The Stranger in the Woods

Stranger in the Woods

Illustration by Michael Byers

For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in a clandestine wooded camp in tiny Rome, undiscovered and unaided, breaking into camps to steal what he needed to survive. When he was finally captured and arrested in April 2013, the story of the North Pond Hermit made headlines worldwide, but Knight spoke to only one journalist: Michael Finkel. In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, Finkel explains the origins of the whispered myth that haunted central Maine for decades, the legend of The Stranger in the Woods.

Excerpted from Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.

Flashlights, for some families, were the first items to vanish. For others, it was a spare propane tank. Or books on a bedside table, or steaks you’d put in the freezer. In one cabin, it was a cast-iron frying pan, a paring knife, and a coffeepot. Batteries, for sure, were missing — often every battery in the house.

It wasn’t funny enough to be a joke, and it wasn’t serious enough to be a crime. It occupied some unsettling place between. Maybe your kids took the flashlights. You did put those steaks in the freezer, didn’t you? After all, your TV was still there, as was your computer, your camera, your stereo, and your jewelry. No windows or doors were broken. Do you call the police and tell them there’s been a burglary, that all your D batteries and your Stephen King novel are gone? You do not.

But then you return to your cabin the following spring and the front door is unlocked. Or the dead bolt is undone. Or, in one case, the hot-water knob on the kitchen sink breaks off in your hand — easily, as though it has just been balanced there — and you examine the sink, then the window over the sink, and you see on the sill a few tiny white curls that look like file shavings. Then you notice that the metal lock on the window is open, and that the frame around the lock has been slightly scraped away.

The Stranger in the Woods

Courtesy of Maine State Police

Holy crap, someone has been inside — and probably stepped on your faucet while wriggling through the window, then made it look like nothing was broken. Again, no valuables are missing, but this time, you do call the police.

The police say they already know about the hermit and hope to have the case quickly solved. All summer, at barbecues and campfires, you hear a dozen similar tales. Propane tanks, batteries, and books are the constants, but also lost are an outdoor thermometer, a garden hose, a snow shovel, and a case of Heineken beer.

One couple opened their place for the season and discovered that there was no mattress on one of the bunk beds. This was baffling. You couldn’t push a mattress out any of the cabin’s windows, not even close. But the front door, the only door, had been bolted and padlocked for winter. The door had been sealed when they’d arrived, the lock untouched; there was no damage anywhere. The kitchen window, however, had been jimmied open. The only idea that made even a sliver of sense was that the thief came in through the window, pried the pins out of the front door’s hinges, forced the door open from the hinge side, slid the mattress out, put the door back together, then exited through the window.

It was the Pine Tree Camp, everyone learned, that was the primary target, the thief’s own private Costco. In every break-in, the damage was minimal — no broken glass, no ransacking. He was a thief, not a vandal. If he removed a door, he took the time to reattach it. Expensive items didn’t seem to interest him. Or her. Or them. Nobody knew. Because of the type of articles that were stolen, one family called him the Mountain Man, but that frightened their children, so they changed it to the Hungry Man. Most people, including the police, began referring to the intruder simply as the hermit, or the North Pond hermit, or, more formally, the hermit of North Pond. Some police reports mentioned “the legend of the hermit,” and on others, where a suspect’s full name was requested, he was recorded as Hermit Hermit.

Every walk to the woodpile provoked that goose-bumpy feeling that someone was lurking behind a tree.

Many North Pond residents were convinced that the hermit was actually a neighbor. North and Little North Ponds are in central Maine, away from the summer-congested coast and its moneyed enclaves. The roads that twist along their shorelines are mostly unpaved and bumpy, with about 300 cabins scattered around the roughly 12-mile circumference of the two ponds, the majority occupied only in warm weather. A few of the cabins still don’t have electricity. Neighbors tend to know one another; there’s not a lot of turnover. Some families have owned the same plot for a century.

Maybe, people speculated, the break-ins were carried out by a group of local teens — a gang initiation, a prank. Or, some locals guessed, it could have been the work of an antisocial Vietnam vet. More likely, others thought, it was an inside job at Pine Tree. There were also these suspicious-looking deer hunters who came from out of state. It might’ve been one of those airplane hijackers from the 1970s, still on the run. Possibly a serial killer. And what about that guy who was always fishing by himself — had anybody been inside his cabin? Perhaps you’d find your mattress there.

