What does it mean to be truly alone?
Who was the North Pond Hermit?
Kevin Tumlinson | WrittenWorld.us
Have you ever actually been alone for any real length of time? No smartphones, no internet, nobody in the apartment next door. Just you and miles of wilderness. Would you be willing to endure that kind of alone-ness and solitude for a day? A week? A month?
How about 27 years?
One man knows exactly what this means.
There's something about being alone, especially alone in the woods, that starts you thinking in a brand new way. You may begin with fear and apprehension, startled by every sound in the brush. If you're afraid of snakes or bears, or bears with snakes for arms, these things will have a growing presence in your consciousness. You'll start to see and hear signs of them everywhere.
Beyond fear, though, being alone in the wilderness can often bring a sense of peace. When you’re away from the noise of civilization, alone with only your own thoughts for company, you become aware of some greater force. Maybe it’s God, or maybe it's just the presence of nature. Your own filters and bias can decide. But it's there. You may not believe it, but when you're out there all on your own, you will feel it.
Just ask the North Pond Hermit.
Christopher Thomas Knight got his nickname the hard way: He lived it for nearly three decades, out in the woods beside North Pond Maine, alone. By himself. No human contact.
For 27 years.
Some of us can’t go a full day without checking in on Facebook, but Chris Knight managed to abandon humanity entirely for half his life, wandering into the woods at 20 years old and not emerging and rejoining society again until he was 47 years old.
Well … sort of.
Turns out, during that 20 years in the woods, though Knight really was utterly alone, speaking to no one and in fact having no human contact whatsoever, he hadn't entirely removed himself from human society. He held on to a tether, of sorts.
During those 27 years in the woods, Knight managed to survive by breaking into local cabins and even a camp for disabled kids, all during the offseason. He would raid pantries and cupboards and walk-in freezers for as much food as he could carry back to his camp. He would swipe clothing and sleeping bags, plastic tarps and propane tanks, and anything else he might need.
And books—he stole a lot of books. Plus handheld videos games, a small black-and-white television, even a twin-sized mattress.
He stole what he needed from the people who lived or owned property around North Pond, and he did it hundreds of times over three decades. He may actually turn out to be the most successful serial robber in history.
Knight would lug this ill-gotten bounty back with him, pushing into the thick, impossible woods that ride the edge of North Pond, somehow managing to haul it all through the brambles to a clearing he'd made for himself.
The clearing was something of a miracle itself.
Throughout his 27 years in the woods, Knight had swept the grounds, removed stray branches and stones, and made a space for himself. But he hadn't stopped there. He went on to lining and leveling the ground with bundles of stolen National Geographic Magazine—favored for its glossy pages, which helped to keep water moving rather than soaking in. He created a subfloor with bricks of magazines, and then built on top of it. Layering tarps and tents and other materials, Knight built the ultimate grownup blanket fort, capable of keeping out rain and snow, insects and animals. A cozy little place to spend a life alone.
It wasn't perfect. Not like having a tiny cabin in the woods. The cold, sometimes dipping as low as -25˚F (-32˚C), still crept in, bypassing any attempt to keep it at bay and threatening to end him every winter.
Knight survived by fattening himself up, the same way bears and other mammals might, and sticking to a strict discipline of getting up early, around 2 AM each morning, moving and performing tasks to get his blood flowing. While people slept in warm beds and heated cabins just a few hundred feet from him, Chris Knight intentionally struggled against the Maine Winter, literally stomping it out as he performed chores in his camp.
He never managed to keep his feet warm, though. Layers of socks, hot water bottles, piles of blankets and sleeping bags, and without fail his feet were freezing by morning anyway. Such is the life of a hermit in the woods of Maine.
To keep himself hidden, Knight committed to some extreme methods, and even more extreme discipline. He never left his clearing when there was snow on the ground, for example, because there was no way to avoid leaving tracks. He never lit a fire, because someone might see the smoke or the flames. He learned to walk on the stones and tree roots of his woods, so there could never be a trace of him even if someone came looking.
For 27 years, the North Pond Hermit plagued (some would say “terrorized”) locals, finding ways to break into their vacation homes, taking whatever he needed, absconding with food and alcohol and clothing, and with any and all candy he could find. He had something of a sweet tooth.
