The clean-shaven hermit who emerged from the woods in Rome, Maine in April 2013 claimed that he had been living there in complete solitude for the last 27 years. His only interaction with another human being, he said, had occurred in the mid-1990s – when he said hello to a passing hiker.
Remarkably, the hermit claimed to have survived dozens of harsh winters in the woods by getting up in the middle of the night and pacing around his camp. When he wasn’t battling ice and snow, he spent a lot of time reading and meditating. Indeed, the officers who interviewed him in 2013 told the Portland Press Herald that he was “very intelligent” and “very articulate.”
For thousands of years, mystics and truth-seekers have championed the benefits of an ascetic lifestyle. This particular hermit was not religious, though. According to his biographer, Michael Finkel, he did however have experiences echoing those of romantics and transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who reflected at length on the relationship between the soul and nature.
“It’s complicated,” the hermit told Finkel. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But… 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.”
“My desires dropped away,” he continued. “I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.” However, his liberty was not what it seemed. In his case, freedom from the restraints of self, society and others had come at a cost. And it meant that the hermit, paradoxically, was never truly free…
The hermit had in fact decided to withdraw from society in 1986. According to Robert Milliken – a neighbor who lived near his childhood home in Albion, Maine – his family had just assumed that he had run away to New York City. They never filed a missing person’s report. They never involved the police.
In fact, according to Finkel, the hermit’s intention had been to “get lost” – and “not just lost to the rest of the world but actually lost in the woods by himself.” He had come to this decision, said Finkel, after walking out of a dead end job installing alarm systems. He was then 20 years old and living in Boston, Massachusetts.
He had no friends. And he told no one that he was leaving. He just drove south till he hit Florida, staying in low-rent motels all the way. Eventually, however, he turned back up the east coast and ended up in Maine. There he navigated remote rural roads. Then he continued on foot into the wilderness.
Without a map or compass, he had no clue where he was going. Heading south, he followed the ridges of Maine’s interior, traversing swamps when necessary. He soon lost track of his whereabouts. But he didn’t care. Eventually he found a place that was comfortable and he built a camp. His chosen spot was in fact less than 30 miles from his family home.
His family, however, would not see him for another 27 years. And his return to society in April 2013 would not be a matter of choice, either. In fact, he only came out of the woods because he had been caught stealing food from a camp for disabled adults and children. The hermit was immediately arrested and put in jail. The the authorities then set about dismantling his tarp-covered campsite.
The name of the now-47-year-old hermit was Christopher Knight. Police mugshots depicted a clean-shaven, balding and relatively normal-looking, middle-aged man – except for a pair of 1980s-style glasses. This was the faceless individual that locals had called the “North Pond Hermit.” And for years, he’d been stealing from their camps and cabins – though no one had ever seen him before.
“It’s been a myth, this character, this folklore person who is known as the hermit, who we’ve all known about, this unknown suspect who moves around in society and burglarizes camps,” state game warden Sergeant Terry Hughes told CNN. Indeed, Knight was a criminal – he may have perpetrated more than 1,000 break-ins and burglaries in and around the Rome woods.
Whatever Knight’s desire to disconnect from other people, he was entirely dependent on society for survival. In 27 years, he apparently never seriously tried to hunt, trap or fish. But he did regularly steal food, cooking equipment, shovels, batteries and books. His camp – which he’d built inside an impenetrable tangle of thickets – was even found to contain several Nintendo Game Boys and a battery-powered TV.
Knight’s career as a petty thief had apparently begun early during his long sojourn in the Rome woods. He had not eaten for 10 days but found himself passing through an area with houses and cultivated gardens. He stole some corn from one of them. Then some potatoes and some green vegetables. And so it began.
Later, after settling in the Rome woods, he took to surveilling cabins and summer camps near his secluded home. There were few permanent residents in the area and security measures on the cabins were lax. So he concluded that the quickest and easiest way to get food was to raid their pantries.
Over the years, Knight developed a stealthy and precise method for robbing his unwitting neighbors. He would observe them from afar and try to determine their movements. He kept an extensive toolkit for picking and prizing open locks. And he would strike under cover of darkness, after crossing the pond in a “borrowed” canoe.
“Every time, I was very conscious that I was doing wrong,” Knight told Finkel. “I took no pleasure in it, none at all. 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.”
In fact, Knight’s crime spree only came to an end when a game warden called Terry Hughes decided to install surveillance technology at one of the camps. It caught Knight red-handed. With the North Pond Hermit finally captured, some locals must be sleeping easier.
“I tend to feel warmly about Knight,” said Finkel in an interview with National Geographic in 2017. “But it should not be forgotten that it wasn’t just hamburgers and flashlights he stole. It was people’s sense of security and peace of mind, things you cannot put a price tag on.”
“But I believe the grey area between the romantic conception of a hermit and a serial thief makes the story richer and more complicated,” he continued. Christopher Knight, the North Pond Hermit, was sentenced to jail for seven months. Following his release, Knight re-entered society and secured a job with his brother.