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The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit (gq.com)
383 points by randomwalker on Aug 21, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 86 comments

Many, many times have I considered isolating myself, separating myself from the seemingly vacuous concerns of a society riddled with senseless traditions, layers upon layers of societal band-aids and pointless struggles over ridiculously subjective arguments.

I spent most of my life being disgusted by the frivolity of most people's desires and qualms, and for this reason, I feel I deeply understand why Chris Knight did what he did. No reason, no justification, no particular aim, just life.

While I still catch myself wishing for such a life, I realized I could not blame or reject what I do not actively participate in. Furthermore, I came to the conclusion, possibly wrongly, that a life worth living is a life worth sharing, that society will always be able to offer you more than you can offer it.

I now believe that the solution is not to reject society, nor be tied by its requirements or norms, but rather behave as a free agent, with independence, compassion and mental fortitude.

Law, Economy, Politics, Religion, Science, Technology, ... are, in my opinion, mere relics and artifacts of thousands of years of civilization, localized attempts at guiding the seemingly mis-guided, while becoming eventually meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

These civilized relics are not necessarily bad, but as with anything else attachment becomes the issue. While becoming a hermit is possibly the quickest way of severing those ties, attachment is the burden of the mind, not of society at large. Isolation diminishes, or even wipes attachment issues altogether, but it does not resolve them.

This might come across as preachy, though it certainly isn't my intention, I simply wanted to share my view with anybody who, like I used to, wishes for isolation as a remedy.

It reminds me of that classic Monty Python sketch about the hermit community. I think most people consider leaving society and taking up this life -- but I estimate that most of them would have a second thought when they have to build a fire.

While a lot of people take the creature comforts offered by civilization for granted, I'd say that as long as they leave society already armed with basic survival skills, it would be fairly easy for them to adjust to the wilderness.

The only thing that would really concern me is lack of quick and easy access to modern medicine. Say you're foraging for food and you trip over a tree branch and break your ankle. What then?

While Chris Knight certainly had basic survival skills, he was definitely not self-sufficient, going on a theft mission for goods approximately once per week. Besides, being self-sufficient in the wild requires quite a lot of land to support a single human - it's not something that a lot of people can do at the same time.

That may be true for us. But for Chris Knight, the environment that he can use for self-sufficiency includes the surrounding human population and their food.

And my self-sufficient environment involves grocery stores, mechanics, Amazon, and a job...

Say you're foraging for food and you trip over a tree branch and break your ankle. What then?

The food chain shifts and shimmies a little bit as the opportunity presents itself, but nature pretty much carries on as is.

This is why I love the TV show "Mountain Men". I get to enjoy the great outdoors isolation fantasy from the comfort of my suburban home.

My favorite line from the show: "What do I do for a living? I live for a living."

I've had a recurring dream of building a little shack out in the woods and I've constantly wondered if the Ted Kaczynski would have turned so dark with modern access to the internet.

Kaczynski's case was very complicated by the experiments he was a victim of and his retreat into the certainty of his own internal logic. Kaczynski with internet is an interesting thought - though I'm not sure whether I would expect things to have turned better or worse.

Interestingly, Kaczynski is alive and does send and receive mail. One curious enough could ask his perspective.

Given the number of conspiracy theorists on youtube...probably

This comment was the icing on the article. Thank you.

Awesome comment

"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."

This part resonated a lot to me. I consider self-awareness one of my qualities. But I too feel like the more I try and understand myself, the more distanced of the world I am. If I micro-analyze every reaction I have, I miss the point to connect to another person. I take myself out of society.

I found out that being defined by another person is a good thing for me. Particurlaly by people I love. I want to naturally be the person that made people I love love me.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

- Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

For context, the entire essay: http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm

as I went Googling. Excellent quote!

The kind of situation(of identity loss and connectedness to nature ,etc) is kind of a goal in eastern meditation traditions. But another goal is creating compassionate people who care about others while carrying that identity-less feeling with them. And true, one risk is that one would be happy with himself and isolate himself. But those traditions know and try to manage those risks.

