Stranger in the Woods – book review

Stranger in the Woods, published by Alfred A. Knopf

It seems kind of implausible in this day and age of social media and constant connection with everybody else. In 1986, a young man from Massachusetts drove his car into a secluded spot, left it there and went for a hike.

Eventually, he found a secluded spot in the Maine woods and set up camp—and stayed there for the next 27 years. In that time, his only conversation with anybody was, in 1990, saying, “Hi!” to a hiker he once encountered in the woods.

That’s the basis for an intriguing story in a book that’s getting a lot of attention, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Montana author, Michael Finkel. The publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, was kind enough to send me a review copy of the book.

The “Stranger in the Woods” is Michael Knight, a shy but intelligent young man who, for reasons he really couldn’t explain, decided to go live in the woods. He wasn’t a Robinson Crusoe, living totally off the land, however. He found a secluded area in the woods, a spot surrounded by rock formations that made his hiding spot virtually invisible. He wasn’t exactly in the wilderness. His campsite was in the middle of a lake area full of homes and summer cabins. During those years, he never built a campfire, for fear that smoke from a fire would betray his presence.

For 27 years, Knight primarily survived by stealing food, clothing, cooking and camping gear, propane, and anything else he thought might be useful from those cabins. The area’s permanent and part-time residents were both alarmed and intrigued by ongoing incidents of petty crime, as Knight made nighttime rounds of cabins.

The crime wave eventually came to an end when a Maine game warden set a trap, putting in a trail camera and motion sensors at a camp for handicapped children. With the backup of a state trooper, the warden caught Knight red-handed, ending the long period of random robberies.

The author of the book, Michael Finkel, is a magazine writer with credits in National Geographic, Esquire, GQ, and other publications, was intrigued when the story of Knight’s arrest made the news. After an exchange of letters, Knight finally agreed to interviews with Finkel.

Finkel made many trips from Montana to Maine to conduct interviews, gradually establishing a fragile friendship with Knight, learning how Knight was able to live, virtually hiding in plain sight, for so many years without any social interaction with anybody.

The book, an expansion of an earlier feature article in GQ magazine, examines Michael Knight’s long period of self-imposed exile, and compares Knight’s story with that of other hermits though the centuries. The author concludes, after research, that probably nobody has lived in seclusion as long as Michael Knight.

The story doesn’t end with Knight’s arrest. After spending a long time in jail, he made a plea agreement, getting credit for time served, and paroled to family members who had long ago given him up for dead. Without giving away too much of the story, it’s clear that Knight was not particularly happy or at ease with life back among other people, even if they were family.

All in all, Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating examination of someone choosing to live a solitary life and what it takes to accomplish that goal.

On a different note, Montana’s only spring hunting season, the wild turkey season, begins this Saturday, April 8 and will run through May 21.

As I’ve done almost every year since 1988, I applied for a Region 3 spring turkey permit, and, as has been the case in every one of those years, I was unsuccessful in drawing that permit.

I had a chat with a FWP staffer, and he said there were about 1550 applicants for the 400 Region 3 permits, so I had about a one in four chance. There are no preference points for turkeys, so that’s the breaks of the game.

Guess I’ll go fishing.

2 thoughts on “Stranger in the Woods – book review

  1. Hey, Chuck, you’re right. I completely forgot about spring black bear hunts. Years ago a couple buddies were gearing up for a fall archery hunt for black bear in Minnesota, and one of them said, “And if you hit one, they sit down and cry like a baby. It’s so cool!” I didn’t think it sounded cool at all and I haven’t had any desire to go slay a black bear…or griz….or polar bear.

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