Among the most highly regarded of American values is self-reliance. Take away an American’s paycheck, give him a gun and a stretch of land and he will embrace the opportunity to show you how it’s done. Living off the grid with just your wits and wisdom to guide you is the pioneer spirit writ large. Few things are so fulfilling. But there’s a point at which self-reliance goes too far, and the story of the hermit of North Pond may just show us where that point is.
North Pond is located in central Maine. Technically it’s in the town of Rome, but it’s actually in a rural area with no town of any consequence nearby. It’s part of the Belgrade Lakes region, a favorite of summer vacationers who return each year to relax in the woods by the waterside for a few months. About 300 cabins are scattered around North Pond and its smaller offshoot Little North Pond, which lies nestled against its southwest flank like an overstuffed knapsack. Most of the cabins have been broken into at least once, many multiple times.
The break-ins began in 1986 and continued for more than a quarter century. At first they were unsettling, a disturbing violation of the owners’ personal space, something to be countered with violence, if necessary. But as time went by they became seen as more of a nuisance, like an animal caught in the walls. It wasn’t just the numbing frequency of the break-ins that turned the dial from fear to complacency, it was the things being stolen.
A spatula, a pillow, a case of beer. A frying pan, a garden hose, men’s briefs, size 32. Left behind were expensive cameras, computers, stereos, jewelry. Whoever was doing this had particular needs that didn’t involve the kind of valuables that could be fenced for cash.
And he wasn’t running away either. Year after year the break-ins continued. Propane tanks and batteries were a constant. The perpetrator was obviously replenishing depleted fuel stores. It’s hard to say when it first became apparent that someone was living out there in the woods, surviving off what he took from the cabins, someone living alone and apart, a hermit.
The Hermit of North Pond
The classic hermit of old is an ascetic, someone who practices abstention and self-denial, often for enlightenment. He is a common figure in most of the world’s religions. But the hermit of North Pond was different. He had a weakness for candy and beer. He liked reading. He listened to music. He stole paperback books and CD’s. He had a preference for Dostoyevsky and Lynyrd Skynyrd, judging by what he took and what he left behind.
Apparently he relaxed in comfort. One day a cabin owner came home to find a mattress missing. It was a mystery how the hermit had gotten it through the window. The front door was padlocked. A closer investigation revealed that he had crawled in through the window, taken the front door off the hinges, removed the mattress from the cabin, then put the front door back on the hinges and crawled back through the window. He was nothing if not thorough, and he was at pains to leave everything as he found it. He didn’t want to make a mess. He just wanted what he wanted.
This went on year after year. An average of forty times per year for twenty-seven years. More than a thousand break-ins altogether. Residents became so accustomed to him they began leaving things out for him with notes attached. “Please don’t break in. Tell us what you want and we’ll leave it out for you.”
No reply. The break-ins continued.
He was driving the cops crazy. They couldn’t catch him. They couldn’t even find him. A thorough search of the woods turned up nothing. Foot searches, flyovers, fingerprint dusting, it all yielded blanks. They had no idea who he was. They had no idea where he was hiding.
Then on April 13th, 2013 they tried something different, a new technology, a motion detection sensor used by the Department of Homeland Security on the Mexican border. They installed it in one of his favorite targets, the commissary at Pine Tree Camp, a summer camp for developmentally disabled children. He had burglarized it close to a hundred times, carrying off peanut butter, soda pop, potato chips. This time they caught him red-handed, peering into the walk-in freezer.
He was not what they expected. He was a man of forty-seven. Clean shaven. Thinning hair. Wearing glasses. He looked like he had just stepped off the night shift at an accounting firm. He did not look like a hermit. But he was. They asked him a question: When was the last time he had contact with another human being? He thought it over. He had encountered a hiker while walking in the woods sometime in the 1990’s. That was it. Twenty-seven years, one person. He had said, “Hi.”
Where He Came From
His name was Christopher Knight, and he had come from a family that valued self-reliance. His father had taught him to fix what was broken and build what was needed. The Knights grew their own food and gathered their own water. They hunted and fished. They wasted nothing.
They were an intensely private family. After fourteen years, most of their neighbors barely knew them. At home they used few words. At night they sat around reading, each of them immersed in their own little worlds, a family of five. When Christopher Knight went missing at age twenty in 1986, his family never even bothered to contact the police. They figured he was off on an adventure somewhere. They figured he could take care of himself. They were right.
How He Got By
When Christopher Knight led police to his hidden camp in 2013, they were astonished by what they saw. By overlaying plastic tarps and garbage bags like roof shingles, he had constructed an A-frame structure ten feet high and twelve feet long. Inside was a Coleman two-burner camp stove attached to an outside propane tank by a garden hose. Cooking utensils hung from ropes against the walls. A large plastic storage container served as his pantry. His kitchen was better equipped than many homes. His bedroom was even better.
The floor was constructed of magazines bound into thick bundles with electrical tape and fitted together to form a level platform over which he had spread a soft carpet. His bed was a mattress and box spring on a standard metal bed frame. He had fitted sheets. He had fluffed pillows. His nightstand was stacked high with books. He had flashlights. He had a radio. He had earbuds. The whole place was remarkably clean.
