If you are a particular type of person living in a city, you almost certainly have at least two or three friends who have recently shared the ongoing saga of the Maine Hermit, who was arrested last year and was recently featured in a rather gushing (five-page!) GQ profile. Please do not be impressed by his story; there is no need. There are other heroes more worthy of your distant adulation.
No one who lives in the country is impressed with the Maine Hermit; no one with an up-to-date hunting license or who owns a rifle or who has slept more than one night out-of-doors in the last six months finds Christopher Knight’s story captivating. His acolytes are largely young urban people who spend most of their days sitting in front of a computer with a picture of their last trip to Yosemite as the background on their smartphone, who enjoyed Hatchet in elementary school and like to think of themselves as the sort of person who would survive a zombie apocalypse, which is a fictional problem.
Thirty years in the woods! That’s a long time. I remember how that kid from My Side of the Mountain learned to build a fire and construct a lean-to that connected to an old oak tree, and teach a hawk to hunt for him, so this guy must have been pretty resourceful —
With an expert twist of a screwdriver, he popped open a door of the dining hall and slipped inside, scanning the pantry shelves with his penlight.
Candy! Always good. Ten rolls of Smarties, stuffed in a pocket. Then, into his backpack, a bag of marshmallows, two tubs of ground coffee, some Humpty Dumpty potato chips. Burgers and bacon were in the locked freezer. On a previous raid at Pine Tree, he’d stolen a key to the walk-in, and now he used it to open the stainless-steel door.
Knight stated that over all those years he slept only in a tent. He never lit a fire, for fear that smoke would give his camp away. He moved strictly at night.
He confessed that he’d committed approximately forty robberies a year while in the woods—a total of more than a thousand break-ins. But never when anyone was home. He said he stole only food and kitchenware and propane tanks and reading material and a few other items. Knight admitted that everything he possessed in the world, he’d stolen, including the clothes he was wearing, right down to his underwear.
That works out, by the way, to about 1200 robberies, give or take, of “food and kitchenware and propane tanks and reading material and a few other items” and also “everything he possessed in the world.”
It’s fine to like camping and to not like people. It’s fine to withdraw from society, if that is your particular bag. There is nothing in the world wrong with being socially awkward and feeling ill at ease around other human beings, of being afraid of coming into contact with someone else, of finding eye contact uncomfortable.
Should you desire to spend the majority of your life in the woods, you are free to do so; there is no limit to how often an American may go camping. You can work a summer job and save up enough cash to buy a polar sleeping bag, a few MREs and various basic supplies, and go forth (ugh, you probably have to get permits, though) to live off the fat of the land, and to cultivate a life of solitude and silence.
It is slightly less understandable, and altogether less admirable, to steal candy from children:
At a homeowners’ meeting in 2002, the hundred people present were asked who had suffered break-ins. Seventy-five raised their hands. Campfire hermit stories were swapped. One kid recalled that when he was 10 years old, all his Halloween candy was stolen. That kid is now 34.
Man, if you take only one thing away from this story, it is this: If you must live in the woods in complete solitude, and you absolutely refuse to learn to hunt or fish or build your own shelter, and you have to steal from your neighbors in order to eat, and you’re really in the mood for some candy, please steal just a few pieces of candy from multiple kids, so you don’t completely ruin any one particular child’s Halloween. Don’t make this year “the year the man who lives in the woods took all my treats.” That’s so cruel!
(By the way, it is super messed up to bury empty propane tanks willy-nilly. Please properly dispose of empty propane tanks.)
Knight was ordered to spend about seven months in prison, which is an unbelievably light sentence, all things considered.
The generosity of that prison term in the face of decades of theft must be contrasted with the shooting death of Michael Brown, whose murder by police was later justified because he had previously stolen a box of cigars. Just the once; not on and off for thirty years.
The fact that Knight was never shot by nervous homeowners, that he was arrested safely and without violence, that he will spend less time in jail than he spent stealing other people’s propane tanks, is enormously lucky; it is hard to imagine a man who was not white doing the same thing for thirty years and getting off quite so easily. But perhaps that is neither here nor there!
Nothing seemed to stop him. Or her. Or them. No one knew. A few desperate residents even left notes on their doors: “Please don’t break in. Tell me what you need and I’ll leave it out for you.” There was never a reply.
How sad, that the people in his community were still so willing to help him even after he had entered their homes and stolen from them, and that he was not willing to take them up on their generous offer. Society was ready to give him what he was already taking without asking. Frankly, I want to hear more about the resourceful, ingenious homeowners who banded together to non-violently solve a problem in their neighborhood.
