Deep off the Grid, Two Years Later

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.

Chris Knight’s concealed hermitage near Rome, Maine. GQ Illustration.

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.”

via The Strange Tale of the North Pond Hermit.

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.

23 thoughts on “Deep off the Grid, Two Years Later

  1. RobRoySimmons

    Hiroo Onada wrote a great book about his time on the Philippines till 72 I believe and the last surrendering soldier

  2. TRX

    > Subaru BRAT (remember those?

    Ronald Reagan had one. Last I heard, it was still part of the Reagan Museum exhibits.

    I’ve seen maybe three in my whole life, and could never understand why they weren’t more popular, at least around here.

    1. LFMayor

      I think their ground clearance is what hurt them from a pure 4×4 role. That and cost, I always admired them but could never afford one!

    2. Hognose Post author

      They were very popular in the Northeast. I saw my first Subaru at a car show in Boston circa 1970. It looked funny, with tacky chrome. The 4WD feature is very popular. And they have always been good in a collision, important for a not so good driver. (My brother had a long learning curve as a driver, and left a trail of totaled Soobs behind him. He still drives a Soob but now they die of old age.

  3. Law of Self Defense

    I read Walden Pond as an impressionable young man living in New York. It seemed fascinating, living in the woods, isolated, far from others. Hermitage, introspection, blah-de-blah-blah-blah.

    I now live just a few miles from Walden Pond, and have been there many times, including walking around the far side of the pond to view the purported remains of Thoreau’s cabin. (There’s a very nice, and utterly fake, version of the cabin right by the visitor’s parking lot, for those who don’t care for the walk.)

    Reality: from the purported site of Thoreau’s cabin to the center of Concord–a substantive little town then as it is today–is perhaps an hour’s walk over not very difficult terrain. One could make the trip in the morning, realize they forgot the sugar on the shopping list, make the walk again the afternoon, and still call it a leisurely day.

    So much for being a “hermit” on Walden Pond.

    –Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

    1. Bill K

      Your comment increases my suspicion that Thoreau was pretentious. Frankly, I’ve never read that much by him, but recognizing that my direct knowledge of his writing is insufficient, I have no great desire to improve the same.

  4. Aesop

    First, let’s be serious: just like Thoreau, Chris Knight was anything but deep off the grid.
    “A few hundred feet from a cabin”, and living in the woods near a pond where one must commit an average of almost a burglary a week for a quarter century to sustain themselves off the fat of others is anything but grid-free living. Grid fringe, perhaps, at most.

    That he managed to survive so simply and otherwise unobtrusively is a testament to the possibility and the true minimums required for such an existence.
    That he took the lazy way out, when he could have continued to work and live normally, and provide his own provisions is testimony to the diagnosis of less than normative mental capabilities. His non-violence was only a by-product of his particular affliction, not adherence to some long-thought code derived morally or ethically, and thus merely an accident of happenstance.

    At the end of the day, Knight’s saga is far more noteworthy to criminal psychologists than to someone looking for TTPs on how to live off the grid under any circumstances, let alone by a monumental string of uninterrupted larceny.

    Icing on the cake is that had he been diagnosed as moderately disabled, with recourse to nothing more than a P.O. Box, or direct deposit and an ATM card, boons unknown to him trapped in his 1986-era mental prison, he could have done the same thing entirely unhindered from then until now, except for his own inner demons, and on society’s nickel rather than at the expense of his selected neighbors by his modus operandi of direct income redistribution.

    One can admire the resilience and, with certain reservations, admire the resourcefulness displayed, but one cannot help but pity the tortured portion of a soul that would chose such an existence willingly with no more forethought than because he wished to. For a bear he might amount to a progeny; for a human being he amounts to a lamentably sub-normal example, and compared to even the Saturday night population of a typical skid row homeless shelter, not even a particularly noteworthy one.

