The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they're tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable. This is when the hermit moves. He waits until midnight, shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools, and sets out from camp. A penlight is clipped to a chain around his neck, but he doesn't need it yet. Every step is memorised. He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken. On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud - springtime, central Maine - but he avoids all of it. He bounds from rock to root to rock without a bootprint left behind. He glides like a ghost between the hemlocks and maples and white birches and elms until he emerges at the rocky shoreline of a frozen pond. It has a name, Little Pond, often called Little North Pond, though the hermit doesn't know it. He's stripped the world to his essentials, and proper names are not essential. He knows the season, intimately, its every gradation. He knows the moon, a sliver less than half tonight, waning. Typically, he'd await the new moon - darker is better - but his hunger had become critical. He knows the hour and minute. He's wearing an old wind-up watch to ensure that he budgets enough time to return before daybreak. He doesn't know, at least not without calculating, the year or the decade. He passes a dozen cabins, modest wood-sided vacation homes, unpainted, shut tight for the off-season. He's been inside most of them, but now is not the time. For nearly an hour he continues, still attempting to avoid footprints or broken branches. Some roots he's stepped on so many times that they're worn smooth from repetition. Even knowing that, no tracker could ever find him. He stops just before reaching his destination, the Pine Tree summer camp. The camp isn't open, but maintenance has been around, and they've probably left some food in the kitchen, and there's likely non-perishable leftovers from last season. From the shadow of the forest he observes the Pine Tree property, scanning the bunkhouses, the tool shop, the rec center, the dining hall. No one. A couple of cars are in the lot, as usual. Still, he waits. You can never be too cautious. Eventually he's ready. Motion-detecting floodlights and cameras are scattered around the Pine Tree grounds, installed chiefly because of him, but these are a joke. Their boundaries are fixed - learn where they are and keep away. The hermit zigzags across the camp and stops at a specific rock, turns it over, grabs the key hidden beneath, and pockets it for later use. Then he climbs a slope to the parking lot and tests each vehicle's doors. A Ford pick-up opens. He clicks on his pen-light and peeks inside. Candy! Always good. Ten rolls of Smarties, tossed in the cup holders. He stuffs them in another pocket. He also takes a rain poncho and a silver-colored Armitron analogue watch. It's not an expensive watch - if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it. He has a moral code. But extra watches are important; when you live outside with rain and snow, breakage is inevitable. He passes a few more motion cameras to a back door of the dining hall. Here he sets down his canvas gym bag of break-in tools and unzips it. Inside is a pair of putty knives, a paint scraper, a Leatherman multi-tool, several long-necked flathead screwdrivers, and three back-up torches, among other items. He knows this door - it's already slightly scraped and dented from his work - and he selects a screwdriver and slots it into the gap between the door and frame, near the knob. One expert twist and the door pops open, and he slips inside. He is deeply, almost dangerously hungry. Back at his tent, his edible supplies are a couple of crackers, some ground coffee, and a few packets of artificial sweetener. That's it. If he'd waited much longer, he would have risked becoming tent-bound from weakness. He shines his light on boxes of hamburger patties and blocks of cheese, bags of sausage and packs of bacon. His heart leaps and his stomach calls and he sets upon the food, loading it into his backpack. All of Christopher Knight's survival tactics were focused on winter. Each year, just as the cabins were shutting down for the season, often with food left behind in the pantry, Knight embarked on an intensified streak of all-night raids. "It was my busiest time. Harvest time. A very ancient instinct. Though not one usually associated with crime." His first goal was to get fat. This was a life-or-death necessity. Every mammal in his forest, mouse to moose, had the same basic plan. He gorged himself on sugar and alcohol - it was the quickest way to gain weight, and he liked the feeling of inebriation. The bottles he stole were the signs of a man who'd never once, as he admitted, sat at a bar: Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy, Seagram's Escapes Strawberry Daiquiri, Parrot Bay Coconut Rum, and something called Whipped Chocolate Valley Vines, a liquefied blend of chocolate, whipped cream, and red wine. He filled plastic totes with non-perishable food. He took warm clothes and sleeping bags. And he stockpiled propane, hauling the potbellied white tanks from barbecue grills all around North and Little North Ponds. The tanks were vital - not for cooking (cold food still nourishes) or heat (burning gas in a tent can create enough carbon monoxide to kill you) but for melting snow to make drinking water. It was a fuel-intensive task; Knight required 10 tanks per winter. When each tank was finished, he buried it near his site. The supply-gathering process was a race against the weather. With the first significant snowfall of the season, typically in November, all operations shut down. It is impossible to move through snow without making tracks, and Knight was obsessive about not leaving a print. So for the next six months, until the spring thaw in April, he rarely strayed from his