And i don't think this loss of self comes from self introspection, but more from long solitude(which tends to break the psych construct we call ego).

And no wonder he like solitude so strongly - he didn't find happiness among humans before. Hopefully after he get released , he can find some way to make a living while having the ability to live mostly alone and in nature.

I've heard about jobs that would enable that - working at national parks, where you are given a job to do and have to spend weeks in the wilderness carrying it out - marking paths, taking pictures, fixing things - ideal path for someone who doesn't want human contact, as there will be very little of it. The only question is if he would get it with his, now criminal, record.

> I've heard about jobs that would enable that - working at national parks...

Edward Abbey wrote about his experiences doing exactly this in Desert Solitaire.

What did I do? There was nothing that had to be done. I listened to the voices, the many voices, vague, distant, but astonishingly human, the Havasu Creek. I heard the doors creak open, the doors creak shut, the old forgotten cabins where no one with tangible substance or the property of reflecting light ever entered, ever returned. I went native and dreamed away days on the shore of the pool under the waterfall, wandered naked as Adam under the cottonwoods, inspecting my cactus gardens. The days became wild, strange, ambiguous --- a sinister element pervaded the flow of time. I lived narcotic hours in which like the Taoist Chuang-tse I worried about butterflies and who was dreaming what. There was a serpent, a red racer, living in the rocks of the spring where I filled my canteens; he was always there, slipping among the stones or pausing to mesmerize me with his suggestive tongue and cloudly haunted primeval eyes. Damn his eyes. We got to know each other rather too well, I think. I agonized over the girls I had known and over those I hoped were yet to come. I slipped by degrees into lunacy, me and the moon, and lost to a certain extent the power to distinguish between what was and what was not myself looking at my hand, I would see a leaf trembling on a branch. A green leaf. I thought of Debussy, of Keats and Blake and Andrew Marvell. I remembered Tom O'Bedlam. And all of those lost and never remembered. Who would return? To be lost again? I went for walks. I went for walks, and on one of these, the last, I took in Havasu, regained everything that seemed to be ebbing away.

-- Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire


> And true, one risk is that one would be happy with himself and isolate himself. But those traditions know and try to manage those risks.

Sorry, at least in Indian mythology the "ascetic" is idolized and glorified (they exhibited superpowers through their isolated meditation). In what way is this "managing those risks"?

Developing various cartoon superpowers is mostly used in the context of being denounced as being of inferior value compared to that tradition's idea of spiritual salvation. So I am not sure if that can be taken as promoting asceticism.

Leaving mythology aside, different spiritual traditions strive towards different goals.

Sikhism rejects outward asceticism... "Asceticism doesn't lie in the earring, nor in the shaven head, nor blowing a conch. Asceticism lies in remaining pure amidst impurities."

Buddhism advocates a middle way, and is against too much asceticism as well as too much hedonism and in mahayana a vow working to benefit others... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhisattva_vow http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_way

Hinduism is a very mixed bag. A one of the most popular ideals involves working towards outcome in a non-attached way... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma_yoga

Jainism probably has the most ascetic spiritual ideal among the indian traditions.

You're right. My knowledge is about the Buddhist traditions.

When I did a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat last year, there is a rule that you can't talk or read or write or communicate in any way with anyone. Once we were allowed to talk again on the 10th day it surprised me how much I forgot about the way I saw myself. I realized that you see yourself through the way other people see you and the way they communicate this to you.

It was a really interesting and valuable experience and I highly recommend it for anyone. In case you're interested, you can find out more here: http://dhamma.org

Would you say your response is rooted more in your own personality or the fact you're from, according to your profile, what's considered a hyper-social culture (Brazil)?

It is hard to determine that by myself. I think it is also hard to determine how much different on their essence are people from different cultures.

