Ever wonder what it would be like to drop out of human society? One man in Maine did that in 1986, and was recently arrested while stealing candy.
Christopher Thomas Knight disappeared into the forests of Maine 27 years ago, and was only recently re-acquainted with the modern world upon his arrest. He won't — maybe can't — say why he walked into the woods and didn't return. But in that time he didn't build a fire, lived in a tent, and foraged and stole in order to sustain himself.
Journalist Michael Finkel began writing to Knight when he was arrested, and eventually visited Knight in jail to see what he could learn from his story. Knight left around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, and that was his only means of marking the time he'd been gone. The only other connection he had to the outside world — outside of his break-ins — were the books and magazines he stole, and some radio. So he may have known about developments in technology and communication, but he's never experienced them. At first he listened to talk radio, then shifted to classical music, classic rock, and television on the radio. He held a special place for Everybody Loves Raymond and Lynyrd Skynyrd
"They will be playing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs in a thousand years," he proclaimed.
When Finkel brought up Henry David Thoreau, another person who famously went to live in the woods, Knight dismissed Thoreau as a "dilettante."
True hermits, according to Chris, do not write books, do not have friends, and do not answer questions. I asked why he didn't at least keep a journal in the woods. Chris scoffed. "I expected to die out there. Who would read my journal? You? I'd rather take it to my grave." The only reason he was talking to me now, he said, is because he was locked in jail and needed practice interacting with others.
There's also the language problem. When he was arrested, he had a hard time communicating with the police. Before the night he was arrested, he had only ever spoken one other word in his quarter-century of isolation:
Sometime in the 1990s, answered Knight, he passed a hiker while walking in the woods.
"What did you say?" asked [trooper Diane] Perkins-Vance.
"I said, 'Hi,' " Knight replied. Other than that single syllable, he insisted, he had not spoken with or touched another human being, until this night, for twenty-seven years.
Jail has been more than a shock, and he doesn't seem to be responding well — it's all too much, too much noise, too smelly, too many people. He's grown sickly and thin, and constantly itches. But he's found silence to be a useful skill, something that keeps others at bay and garners the respect of the guards.
"That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable."
When he was arrested the state of Main ordered a mental-health evaluation, and diagnosed Knight as possibly having Asperger's syndrome. He has trouble looking people in the eye (says there's "too much information" in a face), doesn't like to communicate face-to-face, and is made physically uncomfortable by the noise and color of the modern world. But this could be the result of living in isolation for so long, and Knight isn't totally on-board:
"I don't think I'll be a spokesman for the Asperger's telethon. Do they still do telethons? I hate Jerry Lewis."
Michael Finkel's article is a longish but lovely read, very well-written with some excellent imagery. You can read the rest of his article over at GQ.