Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

I’m currently reading Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. The book tells the story of Christopher Knight, who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years before being arrested for burglary in 2013. The book reminds me of Into the Wild, the book Jon Krakauer wrote about Christopher McCandless, except that while McCandless died after 100 solitary days foraging in the Alaskan wilderness, Knight survived for more than a quarter century on food and supplies he stole from nearby cabins.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

With both books, the question of “why” spurs readers onward. In Krakauer’s book, you eventually learn that McCandless didn’t intend to live his entire life as a hermit: during part of his journey, he befriended others, and he intended to return to civilization after his Alaskan sojourn. McCandless was a social, likable fellow when he was around people, and after living on his own in Alaska for several months, he intended (and tried) to leave the wild. It was a cruel accident, in other words, that McCandless died a hermit’s death.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

Knight, on the other hand, is a true solitary, but it isn’t immediately clear why he shuns human contact. Knight returns to civilization unwillingly. After burglarizing area cabins for more than two decades, he is captured and thrown in jail: a hermit tossed in with criminals. McCandless had specific reasons for shunning his family, but Knight doesn’t seem to hold any animus toward his family in particular or society in general: he just chooses a solitary path.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

McCandless died at the age of 24, but had he lived, he would now be 49 years old: a middle-aged man approaching fifty. Knight survived his stint in the Maine woods, and he was apprehended and arrested at the age of 47. The hermetic lifestyle holds a certain appeal when you’re young, but how does it hold up as you approach middle age?

We can write-off Chris McCandless’ quest as the wayward ways of a young man who hadn’t yet found himself: Krakauer, who wrote McCandless’ story when he was 42, looks back upon his own youth and finds parallels between his life and that of his subject. But if youthful restlessness similarly drove Knight to the forest, what is it that kept him there?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

We’ve all probably had times when we’ve wanted to abandon our obligations and escape into the wild, but those of us who are middle-aged presumably outgrew those inklings, choosing instead to settle down and get serious about the business of homemaking, starting a family, or pursuing a career. But Knight sidesteps all those presumably normal pursuits, walking into the woods at the age of 20 and showing no signs of wanting to return. How do you live 27 years of your life in a solitary camp with nothing but a long list of burglaries to your name? Wouldn’t you at some point decide to pursue another path?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

This is what keeps me reading: I want to see what would keep a man in the woods for over two decades. I can understand the impulse that would drive a person to leave society, but not necessarily the fortitude that would keep him away.

Today’s photos come from a solo trip to Maine I took in September, 2004 and blogged here.


Today was another mild, gloriously sunny spring day in Keene: the kind of day when it’s difficult to stay indoors. During the free hour I have before my noon lit class, I took a walk on and around campus, crossing the railroad bridge over the Ashuelot River then following the local bike path a few blocks into town and back. On a sunny spring day, exercise easily passes for ecstasy.

Chalk folk

The stretch of bike path that intersects campus could never be confused with wilderness. Both the paved and dirt portions are leftover from Keene’s industrial heyday when the railroad delivered raw materials and retrieved goods like chairs, ball-bearings, and bricks in exchange. The segment of bike path I walked today passes an auto body shop, several derelict garages, and a series of run-down industrial buildings that house the local aikido dojo, a large upholstery and fabric store, and other commercial endeavors that aren’t quite ready for the prime time of prime downtown real estate. Most New England towns offer a mix of the quaint and the quotidian, and today’s stroll took me past the backside of industries most casual tourists never take the time see.

Chalk folk

On Earth Day more than any other, it strikes me that these well-worn sites of human industry are exactly the kind of places we overlook in our quest for the “virgin wild.” In today’s noon lit class, we began to discuss Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the very title of which alludes to the allure of the untamed and untrammeled. “If only I could escape civilization like Christopher McCandless did,” readers of Krakauer’s narrative might wish, “and encounter Nature where she is still untouched and untamed!” And yet “the Wild” is an elusive quarry. Venturing into the Alaskan “wild,” Chris McCandless ended up camping in an abandoned bus not far from Healy: not exactly an untouched wilderness. In McCandless’ mind, however, the mental distance he’d traveled from his suburban childhood in a privileged Virginia suburb to an alien Alaskan landscape transformed even an abandoned bus into a Wild place…as did his eventual demise there.

