When author Michael Finkel looks back on his three years researching and writing a book about the North Pond Hermit, the man who spent 27 years in the Maine woods, stealing from cabins and camps to survive, he’s struck by the “mystical experience” Christopher Knight had.
His research, interviews and findings have now been compiled in a compelling book, “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” which will be released by Knopf on March 7.
Knight’s campsite, located in a secluded spot near North Pond, was where he lived alone for 25 of those 27 years in the wild. But while he was alone, hidden from view, he wasn’t far from people.
“It was really close to other cabins. … I envisioned at first that he was up in the north woods all alone,” Finkel said. But it wasn’t. “I went to that site, as it was chronicled in the book … and it [was] truly magical. It is this box in the forest, where you’re surrounded by trees.”
Finkel, who hiked to the spot on each trip to Maine and even slept there five times, found the site very peaceful.
“Knight’s hermitage, the place where he spent 25 years, is truly magical,” Finkel said.
But Knight’s experience wasn’t a fairytale. He lived outside for all but one night of all those years, through the heat of summertime and the frigid chill of winters.
“He did not light a fire, which is just crazy to me. He suffered. This story is like unbelieveable but … it’s true.”
Finkel, a father of three who now lives in the south of France with his wife and kids, said that Knight must have suffered in those many years in the woods through every season, but he was also living a life of pleasure, indulging his desire to live alone and reading voraciously. That combination, he says, was like a “mystical experience.”
“This guy lived the life that probably had more pain and more pleasure, more contentment, more oddities than any of us times 1,000,” Finkel said.
Finkel’s telling of this story is remarkable. Knight denied hundreds of other interview requests, but there was something about Finkel’s that made him say yes. And their contact all started with a handwritten letter that Finkel penned after reading Knight’s story in an article posted online by a Maine news organization. Finkel, who lived in Montana at the time, was drawn to the unusual story.
“As a journalist, but as a magazine dude, I like to explore the edges. … Sometimes I will literally Google ‘extraordinary stories’ and see what pops up,” Finkel said. “The fact that he was stealing all these books sort of moved my curiosity to ‘I need to know more.’”
Something about that handwritten letter moved Knight to reply.
“It’s a very human thing and maybe that spoke to him,” Finkel said.
Over the course of three years, Finkel traveled to Maine seven times to visit with Knight and investigate the story. He spoke with law enforcement officials, folks with camps at North Pond and so many others. But it was the first trip — uninvited — that was really a gamble. Finkel wasn’t sure Knight would even agree to see him.
“I flew all the way across the country to sit in that waiting room to be rejected,” Finkel said. But Knight agreed, and the two spoke through telephone receivers, separated by glass.
“Knight is a unique human being. He is far more intelligent than I am,” Finkel said. One thing that really struck him was Knight’s memory. Although he denied having a photographic memory, he was able to recall passages and information from books read decades earlier. “He might be too smart for the modern world … He has an immense vocabulary. He’s read thousands of books.”
Knight is also brutally honest.
“Both of the arresting officers that spent time with him said the exact same thing … this guy is almost incapable of telling a lie,” Finkel recalled.
Despite all the visits though, Finkel says that Knight never quite liked him.
“I kind of liked the fact that he didn’t like me. Sometimes there’s pretend that happens between … a journalist and a subject. And there wasn’t that with Chris Knight,” Finkel said. “I’d never encountered anyone like that before.”
Finkel himself is a controversial person. As a young writer for the New York Times Magazine, he was famously fired for an ethical gaffe. “I combined a bunch of interviews together to make a fictional composite character and I was fired for that,” Finkel said. “I have had a really fortunate career in that people gave me a second chance.”
Early on in his correspondence with Knight, Finkel disclosed his past.
“I have found in an interesting way, somehow admitting that I’m really just another dude who makes mistakes, I think that people really respond to that,” Finkel said. He sees it as a leveling of the playing field of sorts.
Although he wishes it never happened, he feels that experience made him a better reporter.
In terms of the book, Finkel felt it was important to not just verify all facts but to express that to readers. He ends the book with “A Note on Reporting,” that details how he researched the book and the independent fact checkers he employed to verify everything.
“If we weren’t 99 percent sure of something we cut it out,” Finkel said. Originally, the note was on the title page, but Finkel was worried it was lost there and moved it to the afterward.
“I don’t want to have any secrets. I am very open and honest about who I am,” Finkel said. “I am blessed to have a second chance and you’re not getting a third chance. I would say I am one of the more cautious nonfiction reporters because of what happened.”
Michael Finkel will be in Bangor for a book signing and discussion on March 10 as part of the Dirigo Speaks series. The event, held at 5:30 p.m., at the Bangor Public Library is free to attend. Books will be available for purchase on site. RSVP at https://dirigospeaks.eventbrite.com.