Two years and four months ago, Weaponsman featured a guy we called, “the rural Maine equivalent of the Japanese soldiers who stayed off the grid in the Philippines and Guam for ridiculous lengths of time.” He lived in a rude, camouflaged, and solitary camp and survived on what he could steal from others’ empty vacation homes. And then spirited his booty back to his rural G-Camp.
Michael Finkel was fascinated by Christopher Knight. He visited, and befriended, him in prison (Knight served seven months in prison, and is still on seven years’ probation). While the story Finkel penned for GQ has some insights into Knight’s survival methods (so do the links in our original post. We just checked the Portland Press-Herald repop of the Kennebec Journal link by Craig Cros, and it’s still live). We could share some of the insights into Knight’s long survival off the grid, but as another PPH story points out that, “[he] didn’t hunt, fish or forage,” just stole what he needed, we reckon you can read our original post, Finkel’s GQ update, or the news stories to see how Knight managed it.
Instead, we’ll leave you with the incomplete philosophical end of the Chris Knight story, as told to Finkel:
Anyone who reveals what he’s learned, Chris told me, is not by his definition a true hermit. Chris had come around on the idea of himself as a hermit, and eventually embraced it. When I mentioned Thoreau, who spent two years at Walden, Chris dismissed him with a single word: “dilettante.”
True hermits, according to Chris, do not write books, do not have friends, and do not answer questions. I asked why he didn’t at least keep a journal in the woods. Chris scoffed. “I expected to die out there. Who would read my journal? You? I’d rather take it to my grave.” The only reason he was talking to me now, he said, is because he was locked in jail and needed practice interacting with others.
“But you must have thought about things,” I said. “About your life, about the human condition.”
Chris became surprisingly introspective. “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.”
He set his jaw in a way that conveyed he wouldn’t be saying more. This is what he’d learned. I accepted it as truth.
“What I miss most,” he eventually continued, “is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.” He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp. I’d noticed the mushroom when I visited—it was enormous—and he asked me with evident concern if anyone had knocked it down. I assured him it was still there. In the height of summer, he said, he’d sometimes sneak down to the lake at night. “I’d stretch out in the water, float on my back, and look at the stars.”
Knight demonstrated, like the Japanese soldiers did, that the key supply to have for long-term solitary survival is an active intellect. For instance, he never lit a fire, ever, fearing that the signature smoke would lead others to him (he used a propane stove to cook with, and fed it with stolen tanks. In the winter, he simply suffered). He had selected an alternate camp, and had supplies cached in case his first camp was compromised. He used to deliberately pack weight on with carbs — sugar and alcohol — before Maine’s tough winters set in on him. When he sallied on his burglar raids, he jumped from rock to rock, leaving no prints, leaving no trace. (In the end, he left over 1,000 unsolved burglaries behind). He was finally caught, first on camera by a surveillance booby-trap, then physically when a suspicious caretaker wired a camp storeroom with a motion detector and silent alarm.
In fiction, people who live long in the wild become wild, and lose their ability to speak. Knight kept himself clean and clean-shaven (only growing a “wild hermit beard” when he went to prison). He was never ill, despite a dreadful diet of pilfered snacks. When caught, Knight had lost little of his command of English — one of the items he commonly stole was books — but was uncomfortable interacting with people, which is as likely to be due to a mild autism spectrum disorder as it is to being out of practice.
One key to Knight’s long survival was his solitary existence, although that also created risks for him that a group of two or more would not have had. As a rule of thumb, your signature in every detection domain, and therefore your risk of exposure, increases exponentially, to the power of your group size. The solitary man is the stealthiest, but the world’s militaries tend to deploy a team of no fewer than two men for any task, even the most surreptitious, clandestine recons. (Even SF and SOF, which take great pains to select men who can operate solo, try not to send them out that way).
Knight’s general approach is a poor model for behavior in TEOTWAWKI. It’s true that he was in a survival milieu much more rural than most people imagine. He drove north until he parked his Subaru BRAT (remember those? It was new) and left the keys in it, and started walking. He was out there, off the grid. But he was dependent on, parasitic on, really, human civilization. Theft from remote camps as a lifestyle depends on campers and hunters restocking the camps, and not living there, planning to ambush you.
Chris Knight’s story is one worth reading. You might as well start with Finkel’s update; Read The Whole Thing™. You’ll know then if you want to read the other links in this post.