ALBION, Maine — Christopher Knight was hermit-like — going through high school virtually unnoticed — even before he removed himself from civilization more than a quarter of a century ago.
“As odd as it seems, it’s not unusual for him,” said Albion resident Sandra Young.
She has lived in the town for 50 years and her children went to school with Knight, who allegedly entered the woods 27 years ago to live life as a hermit, committing more than 1,000 burglaries to survive.
More details began to emerge Thursday about who Knight was before he became known as the “North Woods Hermit.”
Those who knew him during his teen years described Knight as a “very intelligent person.”
He had a mother and father, two brothers and numerous classmates, but few seemed to know much about him. A white-haired woman who came to the door of the yellow house on Pond Road where Knight is believed to have grown up indicated she did not want to speak to the BDN.
When asked about the Knight family, Young said, “[They’re] not outgoing, let’s put it that way.”
She hadn’t been surprised this week to learn that Knight had taken to the woods and allegedly spent more than a quarter of a century living in the central Maine wilderness. But she did think it was an amazing feat.
“To live life alone you’ve got to have a strong constitution, mentally and physically,” Young said.
The neighbor wondered if the death of Knight’s cousin, Dana Nelson, which occurred shortly before Knight disappeared had anything to do with his desire to get away from society.
Nelson was cutting trees when one fell and struck him.
“[His] death affected a lot of the community very strongly,” Young said. “[Nelson] made the difference in that family. You couldn’t have asked for a nicer guy.”
Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified but said he lives close to Knight’s mother, Joyce Knight, added that Knight’s father likely died sometime in the ’90s. He believed that Knight’s father had worked at a creamery in Winslow.
One of the Knight family’s next-door neighbors said he had lived on the road for 13 years and didn’t know them very well at all. But John Boivin said that when he read online Thursday morning that Knight might have lived in the woods behind his own house for a year before becoming the “North Pond Hermit,” he wondered whether the man had used one of the two cabins near the property.
Boivin and his 5-year-old son, Matthew, walked through the pine forest to the first — a falling-apart hunting camp with bunk beds and chairs that have become porcupine nests. A quarter-mile beyond that structure was a small stone-and-mortar hut with a sleeping loft and a makeshift woodstove that had been constructed from a 55-gallon metal drum.
“After I saw what [Knight] did, I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t he stay here?’” the neighbor said. “It’s like a condo compared to what he had.”
When Larry Stewart was a teenager in the 1980s, he remembers going out driving with a couple of classmates from Lawrence High School one weekend night.
They went to McDonald’s, laughed together and drove around and around the streets of Waterville and Fairfield in a borrowed car. It would be unremarkable, he said Thursday morning, except for one thing: in the backseat sat Knight.
“I heard the story on the news. I told my wife, ‘Honey, I know that guy,’” Stewart, now a real estate agent living in Wayne, said. “It’s one of those stories. It grabbed my interest, and now it’s touched my heart. I really feel for the guy. It’s like that Tom Hanks movie — when he comes back to civilization, what’s he going to do after this?”
Stewart, who moved with his family from Clinton to Lowell, Mass., before his junior year of high school, doesn’t have too many memories of Knight from all those years ago. He was from Albion, where he may have grown up on a farm, and did not stand out at Lawrence, a consolidated high school where many students stayed in their own small groups of friends.
“It was just a normal class. We all got pretty much along. There wasn’t a lot of bullying, from what I saw,” Stewart said. “I think culture has changed so much since then, and we’ve changed as people. … When people graduated, they went their own ways.”
He does recall that Knight was very involved in the school’s outdoor adventure program.
“Students did things like ropes courses, rappelling and teamwork,” he said. “It was more of a program to instill confidence.”
When asked, sources at Lawrence High School said they have received several phone calls since the news about Knight came out in the media, but that they don’t have records dating back that far.
Stewart said he heard a story that Knight had maybe gone to New York City, explaining his disappearance. But it was different back then, with no Facebook or Internet. People who wanted to be in touch with each other wrote letters, he said.
Stewart said that he’s full of questions about Knight’s future, asking what many in Maine and around the country, where news of the hermit’s emergence from the woods has captured the attention and interest of many, are surely also wondering. Knight, who law enforcement agents suspect committed more than 1,000 burglaries of camps around North Pond to survive, taking food, beer and other supplies back to his makeshift campsite in Rome, is now being held at Kennebec County Jail in Augusta.
“Now what? Does he go back? Does he try to mend fences with his family?” Stewart asked. “It’s got to be scary. It’s got to be daunting, sitting in a cell. That environment is completely new to him.”
He marveled that his former classmate apparently made it through all those cold Maine winters, and even the Ice Storm of 1998, while living in his campsite. He also said he suspects that a lot of people have the desire to just get away from it all, and that Knight’s success at doing that is amazing.
“He hasn’t had to endure all the struggles and tragedies that we’ve had to endure since 1986. He hasn’t had to experience some of the things that we’ve all had to experience,” Stewart said. “I read he watched a mushroom grow for four years. That was his television. To him, that was a normal day: I’m going to watch some mushrooms, watch eagles fly by, break into a camp and get some lunch meat.”
Stewart said he hopes that Knight will get the help he needs — but then stopped short.
“Who am I to say he needs help? Is that too crazy, to want to go and leave society for that long?” he wondered. “I [foresee] him being put out there like a show-and-tell project. I hope we don’t forget that he is a person who made the choice to walk into the woods and away from family and society. It was his choice.”