When he heard the song of the chickadees, he could finally relax
August 20, 2014 1:21 PM   Subscribe

GQ: The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. "For nearly thirty years, a phantom haunted the woods of Central Maine. Unseen and unknown, he lived in secret, creeping into homes in the dead of night and surviving on what he could steal. To the spooked locals, he became a legend - or maybe a myth. They wondered how he could possibly be real. Until one day last year, the hermit came out of the forest."

"Some people want me to be this warm and fuzzy person. All filled with friendly hermit wisdom. Just spouting off fortune-cookie lines from my hermit home."


He stole radios and earphones and hid an antenna up in trees. For a while, he listened to a lot of conservative talk radio. Later he got hooked on classical music - Tchaikovsky and Brahms, yes; Bach, no. "Bach is too pristine," he said. He went through a spell of listening to television shows on the radio; "theater of the mind," he called it. Everybody Loves Raymond was a favorite. But his undying passion was classic rock: the Who, AC/DC, Judas Priest, and above all, Lynyrd Skynyrd. 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 did examine myself," he said. "Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free."

That was nice. But still, I pressed on, there must have been some grand insight revealed to him in the wild.

He returned to silence. Whether he was thinking or fuming or both, I couldn't tell. Though he did arrive at an answer. I felt like some great mystic was about to reveal the Meaning of Life.

"Get enough sleep."
posted by Wordshore (39 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

Dammit: missed a 'previously' link, so previously on MetaFilter.
posted by Wordshore at 1:23 PM on August 20 [2 favorites]

Reading this after reading the FPP about Stephen King's The Stand has just got me thinking that "give it a year and King will have written him into a book".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:39 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]

There are probably other true hermits. We just haven't heard about them because they're better at hermitting than Knight was.

Although 27 years without being caught is awfully good hermitting.
posted by Elly Vortex at 1:44 PM on August 20 [10 favorites]

There are probably other true hermits. We just haven't heard about them because they're better at hermitting than Knight was.

Yeah, they probably didn't steal to survive, and thus, weren't noticed at all, possibly even dying in the woods without anyone noticing their passing.

That would make for an interesting episode of Bones - "The Real Last True Hermit." Who was he? Why did he retreat from society? Ask the bone whisperer (oh wait, that's not really what Bones is about, is it?)
posted by filthy light thief at 1:48 PM on August 20

If this guy wrote a book, it would be best-seller. But he totally won't. What a fascinating story.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:51 PM on August 20 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid there was a guy who lived in the woods along Route 30 in Wayland, MA. I think his name was Steve but the local kids called him Earthman. He wasn't hidden like this guy was, he would walk to the supermarket and shop and talk to people a bit. This wasn't Maine, anyway, so there was really no way to stay hidden.

Once I was fishing and I overheard him telling a guy how all the rabbits around the area had worms but if you ate garlic you didn't need to worry about getting worms. I've never had to use that bit of information but I'm glad I know it.

The local kids all claimed he grew hallucinogenic mushrooms or really potent weed but I'm sure that was just rumors as he lived in the area for years and, to my knowledge, never ran afoul of the law. I'm not sure why they didn't kick him out, maybe they did occasionally, but I guess for the most part he was harmless so they left him alone. He had a shopping cart filled with stuff, like you'd see a homeless man have in the city.

I haven't seen him in many years so I'm sure he's moved on or possibly died. I'd really love to know what happened to him and know his story beyond "That's Earthman, he lives in the woods and grows magic mushrooms."
posted by bondcliff at 1:53 PM on August 20 [7 favorites]

The description of what winter was like for him and the thought of him choosing to do that, on purpose, year after year... it really makes it obvious that he is just not the same as most people. It's hard to fathom someone placing more importance on solitude than his own comfort and safety for a good six months of the year.
posted by something something at 1:56 PM on August 20 [7 favorites]

Like two of his brothers, he enrolled in a nine-month electronics course at Sylvania Technical School in Waltham, Massachusetts*.

Holy shit, that's where I went! Same course. Man, troubleshooting those ComTran 10s from 1974 would drive anyone into the woods.

*With commercials on Channel 56 at 11:30 PM: "Are you ready for an exciting career in electronics?"
posted by bondcliff at 2:00 PM on August 20 [8 favorites]

He found a place where he was content. And he figured out a way to stay there for 27 years. That's more success than many people find in life.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:03 PM on August 20 [21 favorites]

sometimes reading the comments pays off:

I heard he's collaborating with Kanye now.
posted by lulz at 2:04 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]

When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: "dilettante."

