At the age of 20, Christopher Knight parked his car on a remote trail in Maine and walked away into the woods and the lakes with only the most basic supplies. He had no plan. His chief motivation was to avoid contact with people.
We might all have fantasised about doing this in the last year or so, but in 1994 Christopher Knight walked away from society, not to be seen again for more than a quarter of a century.
There have been hermits - also known as recluses, monks, misanthropes, ascetics, anchorites, swamis - at all times in recorded history, across all cultures. But there are really only three general reasons why people leave the world.
Most do so for religious purposes, to forge a closer bond with a higher power. Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha all spent significant time alone before introducing a new religion to the world. Other hermits opt out of civilisation because of a hatred of what the world has become - too much war, or environmental destruction, or crime, or consumerism. The first great literary work about solitude, the Tao Te Ching, was written in China in the sixth century BC by a hermit named Laozi, who was protesting the corrupt state of society. The Tao Te Ching says that it is only through retreat rather than pursuit, through inaction rather than action, that we acquire wisdom.
The final category includes those who wish to be alone for reasons of artistic freedom, scientific insight or deeper self-understanding.
Knight fit into none of these categories - he did not follow any formal religion; he was not protesting modern society; he produced no artwork or philosophical treatise. He never took a photograph or wrote a sentence; not a single person knew where he was. His back was fully turned to the world. There was no clear reason for what he chose to do. Something he couldn’t quite pinpoint had tugged him away from the world with the persistence of gravity. He was one of the longest‑enduring solitaries in history, and among the most fervent as well. Christopher Knight was a true hermit.
“I can’t explain my actions,” he said. “I had no plans when I left, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I just did it.”
Knight was finally arrested, after 27 yearsof complete isolation, while stealing food at a lakeside summer camp. He said that he couldn’t accurately describe what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time alone. Silence does not translate into words. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Solitude bestows an increase in something valuable. I can’t dismiss that idea. Solitude increased my perception. But here’s the tricky thing: when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for. There was no need to define myself. I became irrelevant.”
The dividing line between himself and the forest, Knight said, seemed to dissolve. His isolation felt more like a communion. “My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything. I didn’t even have a name. To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
After his arrest, everyone wanted to know what the hermit would say. What insights had he gained while he was alone? What advice did he have for the rest of us? 500 journalists requested an interview and one was eventually granted. Over the course of nine one-hour visits in the jail, the hermit shared his life story - about how he was able to survive, and what it felt like to live alone for so long.
And once, when he was in an especially introspective mood, the journalist asked him: was there some grand insight revealed to him in the wild? Knight sat quietly but he eventually arrived at a reply.
“Get enough sleep,” he said.
He set his jaw in a way that conveyed he wouldn’t be saying any more. This was what he’d learned. It was, without question, the truth.