clearing in the woods. Ideally, he wouldn't depart from his camp at all the entire winter. To combat the cold, Knight groomed his beard to winter length - about an inch: thick enough to insulate his face, thin enough to prevent ice build-up. For most of the summer, using stolen shaving cream, he'd remain clean-shaven, to stay cool, except during the height of mosquito season, when a heavy scruff served as a natural insect repellant. They can swarm so thickly that you can't breathe without inhaling some; every forearm slap leaves your fingers sticky with your own blood. Many North Pond locals find peak insect season more challenging than the severest cold snap. Once the bugs subsided, Knight would shave again, until the blustery season in late fall - facial hair also offers good protection from the wind. As for the hair on his head, he kept it simple: several times a year, he'd shave himself bald, using scissors and a disposable razor. While he lived in the woods, Knight never once appeared classically hermitlike, hirsute and dishevelled, and only while he was in jail and no longer a hermit did he begin to look exactly like one. It was his idea of a practical joke.
I don't want people questioning my questionable judgment.
It's natural to assume that Knight just slept all the time during the cold season, a human hibernation, but this is wrong. "It is dangerous to sleep too long in winter," he said. It was essential to know precisely how cold it was, his brain demanded it, so he always kept three thermometers in camp: one mercury, one digital, one spring-loaded. He couldn't trust just a single thermometer, and preferred a consensus. When frigid weather descended, he went to sleep at 7.30pm. He'd cocoon himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags and cinch a tie-down strap near his feet to prevent the covers from slipping off. If he needed to pee, it was too cumbersome to undo his bedding, so he used a wide-mouthed jug with a good lid. No matter what he tried, he couldn't keep his feet warm. "Thick socks. Multiple socks. Boot liners. Thin socks, thinking it was better to have my feet together, using the mitten theory," he said. "I never found a perfect solution." Still, he did not lose a toe or a finger to frostbite. Once in bed, he'd sleep six and a half hours, and arise at 2am. That way, at the depth of cold, he was awake. At extreme temperatures, it didn't matter how well wrapped he was - if he remained in bed much longer, condensation from his body could freeze his sleeping bag. His core temperature would plunge, and the paralysing lethargy of an extreme chill would begin to creep over him, starting at his feet and hands, then moving like an invading army to his heart. "If you try [to sleep] through that kind of cold, you might never wake up."
The first thing he'd do at 2am was light his stove and start melting snow. To get his blood circulating, he'd walk the perimeter of his camp. "Out of the tent. Turn left. Fifteen paces. Turn left. Eight paces. To my winter toilet. Do my business. Twenty paces back. A big triangle. Around again. And again. I like to pace." He'd air out his sleeping bags, wicking away moisture. He did this every bitterly cold night for a quarter century. If it snowed, he'd shovel the site, pushing the snow to the camp's perimeter, in great frozen mounds, walling him in. His feet never seemed to fully thaw, but as long as he had a fresh pair of socks, this wasn't really a problem. It is more important to be dry than warm. By dawn, he'd have his day's water supply. No matter how tempted he was to crawl back into his covers, he resisted. He had complete self-control. Naps were not permitted in his ideology, as they ruined his ability to achieve deep, rejuvenating sleep. He sometimes felt disconcertingly exposed during winter. Few people were around, but with the leaves gone, the chances increased that his camp might be spotted. He had an alarm system - no one could walk silently in Knight's woods - except Knight - so there'd always be warning of an approach, and also an escape plan. If a person came near, he planned to avoid confrontation by moving deeper into the woods. A short distance from his camp, Knight kept what he called his upper cache. Buried in the ground, so well camouflaged with twigs and leaves that you could walk right over it and never know, were two metal garbage bins and one plastic tote. They contained camping gear and winter clothes, enough so that if someone found his site, Knight could abandon it and start anew. His commitment to isolation was absolute. While sitting slump-shouldered on his stool in the visiting booth of the jail, speaking of his inner voyages, Knight seemed to be in an introspective mood. I wondered, despite his aversion to dispensing wisdom, if he'd be willing to share more of what he learned while alone. People have been approaching hermits with this request for thousands of years, eager to consult with someone whose life has been so radically different. Responses from hermits have often been elusive. Tenzin Palmo, pressed for her conclusions about living silently in a cave for a dozen years, said only, "Well, it wasn't boring." Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "He that thinks most, will say least." The Tao Te Ching says, "Those who know do not tell; those who tell do not know." Now it felt like my turn to ask. Was there some grand insight, I questioned Knight, revealed to him in the wild? I was serious about the request. Profound truths, or at least those that make sense of the seeming randomness of life, have always eluded me. What Knight had done was like what Henry David Thoreau had - it may, in fact, be the men's similarities that is the source of Knight's contempt. Thoreau wrote in Walden that he had reduced existence to its basic elements so that he could "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life".
