The Modern Loners

Jon Foro on March 08, 2018


Richard Proenneke (self-portrait; National Park Service photo)

Are you a people person? If so, congratulations! The future is built for you. As of December 2017, the world population was estimated to be 7.6 billion. To put that in context (at least of my own life): When I was in elementary school, the number of humans alive on this planet was 3.5 billion, with 4 billion approaching fast. Along with the specter of all those forthcoming earthlings came the attendant uncertainties and fears of overpopulation, even if nobody really knew where that threshold lay. It's fair to say that not all of these souls are sociable, or even socialized. And if our headcount doubled during a period accounting for less than 1% of our civilized history—and heading for nearly 12 billion by 2100—elbow room is in low supply and getting scarcer. If you want to get away from it all, options are diminishing. For anyone considering hermitry, traditional sanctuaries like caves, mountaintops, and deserted islets are rare and often fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement; you'll have to go to greater lengths just for that little extra space to think.

So you have to hand it to the modern recluse. Despite the challenges, dedicated loners will find a way. Most of the the following characters aren't hermits in the traditional sense; some are bestselling writers or even television personalities. But all—to varying degrees of isolation and duration—worked hard to separate themselves from the crowd and chaos of society, whether out of misanthropy, grief, a need for simplicity, or plain old religious delusions.

Sorting it all out.

Hermits-Wild.jpgAt age 26, following the death of her mother, divorce, and a run of reckless behavior, Cheryl Strayed found herself alone near the foot of the Pacific Crest Trail--inexperienced, over-equipped, and desperate to reclaim her life. Wild tracks Strayed's personal journey on the PCT through California and Oregon, as she comes to terms with devastating loss and her unpredictable reactions to it. While readers looking for adventure or a naturalist's perspective may be distracted by the emotional odyssey at the core of the story, Wild vividly describes the grueling life of the long-distance hiker, the ubiquitous perils of the PCT, and its peculiar community of wanderers. Others may find her unsympathetic—just one victim of her own questionable choices. But Strayed doesn't want sympathy, and her confident prose stands on its own, deftly pulling both threads into a story that inhabits a unique zone between wilderness tale and personal-redemption memoir.

Don't take it personally. He just doesn't like you.

Hermits-Stranger-Woods.jpgIn 1986, Christopher Knight stepped into the Maine woods in 1986 and stayed there for 27 years, eking out an existence by burgling local cabins for food, batteries, and clothes, leaving no trace as he moved through the wilderness. The “North Pond Hermit” grew into a local legend, reasonably feared by some. Others saw him as a harmless eccentric and sometimes left supplies on their porches for the taking, just to save everyone the trouble. After he was finally caught breaking into a camp, Knight became a minor sensation, drawing the interest of journalist Michael Finkel, who turned his interviews with his often combative subject into The Stranger in the Woods.

Knight doesn't seem to have been possessed by an urge to commune with nature, or even any kind of anti-societal philosophy. So what made him tick? Finkel retraced Knight's paths through the woods, explored his secluded, surprisingly sophisticated camp, and spoke with law enforcement and locals in his efforts to crack the enigma. Much about Knight remains mysterious - he is one genuinely unusual dude - but the investigation is fascinating.

It's my way or the highway.

Hermits-Pilgrims-Wilderness.jpgAccording to Robert Hale, the usual rules just didn't apply to him. When "Papa Pilgrim," his wife Country Rose, and their 15 children moved into the old mining outpost of McCarthy, Alaska, they were welcomed as kindred—if eccentric—souls by the ghost town's few residents. But after purchasing an old mining claim in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Hale chafed against the regulations that came with being a inholder, and the humble hermit became a lightning rod for property-rights activists in Alaska and beyond. Expanding on his original reporting for the Anchorage Daily News, Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness is a nearly unbelievable tale of narcissism and religious mania, building toward a denouement reminiscent of Night of the Hunter and Robert Mitchum’s creepy, deranged preacher.