Said that, I think it is more rooted in my own personality. I have good social skills, but I consider myself an introspective person. I always liked the silence, I don't care about small talk, I enjoy eating by myself, thinking for hours alone, etc. So my personality would be in opposition to the brazilian culture in general, in this sense. So I could see how our culture can be inapropiate some times. But after a time, I decided that there was more happiness in being part of a society than in being totally focused on myself. That dichotomy that is not obvious at first and me and the Hermit arrived at a similar conclusion. The diference is that he is happier opting out of society and I am happier opting in. Not that I betray my nature. I still enjoy a lot my moments alone. But I learned to see the value in connecting with another person, in developing empathy, not just self-awareness.

>There was no need to define myself;

Except he defined himself as someone who doesn't need to define himself.

One can never be free from definitions.

That sounds pretty self-conscious and fake, like a teenager trying to dress like a nonconformist. Altered states of consciousness do exist, and extreme isolation is known to produce them.

> like a teenager trying to dress like a nonconformist

Precisely my point. True freedom is never is a reaction to something. I like Jiddu K's take on freedom


But my point is that that's not necessarily what the hermit was doing. I don't think he was reacting against the idea of defining himself. I think he was experiencing the effects of extreme isolation, and trying to describe afterwards what it felt like.

He lived for years without the need to define himself. And then someone asked him to.

So for a while, perhaps he was free from definitions.

I marvel out how perfect this story is in various ways. No real resolution to it, no motive, no discernible point. The unfolding of it all and the brutally abrupt ending; "We are not friends", seemed predictable shocking and sad at the same time.

Interestingly, the journalist has an upcoming movie where he's played by Jonah Hill. A fugitive murderer had used his name as an alias and through that, he'd developed a relationship with him and interviewed him after the person was convicted.

> He was never happy in his youth—not in high school, not with a job, not being around other people. Then he discovered his camp in the woods. "I found a place where I was content," he said. His own perfect spot. The only place in the world he felt at peace.

This resonates very strongly with me personally. So much so, I traveled to Alaska and hiked into "The Magic Bus" of Chris McCandless/Into The Wild fame [1]. From there, I spent 2 years driving to Argentina, sleeping out in my tent as often as possible. I'd often go a week without seeing or talking to another person, two weeks when I found somewhere remote enough.

Since then I've moved to the Yukon, where I've met some very interesting characters. One guy, in Dawson City, lives in a cave across the Yukon River from town. He has a second cave full of chickens, and he sells the eggs in town to make enough money to pay for food/beer. He boats across the river in summer and walks across the river for 7 months of the year.

I once again feel the pull, and I'm heavily planning my next trip - 2 years around Africa, hopefully getting as remote as possible. With luck, that will lead into a 2 year Europe->SE Asia trip, once again camping and hiking as much as possible.

[1] http://theroadchoseme.com/the-magic-bus

Ironically, you can also find isolation in the heart of cities. A lot of mentally ill people become homeless in order to find that isolation, that release from social requirements. Yes, you see people, so aren't literally physically isolated, but you're not seen yourself.

>>but you're not seen yourself.

I always find it interesting when people say that. When you pass a man in a suit in the street, mostly see an office worker. When you pass a kid in a baggy old hoody and a haze of weed smoke, you write them off as just another PHD student.

That sentence, that when you are homeless, people don't see you - what it make me think is more that these people refuse to see themselves as homeless bums. They are still who ever they were before they became homeless. They have parents, maybe children, maybe even a job that they still identify with.

There are people I work with who, honestly, I couldn't tell you whether they have children, or a single fact about them except that they can sign QA documents. I suspect they would say the same about me. We don't feel invisible because we are able to accept what the other person sees in us - being a generic office worker is an acceptable part of our identity.

Often, when someone says people don't really see them, it means that what people see in them is not something they want people to see. However much truth there is to it.

Interesting observation. I'm also looking to see the best nature has to offer.

"With luck, that will lead into a 2 year Europe->SE Asia trip"

Plenty of people, high population density, enjoy that don't do a McCandless!!!

I'll be sticking to the least populated countries and areas possible.. the 'Stans, Mongolia, Eastern Russia, etc.

Reminds me a bit of the story of the Russian family that lived in a remote section of the Siberian taiga:


Granted, they weren't alone (it was a family), but they truly lived a hermit's existence, even when they were discovered by geologists.

