As you might have guessed from that picture above, the story of Christopher Knight doesn’t have the happiest of endings.
That being said, the story of how he simply wandered into the woods of Maine, USA, at the age of 20 has been the source of intense interest since his arrest in 2013.
Let’s start from the beginning, which is back in 1986 when Knight waved society goodbye with just a backpack and a tent in hand. He had plenty of space to work with, traversing the ridges and swamps that make up the state’s largely untouched backwaters.
The problem, he quickly came to realise, had to do with sourcing food. The area was not naturally rich with foraging foodstuffs, and he had no gun or rod with which to hunt or fish.
Scene set – I’ll hand over to the Guardian:
Knight worked his way south, eating very little, until paved roads appeared. He found a road-killed partridge, but did not possess a stove or a way to easily start a fire, so he ate it raw. Neither a tasty meal nor a hearty one, and a good way to get sick. He passed houses with gardens, but was raised with rigid morals and a great deal of pride. You make do on your own, always. No handouts or government assistance, ever. You know what’s right and what’s wrong, and the dividing line is usually clear.
But try not eating for 10 days – nearly everyone’s restraints will be eroded. Hunger is hard to ignore. “It took a while to overcome my scruples,” Knight said, but as soon as his principles began to fall away, he snapped off a few ears of corn from one garden, dug up some potatoes from another, and ate a couple of green vegetables.
That first foray into thievery saw him become something of a master criminal, although he never took more than he needed:
To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience, daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. “I looked for patterns,” Knight said. “Everyone has patterns”…
As the local residents invested in security upgrades, Knight adapted. He knew about alarms from his one paying job, and he used this knowledge to continue stealing – sometimes disabling systems or removing memory cards from surveillance cameras. He evaded dozens of attempts to catch him, by both police officers and private citizens. The crime scenes he left behind were so clean that the authorities offered their begrudging respect. “The level of discipline he showed while he broke into houses,” said one police officer, “is beyond what any of us can remotely imagine – the legwork, the reconnaissance, the talent with locks, his ability to get in and out without being detected.”
He also stole bedding and other implements and crafted a camp of sorts, tucked deep into the woods:
Of interest to many is what it feels like to be removed from any human contact for such a period of time:
“It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”
The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free”…
“I was never lonely,” Knight added. He was attuned to the completeness of his own presence rather than to the absence of others.
“If you like solitude,” he said, “you are never alone.”
He was finally arrested in 2013 and charged with burglary and theft. He was sentenced to seven months in jail, paid $1 500 in restitution to those he stole from, and served three years on probation.
There was a media frenzy when details of his life emerged, with more than 500 journalists requesting interviews and one woman proposing marriage.
Given his tendency for solitude he was reluctant on both of those fronts, but did eventually grant one reporter a series of nine one-hour interviews.
This is my favourite exchange:
…once, when he was in an especially introspective mood, Knight seemed willing, despite his typical aversion to dispensing wisdom, to share more of what he gleaned while alone. Was there, the journalist asked him, some grand insight revealed to him in the wild?
Knight sat quietly but he eventually arrived at a reply.
“Get enough sleep,” he said.
He set his jaw in a way that conveyed he wouldn’t be saying any more. This was what he’d learned. It was, without question, the truth.
If ever you needed to convince someone that your day was best spent in bed, refer them to the man who spent 27 years in isolation and deems that his most grand insight of all.
Leave out the bit about him stealing all that stuff, though, it puts a dampener on his sage advice.
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