One summer, a family had an idea. They taped a pen on a string to their front door along with a handwritten note: “Please don’t break in. Tell me what you need and I’ll leave it out for you.” This sparked a small fad, and soon a half-dozen cabins had notes fluttering from their doors. Other residents hung shopping bags of books on their doorknobs, like donations to a school fundraiser.

There was no reply to the notes; none of the shopping bags were touched. The break-ins continued: a sleeping bag, an insulated snowmobile suit, a year’s worth of National Geographic magazines. Batteries and more batteries, including the blocky ones from cars and boats and ATVs. The same couple who lost their mattress had a backpack stolen, which triggered a panic — that was where they’d hidden their passports. Then they saw that the burglar had removed the passports and placed them in a closet before departing with the pack.

Many families eventually decided to reinforce their cabins. They installed alarm systems, motion lights, stronger windows, sturdier doors. Some spent thousands of dollars. A new phrase joined the lexicon of the lakes — “hermit-proofing” — and an unfamiliar tinge of distrust settled over the community. Families that never locked their doors began locking them. Two cousins, who own nearby cabins, each thought the other was taking his propane. Several people blamed themselves for constantly misplacing items and half-jokingly worried that they were beginning to lose their minds. One man suspected his own son of burglary.

The mattress-and-backpack couple decided that every time they left their cabin, even for an hour, they had to latch all the windows and set the bolt, no matter how stuffy it got inside. At the end of summer, one man returned from the hardware store with 50 sheets of plywood and a Makita screw gun and used every one of his thousand screws to entomb his cabin for winter.

The thousand screws worked, but nothing else did. Gone from other cabins were pillows and blankets, toilet paper and coffee filters, plastic coolers and Game Boys. Some families were burglarized so frequently that they learned the hermit’s tastes: peanut butter rather than tuna fish, Bud over Bud Light, briefs not boxers. He had a major sweet tooth. One kid lost all his Halloween candy; the Pine Tree Camp was short an industrial-sized tub of fudge.

Early in the lake season, before Memorial Day, there was usually a rash of break-ins, then another flurry after Labor Day. Otherwise, it was always midweek, particularly on a rainy night. None of the full-time residents ever seemed to be victimized, and he didn’t steal food items that had already been opened. One family had a running joke — “He won’t date the skinny girl” — because no matter how many times their liquor cabinet was raided, he never touched the Skinnygirl margarita drink.

Ten years passed. It was the same story: almost no one could stop him, and the police couldn’t catch him. He seemed to haunt the forest. Families returned from a quick trip into town wondering if they were going to encounter a burglar. They feared he was waiting in the woods, watching. He searched your cupboards and rummaged through your drawers. Every walk to the woodpile provoked a goose-bumpy feeling that someone was lurking behind a tree. All the normal night sounds became the noises of an intruder. A few friends quietly discussed putting rat poison in food and leaving bear traps in the leaves, though they never went through with these ideas.

Others said it was obvious that the hermit was harmless — just let him have your spatula and milk crates. He was hardly more trouble than the seasonal houseflies. Maine has always been a quirky place, stocked with odd characters, and now North Pond had its own folklore of a mysterious hermit. At least two kids wrote school papers about the legend.

The Stranger in the Woods

Courtesy of Maine State Police

But then the crimes became more brazen. One family loaded frozen chickens in a freezer for a party and lost them all at once. At a North Pond homeowners’ meeting in 2004, nearly 15 years into the mystery, the 100 people present were asked who had suffered break-ins. At least 75 raised their hands.

Then, at last, there was seemingly a breakthrough. As the price and size of motion-sensing security cameras decreased, several families installed them. At one cabin where the camera was hidden in a smoke detector, there was success: the hermit was captured on film, peering into a refrigerator. The images were confusing. The thief’s face wasn’t in focus, but they appeared to show a clean, well-dressed man who was neither emaciated nor bearded — highly unlikely to have been roughing it in the woods. He didn’t appear nimble, or strong, or even outdoorsy. “Mr. Ordinary,” one person called him. It was probable, people deduced, that this so-called hermit had been a neighbor all along.

No matter. With these first photos, and then others, the police were confident that capture was imminent. The images were hung in shops, post offices, town halls. A couple of officers went from cabin to cabin. Maddeningly, nobody could identify the man pictured, and the burglaries continued.

