast, best in the rain. A heavy downpour was prime. People stayed out of the woods when it was wet.
Still, Knight did not walk on roads or trails, just in case, and he never launched a raid on a Friday or Saturday - days he knew had arrived from the obvious surge in lakeside noise.
For a while, he opted to go out when the moon was large, so he could use it as a light source. In later years, when he suspected the police had intensified their search for him, he switched to no moon at all. Knight liked to vary his methods. He didn't want to develop any patterns of his own, though he did make it a habit to embark on a raid only when freshly shaved or with a neatly groomed beard, and wearing clean clothing, so as to reduce suspicion on the slight chance that he was spotted.
There were at least 100 cabins in Knight's thieving repertoire. The ideal was a fully stocked place, with the family away until the weekend. He knew, in many cases, the precise number of steps required to reach a particular cabin, and once he selected a target, he bounded and weaved through the forest. Sometimes, if he was headed far or needed a load of propane or a replacement mattress it was easier to travel by canoe. Canoes are difficult to hide, and if you steal one, the owner will call the police. It was wiser to borrow, and there was a large selection around the lake, some up on sawhorses and seldom used.
Knight was capable of reaching homes anywhere along the largest pond near his hidden campsite. "I'd think nothing of paddling for hours, whatever needed to be done." If the water was choppy, he would place a few rocks in the front of the boat to keep it stable. Typically, he stayed close to shore, cloaked against the trees, hiding in the silhouette of the land, though on a stormy night he would paddle across the middle, alone in the dark and lashed by the rain.
When he arrived at his chosen cabin, he would make sure there were no vehicles in the driveway, no sign of someone inside. Burglary is a dicey business, with a low margin for error. One mistake and the outside world would snatch him back. So he crouched in the dark and waited, sometimes for hours. "I enjoy being in the dark," he said.
He never risked breaking into a home occupied year-round, and he always wore a watch so he could monitor the time.
Sometimes, cabins were left unlocked. Those were the easiest to enter, though soon other places became nearly as simple. Knight had keys to them, found during previous break-ins. He stashed each key on its respective property, typically under some nondescript rock. He created several dozen of these stashes and never forgot where one was.
He noticed when several cabins left out pens and paper, requesting a shopping list, and others offered him bags of supplies, hanging from a doorknob. But he was fearful of traps, or tricks, or initiating any sort of correspondence, even a grocery list. So he left everything untouched, and people stopped.
For the majority of his break-ins, Knight worked the lock on a window or door. He always carried his lock-breaking kit, a gym bag with a collection of screwdrivers and flat bars and files, all of which he had stolen, and could defeat all but the most fortified bolts with the perfect little jiggle of just the right tool. When he had finished stealing, he would often reseal the hasp on the window he had unlatched and exit through the front door, making sure the handle was set, if possible, to lock up behind himself. No need to leave the place vulnerable to thieves.
The bow of a canoe on Lang Pond in Maine's Northern Forest. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
As the local residents invested in security upgrades, Knight adapted. He knew about alarms from his one paying job, and he used this knowledge to continue stealing - sometimes disabling systems or removing memory cards from surveillance cameras. He evaded dozens of attempts to catch him, by both police officers and private citizens. The crime scenes he left behind were so clean that the authorities offered their begrudging respect. "The level of discipline he showed while he broke into houses," said one police officer, "is beyond what any of us can remotely imagine - the legwork, the reconnaissance, the talent with locks, his ability to get in and out without being detected."
A burglary report filed by another officer specifically noted the crime's "unusual neatness". The hermit, many officers felt, was a master thief. It was as if he were showing off, picking locks yet stealing little, playing a strange sort of game.
Knight said the moment he opened a lock and entered a home, he always felt a hot wave of shame. "Every time, I was very conscious that I was doing wrong. I took no pleasure in it, none at all." Once inside a cabin, he moved purposefully, hitting the kitchen first before making a quick sweep of the house, looking for any useful items, or the batteries he always required. He never turned on a light. He used only a small torch attached to a metal chain he wore around his neck.
During a burglary, there wasn't a moment's ease. "My adrenaline was spiking, my heart rate was soaring. My blood pressure was high. I was always scared when stealing. Always. I wanted it over as quickly as possible."
When Knight was finished with the inside of the cabin, he would habitually check the gas grill to see if the propane tank was full. If so, and there was an empty spare lying around, he would replace the full one with an empty, making the grill appear untouched.
Then he would load everything into a canoe, if he had borrowed one, and paddle to the shore closest to his camp to unload. He would return the canoe to the spot he had taken it from, sprinkle some pine needles on the boat to make it appear unused, then haul his loot up through the dense woods, between the rocks, to his home.
Each raid brought Knight enough supplies to last about two weeks, and as he settled once more into his room in the woods - "back in my safe place, success" - he experienced a deep sense of peace.
Knight said that he couldn't accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. "It's complicated," he said. "Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can't dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here's the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant."
The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. "My desires dropped away. I didn't long for anything. I didn't even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free."
Virtually everyone who has tried to describe deep solitude has said something similar. "I am nothing; I see all," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lord Byron called it "the feeling infinite". The American mystic Thomas Merton said that "the true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself".
For those who do not choose to be alone - like prisoners and hostages - a loss of one's socially created identity can be terrifying, a plunge into madness. Psychologists call it "ontological insecurity", losing your grip on who you are. Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, a chronicle of two six‑month stints as a ranger in Utah's Arches National Monument, said that being solitary for a long time "means risking everything human". Knight, meanwhile, didn't even keep a mirror in his camp. He was never once bored. He wasn't sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. "I was never lonely," Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.
"If you like solitude," he said, "you are never alone."
Knight was finally arrested, after 27 years of complete isolation, while stealing food at a lakeside summer camp. He was charged with burglary and theft, and taken to the local jail. His arrest caused an enormous commotion - letters and visitors arrived at the jail, and approximately 500 journalists requested an interview. A documentary film team showed up. A woman proposed marriage.
Knight is escorted into Kennebec County Superior Court to enter pleas for multiple burglaries and thefts. Photograph: Portland Press Herald/Press Herald via Getty Images
Everyone wanted to know what the hermit would say. What insights had he gained while he was alone? What advice did he have for the rest of us? People have been approaching hermits with similar requests for thousands of years, eager to consult with someone whose life has been so radically different to their own.
Profound truths, or at least those that make sense of the seeming randomness of life, are difficult to find. Thoreau wrote that he had reduced his existence to its basic elements so that he could "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life".
Knight did, eventually permit one journalist to meet him, and over the course of nine one-hour visits in the jail, the hermit shared his life story - about how he was able to survive, and what it felt like to live alone for so long.
And once, when he was in an especially introspective mood, Knight seemed willing, despite his typical aversion to dispensing wisdom, to share more of what he gleaned while alone. Was there, the journalist asked him, some grand insight revealed to him in the wild?
Knight sat quietly but he eventually arrived at a reply.
"Get enough sleep," he said.
He set his jaw in a way that conveyed he wouldn't be saying any more. This was what he'd learned. It was, without question, the truth.
This is an adapted extract of The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, published by Simon and Schuster