Damn straight.
posted by pie ninja at 2:15 PM on August 20 [21 favorites]

I picture myself ending up this way one fine day, though I doubt I'd make it as long as he did or end up in GQ; or generally acquit myself as well as he managed to do (petty thefts aside.)

They should let him go back to the woods. He was right to get the hell out of Dodge, which recent developments would tend to validate, IMO.
posted by metagnathous at 2:19 PM on August 20

I heard he's looking at a place up in Mink Hollow.
posted by davebush at 2:30 PM on August 20

Chris dismissed him with a single word: "dilettante."

Not another round of No True Hermit......
posted by The Whelk at 2:30 PM on August 20 [2 favorites]

He listened to a lot of conservative talk radio.

Mental image: Christopher Thomas Knight beneath his shabby tent in the woods, listening to an uninterrupted stream of conservative patter on the importance of self-reliance, individualism, and disgust with Federal handouts and the welfare system, before he sets off on a thieving expedition to stock his hermitage with Cheetos and Miraclewhip and hundreds of pilfered propane tanks.

He's the ur-Conservative!
posted by Gordion Knott at 2:34 PM on August 20 [15 favorites]

He is, at least in his own opinion, a 'true' hermit --- Thoreau was a mere dilenttante. Let's correct that, shall we? Knight was a thief, nothing more and nothing less, and certainly nothing to get all romantic about. He stole, over and over and over: an admitted approximately one thousand thefts that netted food, clothing, entertainment (books, electronic games, etc.); hard goods like kitchenware, plastic tarps and tubs. As he himself put it, with the sole exception of his eyeglasses, everything he had, down to his underwear, was stolen.

Nope. This dude is just a misanthrope with a sense of entitlement to anything he feels like taking.
posted by easily confused at 2:37 PM on August 20 [14 favorites]

He found a place where he was content. And he figured out a way to stay there for 27 years. That's more success than many people find in life.

Dude was a serial burglar, though. Not really something romantic to aspire to.
posted by echo target at 2:43 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]

He does seem pretty ashamed of the burgling, though, so at least that's something.
posted by something something at 3:06 PM on August 20

Let's correct that, shall we? Knight was a thief, nothing more and nothing less. . ."

Really? Because lots of people steal things but they don't live in the woods alone for 20 years. So I don't think learning that Knight was a thief tells you everything there is to know about him.
posted by layceepee at 3:54 PM on August 20 [20 favorites]

Enjoyed TFA. The two most famous hermits from around these parts: Uncle Nick and Wilburn Waters, both of whom have family (though not descendants) still in the approximate areas of their haunts.
posted by maggieb at 8:37 PM on August 20

Surviving those winters without really leaving the campsite must have been really hard. He gets my admiration for that alone.
posted by arcticseal at 8:39 PM on August 20

Yes yes he stole things. Ambulances, baby medicine, virtuous widows' life savings. The last crust of bread from some orphans, and the gold crucifix your grandma gave you. He's a bad man, because he did STEALING, and that's all we need to know about him. Well, that, and the fact that you think so, and now we know all we need to know.

Matter of fact, that's how I feel about raccoons too. Fucking scumbags, jail is too good for 'em!

Seriously though, I'd like to think that if I were one of the many people he took stuff from, when he got caught and I heard the story later, I would have been like "cool! Those were my pants! Fly on, freebird dude!"
posted by hap_hazard at 8:47 PM on August 20 [10 favorites]

Great read... that's a heck of a story.
posted by ph00dz at 10:02 PM on August 20

The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand.

That's oddly beautiful.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:25 PM on August 20 [8 favorites]

hap_hazard: Seriously though, I'd like to think that if I were one of the many people he took stuff from, when he got caught and I heard the story later, I would have been like "cool! Those were my pants! Fly on, freebird dude!"

I dunno. He burgled tons of people over and over during a 20 year period. Even if the material losses were insignificant, which is unlikely (he stole loads of propane tanks, which are not cheap), the loss of security would have been significant. Nobody knew he was harmless. All they knew is that there was a serial burglar who was probably mentally ill and nobody could catch or keep out. That's pretty damn scary.

His story is interesting, but what he did was pretty bad and shouldn't be minimized.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:47 PM on August 20 [5 favorites]

Well maybe. But on the other hand, as far as "he might have been dangerous"- maybe the first 20 years of not hurting anyone would have been a clue? He honestly sounds much more like an annoyance, and I think the story kind of points in that direction.