Another decade elapsed. The break-ins at Pine Tree increased in both frequency and quantity of goods stolen. By this point, a quarter century in, the whole thing was absurd. There was the Loch Ness monster, the Himalayan yeti, and the North Pond hermit. One man, desperate for an answer, spent 14 nights over the course of two summers hiding in his cabin, in the dark, holding a .357 Magnum and waiting for the hermit to break in. No luck.

The general consensus was that the original thief must be retired or dead and the latest break-ins were copycat crimes. Maybe there was a second generation of that teenage gang, or a third. Kids who’d grown up with the hermit now had kids of their own. Most people resigned themselves to the idea that this was the way it would be; you’d just replace your boat battery and propane tank each summer and go about your life. The couple who’d lost the backpack and mattress was now missing a new pair of Lands’ End blue jeans — 38-inch waist, with a brown leather belt.

The Stranger in the Woods

Portland Press Herald / Contributor

Finally, the most unexpected thing of all happened. The Loch Ness monster didn’t emerge from the lake; the yeti wasn’t caught strolling around Mount Everest. There are no little green men from Mars. But the North Pond hermit, it turns out, was real. When he was captured at Pine Tree Camp by Sergeant Terry Hughes of the Maine Warden Service, he was wearing Lands’ End jeans, size 38, cinched with a brown leather belt.

Christopher Knight was arrested, charged with burglary and theft, and transported to the Kennebec County Correctional Facility, in the state capital of Augusta. For the first time in nearly 10,000 nights, he slept indoors.

The Kennebec Journal broke the story, and the news elicited some strong and curious reactions. The jail was inundated with letters and phone calls and visitors; “a circus,” Chief Deputy Sheriff Ryan Reardon called it. A carpenter from Georgia volunteered to repair any cabin Knight had damaged. A woman wanted to propose marriage. One person offered Knight land to live on, rent-free, while another pledged a room in his house.

People sent checks and cash. A poet sought biographical details. According to Chief Deputy Sheriff Reardon, two men, one from New York and another from New Hampshire, arrived at the jail with $5,000 in cash, Knight’s total bail. Knight was soon deemed a flight risk, and his bail was raised to $250,000.

Five songs were recorded: “We Don’t Know the North Pond Hermit,” “The Hermit of North Pond,” “The North Pond Hermit,” “A Hermit’s Voice,” and “North Pond Hermit” — bluegrass, folk, alt-rock, dirge, ballad. An iconic Maine eatery, Big G’s Deli in nearby Winslow, offered a roast beef, pastrami, and onion ring sandwich called the Hermit, advertised as containing “all locally stolen ingredients.” A Dutch artist created a series of oil paintings based on Knight’s story and showed them in a gallery in Germany.

Hundreds of journalists, across the United States and the world, attempted to contact him. The New York Times compared him to Boo Radley, the recluse in To Kill a Mockingbird. TV talk shows solicited his presence. A documentary film team arrived in town.

Every coffee shop and barroom in central Maine, it seemed, was host to a hermit debate. In many cultures, hermits have long been considered founts of wisdom, explorers of life’s great mysteries. In others, they’re seen as cursed by the devil. What did Knight wish to tell us? What secrets had he uncovered? Or was he just crazy? What punishment, if any, should he receive? How had he survived? Was his story even true? And if so, why would a man remove himself so profoundly from society? The Kennebec County district attorney, Maeghan Maloney, said that Knight, who apparently wished to spend his entire life anonymous, had become “the most famous person in the state of Maine.”

Knight himself, the hub of the commotion, resumed his silence. He did not issue a single word publicly. He accepted no offers — no bail, no wife, no poem, no cash. The $500 or so sent to him was placed in a restitution fund for victims of his thefts.

Before his arrest, the hermit had seemed completely inexplicable, but to most people his capture only enhanced the puzzle. The truth felt stranger than the myth.

 

Read our Q&A with The Stranger in the Woods author Michael Finkel.

Adapted from the book: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. Copyright © 2017 by Michael Finkel. To be published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Michael Finkel is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which was adapted into a 2015 major motion picture. He has writen for National Geographic, GQ, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in western Montana, though he grew up hiking and skiing in Maine.


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