The Last True Hermit Was Alone for 27 Years
Apr 23, 2020
For decades, the residents of Maine’s Kennebec Valley believed that the North Pond hermit was a myth. According to local lore, a hermit had been living undetected in the woods since the 1980s; every so often, he would break into seasonal cabins to steal food and other resources. But no one could prove the hermit’s existence—if he was out there, he had taken great pains to guarantee his isolation.
Then, in April 2013, a man was arrested in the deep woods of Maine. His name was Christopher Thomas Knight. According to societal records, he didn’t exist. For 27 years, he had camped out in the forest, surviving on meager supplies that he’d burglarized from houses in the area. He endured winter temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. Every morning, he watched the sun rise over the foggy valley that he called home. He hadn’t had a single conversation with another person for nearly three decades.
In the area near North Pond, Knight’s hermitage fomented outrage, intrigue, reverence, and every response in between. Filmmaker Lena Friedrich decided that she had to learn more. In her short documentary, The Hermit, she interviews residents of North Pond who piece together the fabric of a local legend.
“Everyone had a very strong opinion about Knight, and none of them had the same opinion,” Friedrich told me. Some residents viewed Knight as a villain; others saw him as a folk hero of sorts. “I realized that, as with every legend, this one had many versions and interpretations,” Friedrich said. “I tried to find characters who would provide personal layers of understanding to the enigma.”
One of those characters happened to be a man named Carrol who succeeded in guiding Friedrich through the dense woods to Knight’s secret campsite. Friedrich and her crew were the first to access the location and film it. “Carrol found his way there by looking for a particularly sharp stone or recognizing some broken branch in the middle of the forest,” Friedrich said. “It was uncanny.”
Friedrich’s film was released in 2014, but it has continued to resonate with audiences. Recently, interest in the film has surged significantly, perhaps because people can relate to feeling like hermits in quarantine. Friedrich thinks that Knight’s story has an enduring quality because of his renouncement of many elements of modern society that people take for granted.
“Dropping out of society is the ultimate, most radical act of freedom,” Friedrich said. “I think people react strongly to Knight because he radically rejected everything that is supposed to make us happy—meaningful relationships, a fulfilling career, material comfort—yet he was content in the woods.”
Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.