Modern-Day Hermits: Christopher in Maine
After almost 30 years of living alone in the forest, Christopher Knight figured he’d die there. But then his long-practiced habit of stealing from empty vacation homes backfired, and the modern-day hermit ended up somewhere he never expected: jail.
Hermits have existed since ancient times, choosing to live reclusive lives in remote locales separate from the rest of civilization. Translating to “desert dwellers” in Latin, hermits were historically deeply religious, spending their days enmeshed in prayers and meditations, while forgoing sensual and worldly pleasures.
In our overpopulated world, it can be hard to imagine places where people can live in seclusion and not interact with any human beings, yet there are a handful of modern-day hermits still out there. Unlike their predecessors, they’re less motivated by religious pursuits, driven more by a desire to escape, save money, protect the planet, and live off-the-grid.
In the last decade, a number of these modern-day hermits have been revealed, uncovered living quietly, in secret, right under our noses in places like Europe, the U.S., and Japan. Some have been arrested and forcibly placed back in to society while others are battling to preserve their hermetic lifestyles.
“Modern-Day Hermits” is an ongoing series about these rare, fascinating people who’ve chosen solitude over everything else.
Every time he stole supplies from an empty vacation house, Christopher Knight felt bad.
“My heart rate was soaring. It was not a comfortable act,” he told GQ in 2014. “I took no pleasure in it, none at all, and I wanted it over as quickly as possible."
Over the course of 27 years, Knight committed an average of 40 robberies a year — or almost 2,000 break-ins in all. Stealing wasn’t something he wanted to do; it wasn’t part of his nature, or, as he said, his “scruples” to do such a thing. But he had to.
As a modern-day hermit living alone in the woods of central Maine, there were certain resources and materials that he simply couldn’t glean from nature. Food and propane tanks, which he used to fire up his Coleman two-burner stove, were the most common items he stole.
His trash — which he stashed over the years between two boulders — revealed the unhealthy contents of his pilfered diet: a 5-pound tub of Marshmallow Fluff, bags of Cheetos, cans of tuna fish, packages of spicy jalapeño chimichangas.
Knight also stole household items and kitchenware, toiletries and mouse traps. Even though he lived in the wild, interacting with a human being only once back in the 1990s when a hiker passed by his camp and he said “Hi,” Knight kept up a number of his earlier ingrained habits.
He stole disposable razor blades to shave his beard and used purloined tissue paper despite lacking a toilet. He washed his dirty clothing using others’ hijacked laundry detergent, washed his hair with their shampoo. Pretty much everything he owned hadn’t originally been his. Even his underwear used to be worn by someone else.
Knight was 20 years old when he decided to forsake society for the woods. It was 1986, or, as he remembered it, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster. He’d graduated high school a few years prior and then taken a job installing alarm systems in homes and cars, gathering knowledge and skills that would prove valuable when he started stealing later on.
After his disappearance, Knight’s family never reported him missing. And it seems as if Knight never gave his disappearance much thought either. He simply drove his car into the forest, as deep as he could, until he almost ran out of gas. Then he parked, left the keys in the center console, and set off into the woods.
“I had a backpack and minimal stuff,” he told GQ. “I had no plans. I had no map. I didn’t know where I was going. I just walked away.”
He moved around often in the beginning, but eventually settled on a well-hidden spot where he set up the nylon tent that would serve as his home for nearly three decades. Savvy and constantly in fear of being discovered, he developed a series of rules and regulations that governed the way he lived, looked, slept, and ate as a modern-day hermit.
Because of the smoke, Knight never once lit a fire, and he spray-painted every item he owned, especially the shiny things, in camouflage colors. In the fall, he gorged on sugar and alcohol to fatten himself for the colder months. In the winter, he grew his beard long for insulation and slept odd hours, waking up at 2 a.m. — when the temperature is the lowest — to prevent freezing to death. When the chickadees started singing again, he knew spring was right around the corner.
In his years living as a modern-day hermit, Knight lost touch with society. He didn’t know if his parents were still alive or what the internet was. He’d never seen a text message or sent an email. If you’d have asked him what Facebook was, he probably would have guessed it was a novel.
The only connections Knight had to the outside world were through items he stole during his raids, things like books and magazines, radios and an antenna.
Though he “was always scared” when he stole, he realized early on it was something he’d have to do. Eating foraged food, roadkill, and vegetables plucked from people’s gardens simply wasn’t enough to satisfy his hunger. He needed more, so he turned his sights on the nearby communities of North Pond.
“I knew it was wrong,” Knight said. “Knew it was wrong, felt guilty about it every time, yet continued to do it."
He followed strict rules when stealing so that he’d never get caught. He burgled only at night, and only in homes that were empty. When it snowed, he ceased stealing for fear of leaving footprints. Sometimes he’d “borrow” a canoe to ferry larger items closer to his camp, but he’d always return them, sprinkling pine needles on their floors so they’d seem unused. In his backpack, he carried tools like screwdrivers and pen-lights to aid his break-ins, and watches so that he could be sure to return to camp before daybreak.
Over the years, Knight developed an almost mythical, if not fearsome, status among the Mainers he stole from. They called him the North Pond Hermit, their resentment of him growing with each passing season. They started setting up traps, installing alarm systems and security cameras with hopes of catching him if not in-person, then at least on film. Some locals even stayed up at night waiting for him, praying he’d try to break-in to their homes while they were awake.
Eventually that day came. It was the night of April 4, 2013. Knight was pilfering rolls of Smarties and bacon strips from the Pine Tree summer camp in Rome, Maine, when he unknowingly set off a newly-installed military-grade motion detector hidden behind an ice machine.
Sergeant Terry Hughes, a man who’d long been hoping to catch the elusive hermit, received the alarm’s notification at his home no more than a mile away. He quickly drove over to the summer camp, and, through the dining hall window, caught his first-ever glimpse of the notorious thief.
Maine State Police arrived at the scene soon after, but not before Hughes gave Knight the fright of his life — shining a flashlight in his eyes, pointing a .357 at his head, and bellowing that he “get on the floor.”
Knight was arrested, charged with burglary and theft, and booked into a nearby county jail. That night marked his first time sleeping indoors since he became a modern-day hermit.
He was 47, hardly able — or at least unwilling — to talk, with no clue what year it was. Making eye contact with others felt overwhelming. Hugging was torture. He felt stressed and constantly tired. He missed the woods, missed its stillness.
He really thought he was going to die out there in nature. Jail was never part of his plan.
While he was locked up, a mental health evaluation determined that Knight possibly had Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum.
When two of his brothers visited him in jail, he didn’t recognize them.
And when he discovered that the world was labeling him a hermit — a word he’d never once used to describe himself — he complained.
"When I came out of the woods, they applied the label ‘hermit’ to me. Strange idea to me. I had never thought of myself as a hermit,” Knight told GQ. “Then I got worried. For I knew with the label ‘hermit’ comes the idea of crazy.”
Eventually, at the end of October, Knight appeared in court, pleading guilty to 13 counts of burglary and theft. He received seven months in jail — which, but for one week, he’d already served — and a weekly Monday appointment with a judge. He was also ordered to avoid alcohol and either find a job or go back to school. If he failed to follow through with these terms, he could be sent back to prison for seven years.
And that’s where Knight’s tale ends. Nothing is known about where he ended up or what he ended up doing after he left jail and stopped writing letters to the GQ journalist he’d been communicating with.
Presumably, he followed the court’s orders and reintegrated back into society. But maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’s now back in jail, or even dead. No one really knows, which, in the end, is probably just what he’d want.