If you want a job done right....

Hermits-Woodswoman.jpgWhen you walk into the woods, you trade away the simple fix. It's not just that you don't have access the world of goods and services; off-grid living often requires rediscovery and reverse-engineering of basic "civilized" necessities like shelter, water, and food. Failure to master the essentials dooms every aspiring ascetic.

But some come prepared. Thoroughly pragmatic circumstances (divorced, needing a home) pushed Anne LaBastille to a 20-acre piece of the Adirondacks, where a more elemental pragmatism was required to survive. Equipped with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology, she soon (with the help of some generous, if far-flung "neighbors") ensconced herself in a log cabin with running water. LaBastille recounted the challenge of wilderness living in several books (Woodswoman, Beyond Black Bear Lake), including threats from less-than-civilized humans opposed to her pro-environment philosophies.

Hermits-Alone-Wilderness.jpgIf you've ever come across Alone in the Wilderness—probably during a public television pledge drive—you've witnessed a next-level kind of individualism. When Dick Proenneke lit out for the shores of Alaska's remote Twin Lakes, he brought with him a set of hand tools and the skill to use them. Using his own "home" movies and journals, Alone documents Proenekke's remarkable skill as a rustic craftsman and problem solver. And if you're like me, you'll be sucked in as soon as you see him carving a locking door latch with an axe, in order to keep the bears out. (Ever the pragmatist, he admits any dedicated ursine raider would probably bust the door off its hinges.)

As Seen on TV

Hermits-Mick.jpg"When Mick left that world behind, the first thing he did was kick off his shoes"! "He sleeps in tree stumps"! "Tattoos of roots adorn his feet"! I love Mick Dodge, "the Barefoot Sensei" whose adventures bounding through the Olympic Peninsula's Hoh Rainforest can be vicariously lived in 30-minute episodes on the National Geographic Channel's The Legend of Mick Dodge. Per the lore of the intro, Dodge left civilization 25 years ago to find a new home in the woods—living off the land, foiling tree poachers, and alarming hikers with sporadic nudity. Much of that is true, but while he spends many nights in the wilderness, he does keep one shoeless foot planted in society and his exploits are largely scripted by his reality-TV benefactors. It's hard to call yourself a hermit when a camera crew is following your every move, but such are the challenges of a connected world. And fella's gotta earn.

Hermits-Last-American-Man.jpgLikewise Eustace Conway, who ditched a materialistic, suburban lifestyle for the Appalachian Mountains where he embraced a "back to the land" philosophy of trapping animals, wearing their skins, and cooking them over fires ignited by rubbing two sticks together. Elizabeth Gilbert's profile, The Last American Man, presented Conway as something of a New Masculine Ideal, but lately he can be found on the History Channel's Mountain Men, funding his bucolic dreams through a series of odd jobs and an occasional, ill-advised trip into the city on horseback.

The Unintentional Martyr

Hermits-Into-the-Wild.jpgChristopher McCandless didn't want attention, but then he died. And when you're dead, you can't control the message. In 1992, not long after graduating from college, McCandless ventured into the Alaskan backcountry looking for meaning in its rugged solitude. After he succumbed to starvation in the back of the abandoned bus he had made his home, Jon Krakauer made him famous with an article in Outside magazine, later expanded in the bestseller, Into the Wild. These days, many Alaskans view McCandless as an unprepared dreamer (and worse, an inspiration for legions of more unprepared dreamers), a city boy who dismissed the demands of the wilderness while overestimating his abilities. (To their point, "Alexander Supertramp" isn't the most modest of pseudonyms.) Sean Penn's film adaptation takes the guru route by painting his face with a beatific expression at the moment he died, infuriating those many Alaskans. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between, and Krakauer's book walks a fine, factual line between the two portrayals. Recently, his ongoing commitment to the story has produced new theories that exculpate McCandless—at least partially—from the worst charges of his detractors.

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