    Finkel’s article was fascinating, like reading an anthropologist newly returned from discovering a long lost tribe; but the subject of the essay is really little more than the left edge of any number of human bell curves. His existence probably goes a long way to explaining Bigfoot tales though, and his skill set overqualifies him for a post as an Obama administration tax policy advisor. I understand the winters in the voluminous woods around D.C. are far milder, so perhaps a change of scenery is in order. Failing that, there must be someplace in the vast panoply of federal lands between Alaska and the Everglades where he could be safely deposited without notice, to return to the unnoticed non-existence he so richly deserves, for the brief amount of time he might manage before a dearth of burglary fodder cause nature to recycle his molecules.

    The prime takeaway is that Man is a social animal, and anyone’s long-term future plan that doesn’t take that into proper account is doomed to failure.

    1. Y.

      Guy is a loner, not mentally subnormal. If he was an idiot, he wouldn’t have kept stealing and reading tons of books, or be able to speak in complete sentences.

      His existence probably goes a long way to explaining Bigfoot tales though,

      Does it go a long way towards explaining why the Sistine Chapel features Bigfoot*(?) painted on the wall, or why there are multiple Bigfoot references in the Old Testament ?Even one of the protagonists of the Epic of Gilgamesh is described as a hair-covered wild man from the woods…

      Or why a 17th century Tibetan woodcut book that has pictures of hundreds of scientifically recognized species of plants and animals also features Yeti?

      *well, a large man-like mammal completely covered in brownish hair.

        1. Y.

          It’s supposed to be one of the Se’irim(I think). Or maybe Sei’rim? Supposedly means ‘Shaggy One’.. some sort of hairy demon, a ‘wild one’ living in remote places. Some Israelites used to sacrifice to them and even had priests and all for that purpose, but you can imagine what priests of YHWH thought about that.

          Or it could be Esau’s kin, but probably not, as Esau is described as an able hunter, hairy all over like a red garment. This one looks brown, but I’m not sure, as my color perception is a bit off.

      1. Aesop

        You’re confusing literacy with intelligence.
        They exist separately from each other, though one can improve the latter with use of the former.
        Living in a tent through 25 Maine winters goes a good bit beyond being a “loner”.
        The only practical difference between Knight, and a junkie performing 1000 burglaries over a quarter decade, was his zip code. He’s a leech, not a noble savage.

        And if we’re going to grant credence to every wild tale from history, perhaps some one can find an example of struthio Plinius that actually buries its head in the sand.
        As for the persistent rumors of a mythical “bigfoot”, whether ancient or modern, I say Da nobis corpus, else forego the tinfoil.

  5. Bill K

    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.

    So in comparing risk to 1 lone individual, 2 people are 2^2 = 4 times, 3 people are 2^3=8 times…?
    Or 2 people are 2^2 = 4 times, 3 people are 3^3 = 27 times…?

    Has anyone ever backed a formula with evidence, or is this English major math? I don’t mean to be snarky, but an actual equation would be quite interesting, and something to be weighed against group capabilities.

    In my boyhood sneaky Pete days, spying on neighborhood girls, I never found a partner to be that helpful. Discovery was usually synonymous with grounding and other punishments. So have SF actually calculated and weighed the greater benefits of partnership in any documented studies, or is that simply ‘received wisdom’?

    And if the punishment of discovery were death, the enemy overwhelming in numbers, and escape impossible if caught, would SF still partner? Did wartime saboteurs or shot-down pilots behind enemy lines, say in France during WWII also find partnership more benefit than risk in carrying out their goals? There’s more here than meets the eye. I may be guilty of inappropriate anecdote to point out that ‘Chris Ryan’ got out of Iraq alone. Unless I’m way off base, I would submit that for some goals and related risks, partnering outweighs solo, but for others definitely not. The greatest portion of successful real-life escapes have been solo, right?

    1. Aesop

      Don’t overlook the “two is one and one is none” factor.
      With a partner, if one gets shot, the other can still collect and return intel.
      If one breaks a leg or what have you, the other can provide care and forage for both.
      And someone can always be on full alert guard while each sleeps.

      With three, while support requirements treble, one can maintain a patrol base, and the other two can spread out, doubling the territory directly observed and intelligence gathered, or the number of mission objectives met, etc.