  The moon was the minute hand,
  the seasons the hour hand.
Guy can write. Once his weekly obligation ends, he could make it work with a source of income as a writer, using a smartphone, bluetooth keyboard, solar panel, and get near a cell phone tower. Without rent and utils, he needs much less money than usual. Order groceries etc online, so he can remain isolated (and of course hunt/fish).

Or write a book, invest, live on interest in the woods.

He wouldn't really like having to write, but he admires good writing, and if it would grant contentment...

See also, coding in the woods http://www.atariarchives.org/deli/cottage_computer_programmi...

Always awesome to see an outlier, and one removed from our busy lives. I can't help but romanticize living far from others (though, in a cabin- for some good eyecandy, see the 'cabin porn' tumblr.) But, having read this a second time, the part that I definitely didn't appreciate is the burglaries. There are plenty of people who homestead (low-cost, off the grid) just fine without instilling fear into their communities (IMO, despite being a hermit, he did have a community by definition of pillaging them to survive.)

Many people escape the busy life and it works for them. Plenty of them blog about it. Martha from Canada: "I fondly remember an old friend saying that he would never live in a place that had a traffic report." Her latest blog posts are a selection process for which chickens get put on the chopping block. Others write about getting new wood stoves, or photographing piles of wood they chopped for the winter. No one blogs about burglarizing cabins.

A person writes because they have something to say. He does not believe he has anything to say.

That couplet hammered me in the heart. It was the best part of the article.

You could argue that he missed out on a lot of the amazing things about modern life, you could argue that we are missing out on many of the things of a solitary life in the forest. Either way, I'm glad that he didn't miss out on one of the most important things about modern life: Pokémon.

He may have lived in an uninhabited place but it seems, considering the amount and variety of stuff he stole, his mind was almost constantly inhabited by the modern world.

I'd love to read his account of how he interpreted the increasingly digital and electronic items he encountered during his burglaries: flat screen TVs; computers; ever smaller radios, flashlights, calculators; thermostats; microwave ovens; clocks. He had some education in electronics, so it seems he must have spent some time, even a little bit, reflecting on the technological changes he witnesses as an outside observer.

Doesn't sound like either the amount or the variety was exceptional, given that he was living off of what he stole. Food, clothes, books seems to be the bulk of it; I doubt he had to replace that tent very often, for example.

Perhaps exceptional for hermit standards (though I admit I don't rightly know what those would be).

"He'd fled the modern world only to live off the fat of it."

Among the items: metal bedframe, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, laundry detergent and shampoo, Coleman two-burner stove connected to propane tanks, deodorant, disposable razors, flashlights, snow boots, spices, mousetraps, spray paint, and electrical tape, pillows, three different types of thermometers (digital, mercury, spring-loaded), watches, radios and earphones (conservative talk radio, Everybody Loves Raymond, Who, AC/DC, Judas Priest, and Lynyrd Skynyrd), handheld video games (Pokémon, Tetris, Dig Dug), hundreds of books and magazines.

There have been many hermits to compare him with but my favourite is Simeon Stylites who spent 47 years on a pillar.

~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites

Mount Athos in Greece (which you can visit if you're male) still has "hermitages" of Orthodox priests. Google turns up a few nice images. See also this short article http://www.robertsemeniuk.com/mount_athos.html

He fled people, not the world.

But you can't get the one without the other. Nature does not produce disposable razors and Coleman stoves; people do.

Yeah, it looks like I somehow missed the bit that cataloged his possessions.

A remarkable article.

The author of this has written a number of other spellbinding articles: http://www.gq.com/contributors/michael-finkel

For reference, Michael Finkel was fired from the New York Times for fabricating a character in a story.


From the description of his book "True Story":


  In 2002, Finkel, a rising star at the Times, was fired 
  for fabricating a character in a story about child 
  laborers in Africa

Kickstart an LLC that employs him to maintain his camping ground alone, a privately funded forest ranger. Satisfy the terms of the court decision while allowing him to return to his place and live in peace with supplies provided at a drop site.

