The first sentence on the inside of the jacket of The Stranger In The Woods says it all. “Many people dream of escaping modern life but most will never act on it.” Christopher Knight, the hermit of North Pond, actually did it. In 1986, he drove his car to the edge of a forest in Maine, left the keys on the dash, walked in, and didn’t come out until 2013.
Truth be told, I’m a pretty big fan of WIFI, plumbing, and antibiotics, among other modern conveniences. My dreams of escape have usually come on frustrating days, the days when I’ve just wanted to say, “fuck it.” That’s when I’ve thought about escape. No more plastering a smile on my face for the duration of a companywide meeting and then going home on a packed train to pay bills for stuff that I don’t need. I could stuff a backpack full of clothes and just split. Head to the woods. Get a cabin and a shotgun. Grow my own food. Get off the grid. Freedom.
Never mind the fact that I could hardly stand Boy Scouts and I’ve never so much as camped more than a mile from a paved road.
This thought usually lasts for the duration of a subway ride. Then it’s home to order take out from a restaurant over the internet, perhaps open a bottle of beer that was brewed and bottled in a plant somewhere then driven along a highway to my local corner store. Maybe I’ll turn on my television to watch a re-run of a program filmed in Los Angeles and then brought into my living room by an endless system of cables. (It’s cables, right?)
Most of these days came in my twenties, when my friends and I were adjusting to the realities of adult life: jobs, rent, bills, and no end to those things anywhere in sight. Staring down the barrel of a life spent in an office, we thought about how to subvert our lives. There had to be some sort of hack.
My friend Jon’s plan was to live on a tropical island. Fiji came up often. You can just live there for cheap, on a beach. It later evolved into, okay, half the year in Fiji, then back to the states to earn some money, then back to Fiji. Someone knew a guy who knew a guy who lived half the year in the States, then half the year in South America on the money he made in the first half. So, clearly, this lifestyle was feasible.
He actually did pull of a similar feat. He managed to live for many months down in the Virgin Islands in St. John in a bay, on a boat. He was able to buy a boat with a broken mast (i.e. unsailable) so he could have a floating apartment. He could go down there for months at a time. A floating home off of a tropical island.
My friend Pat was usually stuck on conspiracies and the inherent evil of society. He would push books on me that basically had the thesis that we as humans are only meant to follow our bliss but society and they make sure we don’t. Who they were would vary: the government, the Illuminati, etc. He would offer examples from books that some friend had given him that people were only meant to live in small tribes, hunting, gathering, telling stories around a fire, and everything else is a perversion of our true nature. Even as I argued with him, neither of us brought up the fact that these conversations were occurring over instant messenger from two separate air conditioned office buildings.
Even in my eighteen professional years, I’ve seen work life ask more and more of us for less and less reward. Skills are traded for exposure and not money. Every start-up seems to exist not to innovate but simply to sell a codebase to Facebook or Google. And yet we keep participating. Why? Why not just flee?
Christopher Knight peacefully existed for twenty-seven years. He never got sick. He didn’t take Lexapro or have a therapist. He never read a self help book. But most of all, he didn’t feel alone. He felt complete. There was something natural about the way that he was living.
As The Stranger In The Woods author Michael Finkel observed in his interactions with Knight, “He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed.”
Knight doesn’t seem to be an evangelist, though. As he says in the book, “I wasn’t consciously judging society or myself. I just chose a different path.”
One has to be interested in someone who calls never speaking to another person, “a different path.”
Humans poison the planet. We start wars. We hurt each other in innumerable ways. Sure, this all sounds like the trite musings of college kids who are stoned at four in the morning but it doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it.
Finkel points to philosophers like Jung, Nietzsche, and Confucius extolled the virtues of separating oneself from society. One such quote is from Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti who said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
We run around from job to job, from task to task, and for what? Among the other hermits cited in the book is Tenzin Palmos, born Diane Perry, only the second Western women to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Starting in 1976, she lived in a cave for twelve years. “She never once lay down; she slept, sitting up, inside a small wooden meditation box. Her solitude, she said, was the easiest thing in the world.'” As she is quoted in the book, “The idea that there’s somewhere we have got to get to, and something we have to attain, is our basic delusion.”