Outside was a wash up area, a flat-topped rock on which he beat his clothes. He collected water in thirty-gallon plastic garbage cans. He showered regularly by pouring water over his head. He shaved daily. He used deodorant. On the camp’s border he had fashioned a latrine. He kept toilet paper and hand sanitizer nearby. He liked to keep clean. He didn’t like a mess. Only after he was taken into custody did he begin to grow a beard.
How He Stayed Hidden
The one thing that was missing from his camp, the one thing conspicuous by its absence, was a fire pit. Christopher Knight never built a fire. It was too risky. It would’ve given him away. He was simply too close to other people.
His campsite was a mere three minute walk from the nearest cabin. At night he could hear the crunch of auto tires on a nearby gravel road and the muffled sounds of his neighbor’s distant voices. In summer he could hear the plop and whir of people fishing on the pond. He knew where they were, but they never saw him. He was a phantom. He stayed hidden, for twenty-seven years.
The site was shielded by two enormous boulders left half-buried in the ground by the last ice age. Looked at straight on they appeared to be one giant stone, but seen at a certain angle they were clearly two, with a gap in between, a gap someone could squeeze through by turning sideways. Items too large for the gap could be pushed over the top. The woods around the campsite were thick with ferns and hemlocks. The branches knitted overhead to form a canopy. The place was completely concealed. But it was a treacherous place nonetheless.
How He Survived
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Christopher Knight’s quarter-century escape into the woods of central Maine is that he never got sick, never got injured, never had to go to a hospital. The area is rife with poison ivy, infested with ticks. In winter it gets brutally cold, especially for someone who refuses to build a fire. Knight never got frostbite. Never got a rash. Never got Lyme disease. Never even got a cold. It turns out that being alone and isolated from other human beings is one of the best ways to keep your health.
But what about Christopher Knight’s mental health? Surely there must’ve been something wrong with him. Who is content to live alone and isolated, fighting the elements to survive when the comforts of civilization lie mere yards away?
In all those years of break-ins he never once stopped to take a hot shower or catch a few winks beneath a solid roof, even though the cabins’ owners were often away for months. He was true to his personal ethos, like Henry David Thoreau, although he disliked Thoreau and considered him a dilettante. Walden was not a serious attempt to separate from society, he thought. Thoreau was just playing.
Why was he like this? In the years since his arrest a raft of psychologists have examined his case but cannot come up with a conclusive diagnosis. He was not abused as a child. He was not bullied or shunned as a teenager. There were no obvious traumas that would’ve led him to a life of isolation. It has been suggested he may have suffered from schizoid personality disorder, characterized by a lack of interest in social interaction. Alternatively, his behavior has some of the earmarks of autism.
Yet his amazing ability to plan and coordinate, to stay ahead of those who were looking for him, to survive in the harsh and ever-changing conditions of central Maine is uncharacteristic of an autistic person and more in keeping with a hearty pioneer braving a new frontier.
It remains distinctly possible that there was nothing wrong with Christopher Knight. His desire to seek the kind of peace and solitude that comes of separating from others is something that has been embraced by philosophers and religious mystics for centuries. But he was not religious. He was not trying to make a point. He was just trying to live life the way he liked it, without money, without social pressure, without noise, answering only to himself and the inner voice that lives deep inside us.
His Shame and His Loss
In the end it was the stealing that did him in. Hunger was the one affliction he could not outwit. He tried to live off the land for a time and failed, so he took to breaking in. Although no one ever impinged on his world, he impinged on theirs, causing fear and consternation, and that was where he crossed the line. Really, was it self-reliance at all if he could not do it without preying on others?
After his arrest he was surprisingly forthcoming. He answered every question candidly. He knew the break-ins were wrong, and he regretted doing them. No political statement, no chest beating. He was ashamed. He didn’t like to make a mess. He just wanted to be left alone.
In the end they didn’t throw the book at him. There was an innocence in his manner that argued against long term incarceration. He spent a total of seven months behind bars and was fined $2,000. But his real punishment came when he had to go back into the world, to live with others, to share the burdens of his existence and surrender forever the fulfillment that comes from self-reliance.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Lexington and Concord, MA
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Bar Harbor, ME
My American Odyssey Route Map
Finkel, Michael. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Knopf, 2017. Website
Christopher Knight in custody, NewsCenterMaine.com
Little North Pond, Malcolm Logan
Cabin near the hermit’s campsite, Malcolm Logan
Hermit Jim, Omaha World Herald
Commissary at the Pine Tree Camp, Malcolm Logan
Red barn, blue sky, Malcolm Logan
Christopher Knight in his high school years, CBC.com
Christopher Knights campsite (1), MichaelFinkel.com
Christopher Knight’s campsite (2), MainePublic.org
Boulders in Maine woods, Malcolm Logan
Dense woods in central Maine, Malcolm Logan
Christopher Knight at Trial, Soapboxie.com
Canoe on the shore of Little North Pond, Malcolm Logan