By Doug Hare EBS Staff
When Michael Finkel graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, he took a job as an associate editor with Skiing magazine. In his early twenties, assignments took him to mountains around the world: Bolivia, Iran, China, and the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro, leaving him with a lifelong love of adventure and winter sports.
In 1993, he got what some would consider a dream job: live in a mountain town as a ski bum for a year and write about it. Partly inspired by John Steinbeck’s descriptions of Montana in “Travels with Charlie,” he chose to live in Bozeman, and has called it home ever since.
Writing about unusual sports for Sports Illustrated, travel pieces for National Geographic, and reporting from war zones for The New York Times Magazine only made him more well-traveled, more fascinated in the exhilarating, if not bizarre aspects of human culture.
In 2003, he published “Alpine Circus: A Skier’s Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edges of the World,” recounting his most memorable experiences from his seemingly endless travels.
His 2005 memoir, “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa,” details a low-point in his life: after being fired from The New York Times Magazine, he learns that an accused murderer on the FBI’s most wanted list has stolen his identity while on the lam in Mexico. This dual saga about two distinct falls from grace eventually made it to the silver screen in the 2015 film “True Story,” starring Jonah Hill and James Franco.
Finkel’s most recent book, “Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” is his best effort to date. Compelling from the very first chapter, this book examines the decision of a 20 year old to drive from his Massachusetts home north into the heart of the Maine woods, park his car and put his keys in the center console, walk off into the forest, and avoid any human contact for nearly three decades.
How did Christopher Knight survive the fierce mosquitos in summer, or the harsh winters of Maine in a tent? How did he manage to stay sane without any human contact for 27 years? Why? What drives a person to make a complete break with society?
Knight had a penchant for stealing provisions and books from cottages and summer homes in his vicinity, leading to various folk tales about the “North Pond Hermit.” Eventually, Knight was caught with the help of modern surveillance equipment—while pilfering a summer camp for autistic children—and returned to society in handcuffs.
This well-researched, riveting account of Christopher Knight’s willful seclusion is interspersed with tales of others who have sought out solitude: Tibetan monks, Henry David Thoreau, Tasmanian bush people, Catholic mystics, and the author’s own insights from his travels to India.
Finkel approaches big questions about the individual, society and the good life through insightful, yet frustrating correspondence and interviews with the hermit-burglar himself, as well as self-reflection on his own love of camping and reading. “Stranger in the Woods” leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Whether Knight was a lunatic or loner, a two-bit thief or harmless sage, is eventually left for the reader to decide.
With this engaging, thought-provoking piece of investigative journalism and biography, Finkel has put himself in a class with the John McPhees and Jon Krakauers of the literary world. If you ever find yourself with some time alone, this is one book that will make a good companion.
Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.