There may even be something biologically advantageous to this kind of solitude. The book cites neuroscientists at NYU claiming that, “when the human brain experiences a self-consciously chosen silence, as opposed to sleep, the brain does not slow down. It remains as active as ever. What changes is where the brain is functioning.” Language and hearing are more at rest, so, “deeper and more ancient brain structures seem to be activated – the subcortical zones. People who live busy, noisy lives are rarely granted access to these areas.”
Christopher Knight was kind of an asshole.
Think about the kind of person who could actually do this. No, like, really do it. Leave all of it behind. All of it.
What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without speaking to another person? Not one person. A day? A few days perhaps? Even at your loneliest, it’s not easy to do. Hell, J.D. Salinger had friends and lovers in New Hampshire. Thomas Pynchon has a wife and kid and lives in New York City.
While reading this book, I was reminded of Christopher McCandless, profiled in John Krakauer’s Into the Wild. He too put the keys of his car on the dash and walked into the forest.
McCandless, or Alexander Supertramp as he referred to himself, was by all accounts a charismatic and talented kid. He was an honor student at Emory and a good athlete. One got the sense, though, while reading Into the Wild, that McCandless would have come back to society. He happened to be putting himself through a hero’s trial. There was a purity to McCandless’s solitude. He had to live off the land. Forage and hunt game. That was the standard he set for himself and eventually he starved to death.
Christopher Knight, on the other hand, lived in a stolen tent, wearing stolen clothes, eating stolen food.
That’s how he was caught. He was caught stealing from – this is a just lovely – a summer camp for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities called the Pine Tree Camp.
While the Pine Tree Camp was his WalMart, the cottages around North Pond acted as his bodegas. Every supply and stitch of clothing he had was stolen. The residents hated him.
In his interviews and letters to the author, he is both curt and condescending. He goes beyond simply being curmudgeonly and is the most literal embodiment of anti-social I have ever come across.
Doctors tried to diagnose him. The obvious choice being Autism Spectrum Disorder (the new clinical name for Asperger’s). Though, as one doctor noted, “to survive for so long completely on his own without therapy or treatment, is extremely uncharacteristic of an autistic person.” Another doctor notes that autistic people don’t steal and even the most severely autistic have one person that they like to be around. The other diagnosis was possible schizoid personality disorder but nothing really fit.
Peter Deri, a clinical psychologist interviewed in the book, said, “The complexity of this guy is so puzzling you could go anywhere diagnostically. There has to be grandiosity to go through with a plan like that, it is so exceptional. Knight is like a Rorschach card. He really is an object for everyone to project onto.”
In the western world, we praise individuality but true individuals are few and far between. As of the publication of the book, Knight was fined $2,000, and sent home to live with his mother and try to find work and reenter society. Christopher Knight is an individual, albeit an individual I wouldn’t want to know.
The idea of bailing has been on my mind recently. I’m forty (and I won’t shut up about how I’m forty). I’m single. I have no real career. The idea that there could possibly be this escape hatch is kind of appealing. Fuck it – to the woods!
But escaping isn’t that easy.
Jon found out that it’s not that easy to maintain a boat down in the Virgin Islands, even one that doesn’t sail. Living six months up and six months down isn’t that easy either, not in the long term. So, he gave it up.
The rigor that it takes to reject society’s ills takes a lot out of you too.
Sure, Pat will still point out Illuminati imagery in a Super Bowl halftime show but, generally, he’s too busy playing with his daughters to talk conspiracy anymore.
All three of us have mortgages now. That means that technically a bank owns our homes. Why enter into a deal like that? I don’t know, because everybody else does?
I really like Starbucks, Netflix, televised professional sports, meat that I didn’t have to kill, and the ability to find any song that I have ever heard ever on the internet. I might not be accessing my subcortical zones of my brain any time soon but Stranger Things season two is due in October and that’s going to be kick ass.
Whenever I feel like bailing, it’s because I’m afraid of the future. It’s because I’m in a place where I’m thinking, “what’s next?” and I don’t know the answer and it’s terrifying. But I can take some solace in what isn’t next: driving up to the edge of the woods, putting my keys on the dash, and leaving it all behind.