Maybe, I thought, Knight would talk about the marrow. He sat quietly, whether thinking or fuming or both, it was hard to tell. But he eventually arrived at a reply. It felt like some great mystic was about to reveal the Meaning of Life. "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. I accepted it as truth. Knight is brought in to the courtroom, stationed behind the defence table, uncuffed. The room quiets. A court officer says, "All rise," and Justice Nancy Mills appears. She smoothes her black robe and sits, then sets a pair of reading glasses low on her nose and begins. For those not charting moons or seasons or chin hair, it's Monday, October 28, 2013, nearly seven months after Knight's arrest. A solution has been found. Knight will plead guilty to 13 counts of burglary and theft - the vast majority of his raids could not be prosecuted because of a six-year statute of limitations and many were never reported at all. Instead of going to prison, he will be admitted into the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court. This is a programme that substitutes counselling and judicial monitoring for incarceration, designed for defendants facing criminal charges who are also affected by substance abuse and mental illness - the co-occurring disorders. In Knight's case, his afflictions are alcoholism and either Asperger's syndrome, depression, or schizoid personality disorder. These labels may not be precisely accurate, but even the DA agrees that a long prison sentence for Knight would be cruel, and admitting him to the programme is a way to legally resolve the case. Knight will serve a total of seven months in jail - he has another week to go - and, once released, must seek psychological counselling. He needs to call his case manager every day. He has to appear in court every Monday at 11am so Mills can review his progress. These rules will be in effect for at least one year, and if he breaks any of them, he could be subject to as much as a seven-year term in prison. A few hours later, I visit Knight in jail for the final time. It's our ninth one-hour visit over the course of two months, encompassing four trips to Maine. There are telephones in jail, but he has steadfastly refused to make a call, though we speak through receivers during our visits. He hasn't placed a phone call in 30 years, and even before he went into the woods, he didn't like phones.
"People earnestly say to me here, 'Mr Knight, we have cellphones now, and you're going to really enjoy them.' That's their enticement for me to rejoin society. 'You're going to love it,' they say. I have no desire. And what about a text message? Isn't that just using a telephone as a telegraph? We're going backwards." When he hears how songs are now shared and downloaded, Knight is equally unimpressed. "You're using your computers, your thousand-dollar machines, to listen to the radio? Society is taking a rather strange turn." He says he'll stick with vinyl records. With his release imminent, Knight seems more unsettled than ever. He scratches furiously at his knees. Jail, he's realised, might not be all bad. There's routine and order in jail, and he's able to click into a survival mode that is not too dissimilar, in terms of steeliness of mental state, to the one he'd perfected during winters in the woods. "I'm surrounded in here by less-than-desirable people," he says, "but at least I wasn't thrown into the waters of society and expected to swim." Now he is being tossed into public life, and he's frightened. It's not the big things, like getting a job or re-learning to drive, that worry him but the little ones, like eye contact and gestures and emotions, all of which can be badly misinterpreted. "I'm extremely emotionally thin-skinned. I need therapy. I realise that." He feels like the stakes are high for him - he's fearful that he'll make a mistake that will send him to prison. The punishment looms like a guillotine. "I have no preparation for re-entry into society. I don't know your world. Only my world, and memories of the world before I went to the woods. What is life today? What is proper? There are blank spots in my skill set. I have to figure out how to live." He refers to what's happening to him, literally and metaphorically, as his "double winter". He was arrested as one winter was ending and will be released as the next is beginning. "It's going to be a year without summer. Like when Krakatoa blew." He's been invited into the family home, in the town of Albion, Maine, back to his boyhood bedroom. "They don't approve of what I did, but I am still part of the family. I am grateful." He will move in with his mother and his sister, his brother Daniel close by. He is unimpressed with what he's learned in jail of the society he is about to enter, and is certain he is not going to fit in. Everything moves at light speed, without rest. "It's too loud. Too colourful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia. The inappropriate choices of goals."