This guy is more worthy of admiration and emulation:


He was not a true hermit. He received supplies from outside yearly and brought his own tools with him - minus handles,e tc. However, Alone in the Wilderness is a fascinating watch and I recommend it for anyone who wants to see what living and working in the wild, alone, making your own tools.

fascinating read. With 7 billion people in this world, it never ceases to amaze me the different types of experiences humans have had.

I also just finished listening to the latest "Hardcore History" podcast regarding WWI. Holy shit, what crazy things humans have done/experienced.

I highly recommend both "Storm of Steel" (best first-person view of the war) and "Dreadnought" (best telling of the majestic story of the runup to the war).

Just finished The Sleepwalkers about the diplomatic and political maneuvers from about 1900 on. I would strongly recommend Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory for reflections on the writing that came out of and around the war.

Very nice article and writing - and a great subject.

To wander the woods all day, read when you want,

To be free of all connections, to not even need a name. There is something to it.

Oh ..and Rudyard Kipling ... wonderful.

Just like Christopher McCandless, he searched for some privacy and isolation in the remote corners of America.

For anyone for whom this story resonated, this book is well worth a read:-

An Island to Oneself http://www.amazon.com/An-Island-Oneself-Tom-Neale/dp/0918024...

More info on Tom Neale:- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Neale

One to add to the reading list:

Ordinary People As Monks & Mystics: Lifestyles for Spiritual Wholeness by Marsha Sinetar http://books.google.com/books?id=hxzvdKqddzQC&printsec=front...

OP reminded me of this


And this


Fugue? Small scale stroke? Or just a need to quieten the brain? Has this man had a neurological examination of any kind?

If you want to put faces to names mentioned: http://www.pressherald.com/2013/04/09/north-pond-hermit-susp...

Being someone who grew up in Maine, not too far from there, spending hours upon hours as a young child, alone exploring acres and square-miles of woods - what struck me the _most_ was "whoah, the boogie man WAS real all those years...."

Did this remind anyone else of the Satoshi Nakamoto outing (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7353283)? Journalist befriends recluse, turns it into a magazine story.

Truth-finding and ethics in journalism is really interesting.

"The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics_of_journalism#Codes_of_p...

But what if "providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues" requires lying/manipulation?

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Janet Malcolm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Journalist_and_the_Murderer

I don't see much of a connection. The problem with the Leah outing was that it was based on very weak and apparently distorted evidence. (And how exactly did she 'befriend a recluse'?) No one, least of all the hermit, denies what he did.

In the author's first letter to Christopher Knight, he told him that he was a journalist

There are many times in life where you wonder if you would be better living alone outside of the regular world. This guy actually did it. I would go insane if I was alone for more than a few weeks.

Its OK for about a week or 10 days. Then you need to return to maintain normality. I did hang out on my own when I was younger, but never longer than a couple of weeks. This is UK, very high popn density place.

Knowing that there are people to go back to is really important of course. I wonder about the rough sleepers who have no-one sometimes.

Chris Knight was the name of Val Kilmer's character in Real Genius.

Why is that article dated on September 2014?

The article will probably be in the September issue of the printed magazine. This pretty common in the paper world.

That doesn't even need to be future tense. The "September issue" often means the "display until September" issue for periodicals.

I find your question hard to believe.

as a kipling fan, he was almost certain to have read "the miracle of purun bhagat" [http://www.hermitary.com/literature/kipling.html]. i would have loved to see his opinion of it.

Who is to say he is the last true hermit? There could be several in this world. We just don't know.

"You speak like a book, one inmate teased."

Did he not have a sex drive? I just can't imagine an existence like that, without sex. I'm about 1/2 through the article.

Many people live without sex (or even masturbation), including for religious reasons, and have throughout history. The idea that sex is some sort of carnal "need" like hunger feels like a very modern one. I find it odd that people tend not to question it.

You must not have come to the part about the stolen Playboy magazines yet....

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