The North Pond Hermit became a local legend, like Maine's version of Sasquatch or the Jersey Devil. Some doubted his existence. Some were afraid of him. No one, however, ever saw him or spoke to him for almost thirty years. The most anyone had in the way of evidence for his existence were some game camera photos and a bit of security camera footage. And a lot of missing stuff, of course.
Here's the thing—Chris Knight lived an existence entirely apart from human interaction for three decades, surviving in one of the harshest regions of the US (Maine winters are brutal), and getting by more or less on the refuse and leavings of humanity, all while living only a few hundred feet from civilization.
The woods that Knight called home were situated in an area that had a light permanent population but a sizeable seasonal vacation presence. From his clearing, he could hear activity on the lake, from fishermen to motorboats. And he was just a short walk from the cabins he robbed on a regular basis.
Somehow, Christopher Thomas Knight, the North Pond Hermit, had pulled off the near-impossible feat of disappearing in plain sight. And if he hadn’t finally been caught and arrested while breaking into that camp for disabled children, in 2013, it’s possible he would have lived a lifetime and died a peaceful death right among the local population, without anyone ever knowing he was there.
A quiet, unremarkable, unknown death. Just as he would have wanted.
If you’ve read any of my fiction, you know that I have a great fondness for resourceful, autonomous, independent characters. I love the idea of someone being able to withdraw from society, if they have to, and get by on their wits and intelligence. I write characters who primarily look at the modern world as a cookie jar of resources and are unafraid to take what they need when they need it.
Christopher Knight wasn't quite identical to any given character I've written, but at heart, he is exactly who I have in mind.
I discovered Knight through Michael Finke’s book The Stranger In The Woods, and I found myself (over and over) identifying with him. Maybe it was a romanticized sort of thing, I can cop to that. I don’t exactly have an urge to live in the woods, secluded from everyone, too afraid to so much as light a fire to keep warm or cook a meal. But that impulse to walk away from the world and rely on my own character and strength and resourcefulness? Oh yeah. That attracts me.
My version of this was to do things like selling the house my wife and I lived in for four years and buy an RV, traveling the country while I wrote and produced podcasts and attended author conferences. And now that we're back to a "home base," I find myself lingering on ideas like trading my pickup for a camper van, or maybe just putting a camper shell on the truck and lighting out for parts unknown.
The other parallel for me is my tendency to do things like choose a city and fly there, just to spend a week walking its streets, alone, checking out all the hidden corners. As I write this, I'm doing that very thing, wandering the streets of Seattle. I don't shy away from either the ritzy heights or the impromptu tent villages of the homeless people. I check out the touristy stuff, and I duck into the things that buttress the city's real culture and personality.
On trips like this, I'll sometimes skip the hotel in favor of wandering on foot for a day and a night, catching quick naps in coffee shops and bookstores and libraries, sleeping in a rental car if I have one. My version of roughing it.
But the thing is, I can always get a hotel. I can hop on a plane home, whenever I want. I can take out my iPhone and get an Uber to an AirBnB. I have a backup plan.
Chris Knight had none of that, and he didn’t want it. He left society behind, not because he was angry or afraid or bitter but because …
Well, honestly, even Knight himself doesn’t know. There was no reason. He had no reason for leaving.
We find that impossible to accept.
“Everything has a reason.” That’s our mantra. It’s what our entire culture and society are built on. But the truth, the real truth, is that sometimes there isn’t a reason. Sometimes we decide to grab soup instead of a sandwich, or a table by the window instead of one by the fireplace, or a red scarf instead of a blue scarf, and we just have no justification for any of it. And sometimes we decide to park our car, toss the keys on the dash, and walk into the woods forever, with nothing motivating us beyond the idea of it.
Being alone can change who you are. It can be both damaging and healing. It can be an expression and a silence, a protest, and an acceptance. Did Chris Knight have any of this in mind, at any time from the start to finish of his life in the woods? Maybe. Maybe not. But looking at what he did and how he lived, it’s inspiring. We can learn from it, even if there was no lesson intended.
If you enjoyed this little tale …
You might enjoy a good thriller novel. And I happen to write thriller novels. Find something to keep you up all night at KevinTumlinson.com/books