He admits that he's really not in a position to judge. He says that when he is released, he is going to avoid even the intimation of wrongdoing; he will hew to the law and keep clean. "I don't want people questioning my questionable judgment." I tell Knight that I can research employment opportunities for him, quiet jobs like security guard or librarian, and he shakes his head vigorously, no. "Please leave me alone," he says. The best thing I can do is not help him. Help is a kind of relationship. Next thing you know I'll be asking to be his friend, and he doesn't want to be my friend. "I'm not going to miss you at all," he adds. He is a connoisseur of the arc of the seasons and the scent of the wind, but he can't really see anyone else. I've told him a little about my family and my pastimes, and he didn't even bother to feign interest. He doesn't know what to do with the information, what questions to ask. He knows people only peripherally, by the food in their pantry and the decorations on their walls. His only real relationship was between him and the forest. Knight thinks of himself as both a common criminal and as a Nietzschean Ubermensch - a superman, subject to no one else's rules, a master of self-discipline. He has told me his story and asked for nothing in return, but he admits that he wonders which version of him I will portray. "I'm worried about having my identity applied by someone else," he says. "I don't particularly trust you. I don't distrust you, either. I'm taking measure of the man. There are certain threadbare spots in your measure. You have the ability to do harm or good. Do what you think is right." Mostly what he wants me to do is just slow down and let time pass. "Don't be a pest," he says. "I'll speak to you when the lilacs bloom. And maybe not even then." I ask him if by lilacs blooming he means next year, and he says, "Yes, in spring. I don't use years yet." Knight is no longer able to disappear into the wild, not without risking seven years in prison, so he wishes to melt into the world. A guard comes to escort him away, and I thank him for speaking with me, for sharing his ideas. For the lyricism of his language. I tell him I like the way his mind works. "Goodbye, Chris," I say. "Good luck." There is time for Knight to express a last thought. He does not. There's no wave, no nod. He stands up, turns his back on me, and walks out of the visiting booth and down a corridor of the jail. Everyone I'd spoken with in his circle, without exception, had exclaimed how ably he was adjusting. He appears healthy and his skin has nice colour. He's still thin - the end of his belt dangles - but not emaciated like he once was. The lack of a beard skews him younger. He's been to a dentist; one tooth has been removed, I see, and the rest are shiny and clean. But one of the first things he says is that the optimistic face he's displayed in public is false, another mask. In truth, he's hurting.
I have no preparation for re-entry into society. I don't know your world. There are blank spots in my skill set. I have to figure out how to live.
"I'm not doing very well," he admits, gazing over my shoulder in his usual manner. Nobody understands him, he tells me. People constantly take offense at what he says. "They misconstrue me as arrogant. I feel like I'm in high school all over again." He sacrificed everything else in the world for complete autonomy, and now he's nearly 50 years old and not allowed to make simple decisions for himself. "I am a square peg," he says. Everybody he encounters, he feels, is smashing at him, pounding on him, trying to jam him into a round hole. Society seems no more welcoming to him than before he left. He fears he may be forced to take psychotropic medicines, drugs that will mess with his brain, when he already knows exactly how to fix everything. All he needs to do is return to his camp. Though, of course, he can't. He must perform the whole dog-and-pony show of his punishment. "Am I crazy?" he asks. I say to him, truthfully, that I don't believe he is crazy. And right then, I come the closest I think I ever will to understanding why Knight left. He left because the world is not made to accommodate people like him. He was never happy in his youth-not in high school, not with a job, not being around other people. It made him feel constantly nervous. There was no place for him, and instead of suffering further, he escaped. It wasn't so much a protest as a quest; he was like a refugee from the human race. The forest offered him shelter. "I did it because the alternative was - I wasn't content," says Knight. "I did find a place where I was content." Edited extract from The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (Simon & Schuster, $35) available March 1.