So: what do we have, exactly? An unfriendly man spent twenty-seven-and-a-bit years living in some very cold woods.
“To put it romantically: I was completely free.” (And the article does put it romantically; if you have seen this scene from Seinfeld you have read this article.)
Almost completely free! Except for the part where you literally depended upon the labor and possessions of others to meet your every physical need. It says, you know, kind of a lot about the life you have chosen that “constant stealing” and “independence” are not mutually exclusive.
Hopefully, the man at the center of the myth can avail himself of the help that has already been offered him; hopefully he will not spend another winter walking up and down the length of his tent to keep his feet from freezing off. I do not think Christopher Knight ought to spend the rest of his life in prison or be turned into a local pariah.
But the mythos. The fanboys! The adoring fanboys whose dream it is to live in their own filth in the wood, Nobly Living Alone And Also Eating As Much Fluff As I Want, and Never Having To Talk To Anyone About Awards Ceremonies, And Literally Stealing From Children, the Chris McCandless boys who want nothing more than to live out the last five minutes of Shane on a daily basis, who mistake male-induced anti-social behavior and chronic theft for true independence; what my friend Chris called “the romantic transcendence of listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd for hours while slowly dying from an all-marshmallow diet” — all that must GO.
It is very silly that we live in a country where the conversation about people who rely on government assistance runs generally along the lines of “DON’T TAKE HANDOUTS,” while white men who steal from their neighbors are touted as tragic symbols of noble self-reliance! You can spend as much time in the forest as you like; this is America and no one will stop you. Put aside your needless, trumped-up sense of social persecution (“I MUST ESCAPE FROM HUMANITY, but can I have your magazines?”).
At the very least, whittle something to leave on the doorstep of the people you steal from most often so they have a whimsical gift from the forest in exchange for a brand-new canoe and a brace of fresh steaks.
The mythos must go. Let us puncture it now and watch it deflate.
For your analysis:
“I don’t know your world,” he said. “Only my world, and memories of the world before I went into the woods. What life is today? What is proper? I have to figure out how to live.” He wished he could return to his camp—”I miss the woods”—but he knew by the rules of his release that this was impossible. “Sitting here in jail, I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”
What kind of colorful, non-aesthetic crudeness do you mean, Maine Hermit?
“I gorged myself on sugar and alcohol,” he said. “It’s the quickest way to gain weight, and I liked the inebriation.” The bottles he stole were signs of a man who’d never once, as he admitted, ordered a drink at a bar: Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, Seagram’s Escapes Strawberry Daiquiri, something called Whipped Chocolate Valley Vines (from the label: “fine chocolate, whipped cream & red wine”).
We covered hundreds of topics while chatting in jail, and nothing received higher praise than Lynyrd Skynyrd. “They will be playing Lynyrd Skynyrd songs in a thousand years,” he proclaimed.
I unearthed a stack of National Geographics with the dates still legible: 1991 and 1992. I also saw People, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Vanity Fair. There was even a collection of Playboys.
He also stole the occasional handheld video game—Pokémon, Tetris, Dig Dug—but the majority of his free time was spent reading or observing the forest. “Don’t mistake me for some bird-watching PBS type,” he warned.
I dug through his twenty-five years of trash, buried between boulders, and kept inventory: a five-pound tub that once held Marshmallow Fluff, an empty box of Devil Dogs, peanut butter, Cheetos, honey, graham crackers, Cool Whip, tuna fish, coffee, Tater Tots, pudding, soda, El Monterey spicy jalapeño chimichangas, and on and on and on.
“I went to the woods to live simply. To escape from the hubbub and noise of modern life. To listen to Skynyrd while eating only Fritos and reading the occasional Vanity Fair. Eating Tater Tots and playing some kid’s Pokémon. Are you going to finish that chimichanga.”
It is incredibly telling that GQ‘s “artist’s impression” of the Maine Hermit looks like this:
This could easily be a concept sketch of Radagast the Brown from the Lord of the Rings. See the ruggled, grizzled face ennobled by solitude and hardship graced with a manly beard; the sleek, modern-looking backpack with…a handful of twigs strapped to it, for some reason; the long, determined, manly stride; the literal fucking birds swarming about him like he’s goddamn St. Francis of fucking Assisi. This is White Male Solitude at its most cartoonish; this is a drawing of the song “Desperado.”
Whereas the actual Maine Hermit looks like this:
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.