The Stranger in the Woods

review: Marla Cantrell
By Michael Finkel | Alfred A. Knopf, 191 pages |$26

In 1986, Christopher Knight was twenty years old. He had his first job, installing home and car alarms in Massachusetts. At twenty, he’d never been on a date. He loved solitude, a good book, and technology. Less than a year into his first job, driving a car one of his brothers co-signed for, he quit. He slid behind the wheel and took off, driving all the way to Florida. He ate fast food and slept in the cheapest motels he could find.


The road trip was his first and last. When he’d seen whatever it was he’d gone to see, he turned back, ending up in Maine where he’d grown up, passing by his family’s home but not stopping. He kept going north, driving on roads that were so remote they turned into trails. And then he parked his car, left the keys inside and started walking.


He ended up in The Jarsey, near North Pond and Little North Pond. In Maine, in the wilderness, it was easy to disappear. He eventually found the perfect place, hidden by a boulder he could squeeze through, with his campsite on the other side, covered by hemlocks, maples, white birches, and elms.


As distant as it seemed, Chris was only a three-minute walk from the nearest cabin, and that nearness proved invaluable. Approximately every two weeks, under the cover of night, he stole from the weekend or summer cottages in the area, and eventually from Pine Tree Camp, a summer retreat. The act made him feel sick. He wasn’t brought up that way, he said, and knew he was doing wrong.


For twenty-seven years Chris survived this way. He did not hunt or fish. He never built a fire, believing the fire would call attention to his camp, and end his solitude.


When he stole, he took clothing, soap, razors, food, books, propane tanks, a radio, an old TV, and batteries that he used to make the electronics work. He never befriended an animal but made a connection with a mushroom growing on a nearby tree.


In the winters, when the brutal cold descended, he kept to a schedule, sleeping a few hours, getting up to melt snow over his stove, moving to keep his blood going. And never once, he says, did he get sick.


Chris developed a love of great literature he’d pilfered, although he’d read anything he found in the cottages. In time, he became somewhat of a legend, this hermit who couldn’t be found. But he also frightened those in the area, taking from them peace of mind along with worldly goods.


When the author, Michael Finkel, met Chris, he’d already committed more than 1,000 burglaries. They formed a tentative connection, and Michael began to write the story of this man whose world consisted of a makeshift camp, years of reflection, and an idea that the abundance most of us spend our lives seeking is really just a weight around our necks.


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