This weekend, I read the follow-up to one of the most bizarre stories in recent memory. The story involved a young Ivy League student, by the name of Nayla Kidd, who went completely off the grid for about three weeks.
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Fearing the worst, I also shared her story in hopes that her family would have some closure one way or another. Nayla recently resurfaced and this is where things start getting a little weird. It was as gorgeous and peaceful a place as I have ever spent time. The police had dismantled much of his camp, but during my next visit with Chris, and several after that, he described his living space in meticulous detail.
In total, Chris and I met at the jail for nine hours. He slept in a simple camping tent, which he kept covered by several layers of brown tarps. He even painted his clothespins green. The breadth of his thievery was impressive.
He also stole a box spring and mattress and sleeping bags. He stole toilet paper and hand sanitizer for his bathroom spot. He took laundry detergent and shampoo for his wash area. He cooked on a Coleman two-burner stove that he connected to propane tanks. He stole a tremendous number of tanks, pillaging gas grills along the thirty-mile circumference of the pond.
He never returned them. He stole deodorant, disposable razors, flashlights, snow boots, spices, mousetraps, spray paint, and electrical tape. He took pillows off beds. He kept three different types of thermometers in camp: digital, mercury, spring-loaded. Knowing the exact temperature was mandatory. He stole watches—he had to be sure, while on a raid, that he could return to camp before daybreak. He was committed. His diet was terrible. He stole radios and earphones and hid an antenna up in trees. For a while, he listened to a lot of conservative talk radio.
Later he got hooked on classical music—Tchaikovsky and Brahms, yes; Bach, no. He went through a spell of listening to television shows on the radio; "theater of the mind," he called it. Everybody Loves Raymond was a favorite. We covered hundreds of topics while chatting in jail, and nothing received higher praise than Lynyrd Skynyrd. Magazines were more common.
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Beneath his tent area were dozens of these bricks. One book Chris never stole was the Bible. He celebrated no holidays. He meditated now and then but did not pray. With one exception. When the worst of a Maine winter struck, all rules were suspended. His eyes went wide and fearful from the memory. You do pray. You pray for warmth.
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Chris lived by the rhythms of the seasons, but his thoughts were dominated by surviving winter. Preparations began at the end of each summer as the lakeside cabins were shutting down for the year. A very ancient instinct. Though not usually associated with crime. His first goal was to get fat.
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This was a life-or-death necessity. As the evenings began to chill, he grew his beard to the ideal length—about an inch, long enough to insulate his face, short enough to prevent ice buildup. He intensified his thieving raids, stocking up on food and propane. The first snow usually came in November. Chris was always fearful about leaving a single boot print anywhere, which is impossible to avoid in a blanket of snow. And so for the next six months, until the spring thaw in April, Chris rarely strayed from his clearing in the woods. I asked him if he just slept all the time, a human hibernation.
There were, he said, some very hard winters—desperate winters—in which he ran out of propane and finished his food. The suffering was acute. Chris called it "physical, emotional, and psychological pain. Why not just leave the woods? Chris said he thought about it. He even kept a whistle in his camp. Rather, he made a firm decision that unless forcibly removed, he was going to spend the rest of his life behind the trees.
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When he heard the song of the chickadees, he told me, he could finally relax. That the end is near. The cold never got easier. All his winter-camping expertise felt offset by advancing age. I ruled the land I walked upon. I was tough and clever. The biggest issue was his eyesight. I used my ears more than my eyes.
His agility faded; bruises took longer to heal. His teeth constantly hurt.
The victims of his thefts, after years of waiting for a police breakthrough, eventually took matters into their own hands. Neal Patterson, whose family has owned a place on the pond for fifty years, began hiding all night in his dark house with a. He stayed up fourteen nights one summer before he quit. Debbie Baker, whose young boys were terrified of the hermit—to quell their fears, the family renamed him "the hungry man"—installed a surveillance camera in their cabin.
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And in , they captured a photo of Knight. The police widely distributed the photo and figured an arrest was imminent. It took eleven more years. After a robbery in March of at the Pine Tree Camp, Sergeant Terry Hughes, who often volunteered there, contacted the border patrol for advice. He installed a motion detector that sounded an alarm at his house and practiced dashing from his bed to the camp until he had it down under four minutes. Then Hughes waited for the hermit to return. Following his arrest, the court of public opinion was deeply divided.
The man who wanted to live his life as invisibly as possible had become one of the most famous people in Maine. You could not walk into a bar in the Augusta area without stumbling into a debate about what should be done with Christopher Knight. Some said that he must immediately be released from jail.
Stealing cheese and bacon are not serious crimes. The man was apparently never violent.
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