Cheshire Tire Center

Perhaps an apt way of observing Earth Day would be to temporarily refrain from fossil-fueled travel in search of the Wild. Instead of jet-setting to popular eco-tourist spots or retracing the steps of Chris McCandless in search of Alaskan enlightenment, perhaps the most green thing we can do is to make a conscious effort to stay close to home, engaging in human-powered travel as we explore the streets and sidewalks of our own human habitats. “Walk more, idle less” proclaim dozens of crayoned signs in the shop windows of downtown Keene: local school children’s answer to global warming, high fuel prices, and expanding American waistlines. Thoreau famously claimed that he “traveled a great deal” in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and maybe he was onto something. Rather than seeing “the Wild” as being far off and elusive, perhaps we should re-inhabit our own habitats, investigating wonders close to home while making an eco-friendly commitment to “Think Globally; Walk Locally.”

Downtown clock

Last week I ventured out after dark to see Into the Wild at the Colonial Theatre here in Keene. That my going to a movie after dark merits a blog post is saying something. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken myself to a movie, much less a movie after dark. I’ve never been much for night life.

The Apothecary

I first read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild not long after it was published in 1996, and since the spring of 2001, I’ve taught the book at least once–typically several times–a year in my “American Literature of the Open Road” class. When you’ve repeatedly read and taught a particular book, you become intimately acquainted with both its storyline and the way its story unfolds. I don’t have to refer to my note-riddled copy, for instance, to know the character of Ronald Franz appears in Chapter 6, a handful of Alaskan wanderers meet their individual deaths in Chapter 8, and Krakauer tells the story of Everett Ruess in Chapter 9. Having lectured and led discussions on those particular passages several times, I can find them in my well-thumbed copy almost without looking. When you’ve repeated read and taught a particular book, you come to know its nuances by heart, the pace of its narrative seeming as familiar to you as your own walking stride.

Fine Art Gallery

I first set foot in downtown Keene in the summer of 2001 when I interviewed for a full-time adjunct position here. I’ve previously told the story of how I instantly fell in love with Keene’s quaint downtown, knowing from first sight (and first stride) that I’d feel at home both teaching and living here. In the years since the summer of 2001, I’ve done a lot of walking here in Keene, so I feel the same intimacy with her downtown streets and sidewalks as I do with an oft-read book. Although I can’t tell you the addresses or even necessarily the names of various downtown businesses I’ve passed on nearly daily basis for years, I can see with my mind’s eye the goods they display in the shop-windows I’ve admired and photographed time and again. Why do I need to keep looking at shop-windows I’ve seen countless times before? Why do you re-read a beloved book when you know exactly how that book will end?

The Corner News

I knew when I walked into the Colonial Theatre last week that the Hollywood version of a book I nearly know by heart was destined to disappoint. How could anyone else’s depiction of a story I know and have repeatedly taught match the imaginary visuals in my own head? At every point where Sean Penn’s screenplay fed voice-overs of Jon Krakauer’s narrative into the mouth of protagonist Chris McCandless’ sister, Carine, I winced. “Too much exposition,” I found myself thinking. In Krakauer’s book, Carine doesn’t narrate her brother’s story; in Krakauer’s book, McCandless’ parents aren’t depicted with almost cartoonish simplicity, the “bad guys” who drive Chris into the Alaskan solitude where he dies.

In Krakauer’s book, you know from the beginning that Chris McCandless ends up dead in an abandoned Alaskan bus–Krakauer tells you as much on the cover of the book’s first paperback edition. In Krakauer’s book, what keeps you reading isn’t the question of what happens to Chris but the gradual unfolding of the mystery of why. Unlike Sean Penn’s movie, Krakauer’s book isn’t only about Chris McCandless; it’s also about how one writer discovered and pieced together Chris McCandless’ story. In the film version of Into the Wild, this meta-narrative is abandoned in favor of hagiography: Chris McCandless becomes an undeniable Hero, the story of his passion and death not a mystery to be solved but a gospel to be imparted.

Colonial Theatre

I knew when I left my apartment last week to walk to a movie after dark I’d encounter a whole other world even before I entered the theatre. Walking by night streets and sidewalks you regularly walk by day is like watching the Hollywood version of an oft-read story you’ve always imagined for yourself. What is this setting, these props, these characters in a place I thought I knew? After dark, Keene is a narrative I’ve barely skimmed, its stories as strange as strangers met and passed in silence. Having taught in Keene since the autumn of 2001 and having lived here since the summer of 2003, I still don’t know Keene by dead of night. There’s more than a touch of mystery still to the same old place viewed in a different (lack of) light.

This is my belated contribution to the Photo Friday theme Dead of Night. This week promises to be busy as my classes at both Keene State and Granite State College enter their final week. While I’m grading late into the Dead of Night this week, blogging here will probably be light. That’s another way of saying this blog might temporarily go dark, but don’t worry. Things that are dark aren’t necessarily dead.