Christopher Knight reportedly went into the wilderness of central Maine in 1986. There, he built a hut on a slope in the woods and spent his days reading books and meditating. He stayed in the wilderness for 27 years, and during those nearly three decades, he spoke just once to another person – a passer-by on a hiking trail in the mid-1990s, with whom he merely exchanged the briefest of greetings.
He was arrested last week during a burglary. He told police that he stole all the food he ate, including meat and other perishables. Over the years, he committed more than 1,000 burglaries, taking only what he needed to survive, mostly from campgrounds, stores, and recreational facilities. He became so familiar for his thievery and elusiveness that he spawned the local legend of the North Pond Hermit, who for years confounded both locals and police investigating the break-ins.
During his arrest, the 47-year-old Knight was relatively clean-shaven and his hair was cut to normal length. He was wearing a clean pair of jeans and a clean shirt. "You could walk into a store and walk by him and never know," the arresting officer said. He shaved without a mirror, catching glimpses of his reflection in pools of water. "He hasn't seen himself in the mirror for well over 20 years," police said. "It's a very unusual situation."
He now awaits his future at the Kennebec County Jail, where he is being held in lieu of $5,000 cash bail on charges of burglary and theft. Knight expressed shame and remorse over the burglaries, police said. He referred to a pair of boots he was wearing not just as boots, but "stolen boots." "He owned up to it and understood it was wrong," police said. "He immediately identifies things as being stolen. He connected the dots of his actions being wrong. I was very surprised by that."
Police are still investigating how Knight managed his decades-long withdrawal from society, but they have not learned and may never know why. According to police reports, Knight is highly intelligent and has always been interested in hermits and particularly loved the book "Robinson Crusoe," the story of a man stranded on an island for decades. Beyond that, though, he has offered no deeper explanation for heading into the woods.
He said he left society after the April 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia, but remembers that event to mark the date of departure rather than to provide its motive.
There must have been times during the winter, when it was well below zero and the wind was howling that Knight dreamed about giving it all up and checking into a motel or a shelter. Knight claims he usually put on weight in the fall so he could eat less in the winter and make fewer treks for food, thus leaving fewer prints in the snow.
No reports have emerged yet about his meditation practice - what it consisted of, how it related to the rest of his life, or how he ethically reconciled his burglaries. But before we pass judgement on him, consider how many people within society steal in order to survive, and I'm not just talking about criminals - Wall Street raiders, unethical attorneys, and other white-collar professionals not only survive, but thrive, from taking what is not being offered freely. Knight had made a life-style decision that resulted in him having to steal rather than starve. In that same situation, are you so sure that you would have acted differently?