A 27-year walk in the woods

Lena Friedrich’s award-winning documentary of the North Pond Hermit.

In 1986 a young man drove to the end of a dirt road, left his keys in the car, and carrying a tent he’d never before slept in, walked into the Maine woods. Over the next 27 years his personal interactions with other humans consisted of a single word, “hi,” to a passing hiker who took him by surprise.

Christopher Thomas Knight chose a life alone, camping in the deep forests of the Kennebec Valley, subsisting off the food he would steal from camps and cabins in the area, fattening up in the fall in anticipation of lean times over the brutal Maine winters. He was simultaneously myth and mystery, a legend in the region and an enigma to those whose cabins he’d burgle for boxes of macaroni and cheese, propane tanks, or batteries to power his radio and flashlight.

A beautiful short film by documentarian Lena Friedrich, embedded below, doesn’t so much as tell Knight’s story as it does the story of the people and the community whose lives crossed paths with his hermit ways.

In introducing the film, a featured documentary at The Atlantic, Emily Buder writes:

In the area near North Pond, Knight’s hermitage fomented outrage, intrigue, reverence, and every response in between. Filmmaker Lena Friedrich decided that she had to learn more. In her short documentary, The Hermit, she interviews residents of North Pond who piece together the fabric of a local legend.

“Everyone had a very strong opinion about Knight, and none of them had the same opinion,” Friedrich told me. Some residents viewed Knight as a villain; others saw him as a folk hero of sorts. “I realized that, as with every legend, this one had many versions and interpretations,” Friedrich said. “I tried to find characters who would provide personal layers of understanding to the enigma.”

There’s something deeply appealing about the idea of walking into the woods and disappearing, if only for a little while. This is even more true given what this year has brought. Not that I want to over-romanticize Knight or his experience. As Nathaniel Rich writes about him:

Knight’s hermitage was not entirely pure—he stole processed food and a twin-size mattress, listened to talk radio (a lot of Rush Limbaugh), played handheld video games, and even watched a miniature Panasonic black-and-white television, charged with stolen car batteries …

What Knight sought was solitude and peace, and for 27 years, he found it. Rich continues, “the forest granted him freedom, privacy, and serenity.” It’s not romantic to envy that even if it’s not a life I would choose for myself.