“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
— Henry David Thoreau
Two gift books sat on the kitchen counter — “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance, and “The Stranger in the Woods,” by Michael Finkel.
Sam chose the hillbilly book, sometimes laughing out loud, like when the hillbilly grandson asked the hillbilly grandmother, “What does it feel like to get hit in the head?”
The grandmother hit him in the head.
Other times Sam was horrified at the social mores.”Some of this is a little too close to our own redneck ways,” he said.
I chose the stranger book with the subtitle, “The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.” I was smitten from the get-go with the hermit: “The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour … I never felt lonely. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
Christopher Knight, the hermit, graduated from high school in 1984, took an electronics course and started work for an alarm company, a job the book says would serve him well. One day he walked off the job, got into his 1985 Subaru Brat and drove south. He told no one where he was going. He drove from Maine to Florida listening to the radio.
Chris’s schoolmates described him as quiet, shy, intelligent, not athletic but in good shape. He was a reader and enjoyed time alone. A plan took shape as he drove back to the Maine town he grew up in. He passed his house and drove on far into the thick of the woods, where his Subaru ran out of gas. He lay the keys on the console, grabbed his backpack and walked away.
Funny, an article in the Daily Mail describes Chris’s campsite as “squalid,” while author Michael Finkel, who visited the site, says, “Knight always kept the place fastidiously clean, raking the leaves and shoveling the snow … It was an aesthetically pleasing creation, almost church-like in appearance, that blended into the color palette of the forest. It’d be hard to make something nicer solely of tarps and garbage bags.”
Chris had fashioned a kitchen, a bedroom, a closet, a carpeted floor, a wash area, a weather station and a system for rainwater collection. At the back of his camp was the framed-up bathroom and more storage areas. A porch offered a lawn chair and tranquility. There were books.
After 27 years, Christopher Knight was caught stealing from summer residents’ lakeside cabins and sentenced to seven months in a special “program that substitutes counseling and judicial monitoring for incarceration.”
Of the world Chris entered, he would say, “It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”
“Knight was examined by a forensic psychologist hired by the state of Maine to evaluate his mental health,” writes Finkel. “Court documents show that the state considered Knight to have ‘complete competency.’ “According to more than a dozen studies conducted around the world, Knight’s camp — an oasis of natural quiet — may have been the ideal setting to encourage maximal brain function. These studies, examining the difference between living in a calm place and existing amid commotion, all arrive at the same conclusion: noise and distraction are toxic.”
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