I have been thinking a lot about hermits over the past few weeks. Actually, I’ve been thinking about one particular hermit.
His name is Christopher Knight. I’ve never actually met him. But I first learned about him years ago.
A journalist named Michael Finkel was writing a book about Knight. And Knight’s story, which Finkel would recount skillfully in The Stranger in the Woods, was one that merited telling.
Not long after graduating from high school, Knight decided he’d had enough of society. He drove his car as far as he could into the Maine woods in late 1986, then simply vanished.
Twenty-seven years later, authorities apprehended Knight and arrested him for a series of burglaries. It seemed he’d been living in a campsite he’d built for himself in the woods near a small, rural community in Maine that largely consisted of summer residents.
For more than a quarter-century, he survived by pilfering food and supplies from empty residences. He lived a life of utter solitude, kept company only by the items – books and magazines, mostly – that he took from people’s cabins.
During that time, he only once encountered another human being. While walking in the woods in the 1990s, he encountered a lone hiker.
They didn’t make physical contact. But as the two passed, the hermit uttered the only syllable he’d speak to a human in all that time.
He said, “Hi.”
An improbable question
While researching his book, Finkel called me to discuss a medical question. (Full disclosure: Finkel is an old college pal of Adam Cohen, general counsel at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.)
Knight lived in a tent through winters where the temperature routinely dropped below zero. He told Finkel he’d never once built a fire, fearful that this would reveal his presence. On the most frigid of nights, he’d wake up a few hours after midnight and pace back and forth until dawn to avoiding freezing to death.
He subsisted on foods that were nothing less than a dietitian’s worst nightmare: canned meats, highly processed starches and lots and lots of junk food. Twinkies, it seems, were a particular favorite.
Yet, he told Finkel, in 27 years, he’d never gotten sick. Not even a cold.
Finkel had a simple question for me: Was this possibly true?
Muck that matters most
A few months back, you might have dismissed the hermit’s claim out of hand. But the world has changed quite a bit since then.
As we’ve all come to realize, history’s gravest health threats often don’t stem from poor diets. Nor do they come from numbing cold or even the microbes that might line a muddy campsite in New England.
No, they arrive via our fellow human beings.
Our friends, family and acquaintances pass to us the germs that cause colds, flu and other communicable illnesses. Without any human “vectors” to transmit disease-causing pathogens, I told Finkel, the hermit’s claim seemed entirely plausible.
When he published his book in 2017, Finkel summed up our conversation beautifully. (Remember, it’s the writer’s job to make even the driest medical information sound slightly poetic.) He wrote:
“The muck that matters most, the bad bacteria, the evil virus, is typically passed through coughs and sneezes and handshakes and kisses. The price of sociability is sometimes our health. [He] quarantined himself from the human race and thus avoided our biohazards.”
Finkel may as well have been writing today about Covid-19.
The dividends of solitude
I’m not advocating that we all retreat to the woods and live on Hostess snack foods. Still, if avoiding communicable disease is your sole purpose, you can’t do much better than pulling a Chris Knight.
Indeed, over the past few weeks, we’ve probably all tasted our share of loneliness. Of cabin fever. Of yearning for experiences and people beyond those trapped alongside us as we wait out the Covid-19 pandemic.
The next time one of those thoughts or feelings rears its head, you might think about Knight.
Tucked in his mosquito-ridden corner of the woods, he would go entire seasons without leaving his tiny campsite. Food would run low, and he’d exhausted his supply of reading materials. In the winters, he’d be sure the cold would take him to his grave.
Yet, Knight said, he never regretted his choice of solitude. And he was never once bored.
“My desires dropped away. I didn’t long for anything,” Knight told Finkel. “To put it romantically, I was completely free.”
In the coming weeks and months, we might all take a lesson from the hermit.