I mean, there are people quoted who say they were scared, but only a couple of them. And the fact that it took 11 years from getting video of him, to catching him, even though the summer cabins he stole from were all around a single lake, where he was camped? Says to me that law enforcement, at least, didn't think he was a big threat/problem. I get how people might be bothered, but I also can't help thinking of him as a very tall Borrower.

Plus this, describing his yearly pre-winter fattening?
"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").

That is some seriously terrible-sounding alcohol! He was already suffering for his crimes!
posted by hap_hazard at 11:22 PM on August 20 [7 favorites]

No harm, no foul
posted by Sprocket at 12:25 AM on August 21

The man is made of America:
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.
For his sake, I hope they give him solitary, a spoon, and a barrel of Cheez Whiz.
posted by pracowity at 1:01 AM on August 21

Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating article I have read this year. Thanks to MF!
posted by Jeff Dewey at 3:20 AM on August 21

Why the hell did some assholes try to catch him? Narc bastards.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:17 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]

Well after reading further I guess it would be scary for a family living up there knowing a weirdo is trying to break into your house specifically, not knowing that he's generally a peaceful guy. I just wish we had a less rigid justice system that could deal with people like this without simply tossing them in jail. Work camps on the moon? I don't know.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:24 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]

There must be a job for him somewhere that would allow him to live in total isolation. Do they have lighthouse keepers any more? Maybe some remote monitoring station or something?

He seems ideally suited for the sort of job that would drive most people insane.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 9:54 AM on August 21 [4 favorites]

There's a couple indications in the article that he's probably got some white-supremacist in him (listened to conservative talk radio, liked Rudyard Kipling's "lesser known works", favorite book is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, described his household growing up as old-school Yankee).

On the other hand, as far as residents in Maine being scared of him, I heard from a radio show that a lot of people would leave things out for him with notes to please just take what he needed and not break in. So he probably also survived on donations, to an extent.
posted by subdee at 12:21 PM on August 21

No harm, no foul

Pretty sure society has settled pretty decisively on the side of theft being harmful.

I'd be more inclined to the poetic view of this guy if he were actually living off the land, not stealing from people so he could do what he wanted.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:39 PM on August 21 [1 favorite]

What an outstanding story. I am glad he wasn't sentenced to a longer jail term.
posted by painquale at 6:09 PM on August 21

I'm a bit torn on this. As a local resident, it would have been on the scale of somewhere between annoying and frightening, to have someone over decades who could (a) get into your property, even if locked and (b) take stuff. And the costs of the thefts - because they are thefts - would have been significant; 27 winters of gas cylinders costs more than a few bucks.

But, also, the responses (that we know of) from the locals was interesting. Leaving food outside, but not rounding up a posse to go hunt him down (I've lived in two very rural communities where that would have happened) indicate there wasn't the widespread fear, especially that which gets hyped up through local gossip.

Jail time can see as necessary to assess and process him, and also to stop him possibly fleeing back into the woods, and to be a deterrent. But on the other hand it's a very expensive punishment, and in his case uniquely cruel (confined indoors, with people). Feel that if the system was more flexible and useful, a better punishment for all would have been outdoor community service. Outdoors so he is, and can use his skills. Community service so he puts something back into that community. But that's an idealist thought, and this isn't an idealistic world.
posted by Wordshore at 2:13 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]

Pretty sure society has settled pretty decisively on the side of theft being harmful.

Some societies hold the sanctity of personal property above most other interests, yes.
posted by entropone at 12:41 PM on August 22

Still thinking about this; to me, the thing isn't just theft of personal property or breaking & entering: no, it's the fact that this dude broke into places solely to steal from them at least a self-admitted one thousand times.

I could possibly see taking it easy on him if the thefts had been an occasional sortie through a closed summer camp or something; but no, he was committing something like 40 burglaries a year, mostly on people's homes, and that's what puts his behavior way over the line. If we assume he basically stayed shut in his camp for a chunk of each winter, that still comes out to about one theft a week, year in and year out for 27 years. That's one heck of a lot to ask a small community to bear.

Sure, some people might have left stuff outside for him with notes requesting he take that and please not break in; but to me, that feels more equivalent to an ancient city paying tribute to a barbarian horde ("please take all our gold and don't sack us!") than freely sharing with a friendly neighborhood hermit.
posted by easily confused at 11:41 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]

« Older Dancehall in Japan   |   The Sexist Facebook Movement... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments