He never even returned his tools. He cashed his final pay cheque and left town. Knight did not tell anyone where he was going. I had no interest in my co-workers. He travelled for days, alone, until he found himself deep into Florida, sticking mostly to major roads, watching the world go by. Eventually, he turned around and headed north. He listened to the radio. Ronald Reagan was president; the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had just occurred.
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All his life, he had been comfortable being alone. Interacting with others was so often frustrating. Every meeting with another person seemed like a collision. He drove north to Maine , where he had grown up. The last time he saw his family home was through the windscreen of his car. Soon he reached the shore of Moosehead Lake, the largest in Maine, and the point where the state begins to get truly remote. I took a small road. Then a small road off that small road. Then a trail off that.
Knight parked the car and tossed the keys on the centre console. He had a tent and a backpack but no compass, no map. Without knowing where he was going, with no particular place in mind, he stepped into the trees and walked away. W hy would a year-old man abruptly abandon the world? His final gesture, leaving his keys in the car, was particularly strange.
Knight was raised with a keen appreciation of the value of money, and the car was the most expensive item he had ever purchased. Why not hold on to the keys as a safety net? As far as anyone knows, the car is still there, half-swallowed by the forest. He had given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at a specific answer. There have been hermits — also known as recluses, monks, misanthropes, ascetics, anchorites, swamis — at all times in recorded history, across all cultures.
But there are really only three general reasons why people leave the world.
Most do so for religious purposes, to forge a closer bond with a higher power. Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha all spent significant time alone before introducing a new religion to the world. In Hindu philosophy, everyone ideally matures into a kind of hermit, and today at least four million people live as wandering holy men in India, surviving off the charity of strangers, having renounced all familial and material attachments. Other hermits opt out of civilisation because of a hatred of what the world has become — too much war, or environmental destruction, or crime, or consumerism.
The first great literary work about solitude, the Tao Te Ching, was written in China in the sixth century BC by a hermit named Laozi, who was protesting the corrupt state of society. The Tao Te Ching says that it is only through retreat rather than pursuit, through inaction rather than action, that we acquire wisdom. The final category includes those who wish to be alone for reasons of artistic freedom, scientific insight or deeper self-understanding.
Knight fit into none of these categories — he did not follow any formal religion; he was not protesting modern society; he produced no artwork or philosophical treatise. He never took a photograph or wrote a sentence; not a single person knew where he was. His back was fully turned to the world. There was no clear reason for what he chose to do.
Christopher Knight was a true hermit. I just did it. Not just lost to the rest of the world but actually lost in the woods by himself. He carried only rudimentary camping supplies, a few articles of clothing and a little food. It is not easy to get truly lost. Anyone with basic outdoor skills generally knows which way they are heading. The sun burns west across the sky, and from there it is natural to set the other directions. Knight knew that he was heading south. Instead, he felt pulled in that direction, like a homing pigeon.
It was at the instinctual level. Maine is partitioned into a series of long north-south valleys, the geologic clawmark left by glaciers surging and retreating. Separating the valleys are strings of mountains, now weather-worn and bald-topped like old men. The valley floors at the time of year when Knight arrived were a summer soup of ponds and wetlands and bogs.
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Content except for one thing: food. His departure from the outside world was a confounding mix of incredible commitment and complete lack of forethought — not all that strange for a year-old. He was an able hunter and angler, but he took neither a gun nor a rod with him. The wilds of Maine are monumentally broad, though not generous.
There are no fruit trees.
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Berries sometimes have a weekend-long season. Without hunting or trapping or fishing, a person is going to starve. 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.
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You make do on your own, always. No handouts or government assistance, ever. Hunger is hard to ignore. Once, during his first weeks away, he spent the night in an unoccupied cabin. It was a miserable experience. He continued moving south, picking through gardens, and eventually reached a region with a familiar distribution of trees, along with a diversity of birdcalls and a temperature range he felt accustomed to. It had been colder up north.
It turned out that he was less than 30 miles, as the crow flies, from his childhood home. In the early days, nearly everything Knight learned was through trial and error. He had been gifted with a good head for figuring out workable solutions to complicated problems. All his skills, from the rigging of the tarps that formed his shelter, to how to store drinking water, to walking through the forest without leaving tracks, went through multiple revisions and were never considered perfect.
Over the next few months, Knight tried living in several places in the area — including inside a dank hole in a riverbank — all without satisfaction. Finally, he stumbled upon a region of nasty, boulder-choked woods without so much as a game trail running through it; far too harsh for hikers. He liked it immediately. Then he discovered a cluster of boulders, one with a hidden opening that led to a tiny, wondrous clearing.
So I settled in. Still, he remained hungry. Knight was beginning to realise that is almost impossible to live by yourself all the time. You need help. Hermits across history often ended up in deserts or mountains or woodlands — the sorts of places where it was extremely difficult to find or catch all your own food.
To feed themselves, some of the Desert Fathers — third-century Christian Hermits from Egypt — wove reed baskets and sold them. In ancient China, hermits were shamans, herbalists and diviners. Later, a fad for hermits swept 18th-century England. The job paid well and hundreds were hired, typically on seven-year contracts. Some of the hermits would even emerge at dinner parties and greet guests. He wished to be unconditionally alone; an uncontacted tribe of one. The cabins around the ponds in central Maine, Knight noted, had minimal security measures.
Windows were often left open, even when the owners were away. The woods offered excellent cover, and with few permanent residents, the area would always be empty during the off-season. A summer camp with a big pantry was nearby. The easiest way to become a hunter-gatherer here was obvious. T o commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience, daring and luck.
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