      The bigger the net and the tighter the mesh, the more fish you’ll catch.

      That presumes people of similarly well-trained excellence.
      But none of those benefits can overcome dropping one incompetent anywhere in the mix.
      One perennial Gilligan pretty much dooms all the other castaways to never getting back.

      One need look no further than recent electoral politics for vivid examples of this.

      1. Bill K

        True enough.
        If the idjits that create reality TV shows are looking for something I might watch, it would be a competitive “Sneak across the US” from point A, say the George Washington bridge to point B, say the Golden Gate bridge.
        Rules of the Game:
        1) You are allowed a party of any size – we’ll see how your strategy pans out.
        2) You are given 24 hours head start, then any & all LEOs, gov agencies, and private citizens are given your mug shot, description, and offered a reward for ‘capturing’ you; say, a Government Motors vehicle of their choice, or an income tax holiday for the year. If you choose to hitchhike for example, be aware that your ‘benefactor’ may well rat you out for the reward.
        3) You will be prosecuted for any crime you commit once caught, with the standard penalties that apply, so to allay this, you might consider leaving behind compensation for any necessities that you ‘liberate’, to appease the natives and improve your chances before the judge.
        4) Any means of discovery (FLIR, tracking dogs, Echelon, whatever) will be considered fair play.

        Now I would think that SF training would pay off handsomely in such a ‘game’, with the added benefit of pitting professional ‘escapees’ against those who might some day have to reckon with TEOTWAWKI. And perhaps humble the braggarts on both sides?

        1. Aesop

          The trip isn’t that difficult, nor really even the survival.
          The hardest parts are that anyone undertaking it have the capability to walk all day (or night) every day for months, and the ability/mindset to blend in and become the grey man as necessary;
          and that if you fire the start gun in mid-May, you’ll get a lot more successes than if you do so in mid-October.

          I suspect the winner would arrive in about 3 to 5 days if not 10 or so, after a bus and hitch-hiking odyssey, while accoutered as a grubby-looking but harmless homeless guy/college dropout on holiday. The occasional foray to the local day laborer/Home Depot to do oddjob labor for cash would make it pretty much a snap.

          And a 24 hour headstart would probably put a guy across the Mississippi from the GW, and pretty much bulletproof after that unless they were egregiously stupid in public.

          1. Aesop

            FYI, Greyhound from NYC to SF is under 3 days, and $350.

            If you had a decent story and an honest face, hitching with interstate truckers would be an even more non-descript and inexpensive way to go, albeit probably taking longer.

            If the unspoken rule is no human contact, you’re back to the shoe leather express, and the calf muscles I mentioned.

            I’d recommend Peter Jenkins’ 1979 A Walk Across America and the companion follow-up for mental prep; he was surprised by how the journey tore up his feet and worked him over.

            I’d also advise foregoing getting married in New Orleans on the way (as he did), if only as part of a low profile transit plan.

            The biggest problem once this becomes a foot journey is invariably going to become getting over the Rockies before winter hits, and the transit of the Great Basin anywhere anytime until they hit the Sierra Nevada.
            Mentally planning getting across Big Muddy wouldn’t go amiss either.

          2. Y.

            Pretty easy. I kind of doubt US has continuous radar coverage from high-up.

            A guy could borrow a small plane and fly low..

      1. Y.

        Well, there’s Esau, who is described in the older translations as born with red hair all over his body.

        Now, people explain that as supposed to betoken a precocious nature, or great vigor.

        Alternatively, one can argue the depiction of Esau and Jacob as twins, one normal looking and a farmer, one hairy and a ‘hunter, a man of the fields’ is a metaphor for there being two races of man. Still, it’s just some old tales.

        There’s a second reference, but it’s pretty contentious, as there isn’t much data to go on.

        The Se’irim, (means Hairy beings in Hebrew). Spirits or demons of the wilderness. Some israelites worshipped and sacrificed to them. The word is thought to be related to Satyr.

        A better Bigfoot reference is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where one of the protagonists, Enkidu, is described as a hairy wild man who couldn’t originally even speak.

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