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Solitaries, Hermits, and Backcountry Weirdos

Why Do Guys Do It?


French thinker Michel Foucault contends that human perception of the present moment is based more on space than on actual linear clock-time. In his essay on heterotopias (roughly, “other places”) he contrasts the unreality of utopias with these real spaces set out of sight for crisis (e.g. boarding schools, rest homes, menstruation tents) or for deviation from the “required cultural norm” (e.g. prisons).

Foucault’s insights help me understand more about those postmodern local humans who’ve managed to create heterotopias outdoors in federal wilderness areas like the Sespe Wilderness or the Dick Smith Wilderness. (See below for five local wilderness areas within Los Padres National Forest.)

Dan McCaslin

The recent case of 47-year-old Christopher Knight jumps out at us here:  This month, authorities in Maine arrested the itinerant Knight for breaking into vacation cabins and pilfering supplies. Knight (who was by the way in excellent health) survived for the past 27 years as a backcountry minimalist by frequently moving around in Maine’s deep, rugged woods and stealing from the many vacant cabins. A local game warden, fed up with the survivalist’s thefts, finally arrested Knight in the act, and now the woodland hermit sits in jail.

There are many more men living as eremites or solitaries on the edges of western American civilization, the western half of North America being not as populated as the Eastern and Midwestern areas. Over the course of my last 40 years tramping around and within our five nearby federal wilderness zones, I’ve encountered a number of hermits, part-time refugees from “civilization.” There actually are some people who go out and do this more quietly than Mr. Knight. Although I have enjoyed several long solo backpacks, staying out for as many as eight days, the little treks I do compared to living outside all the time seem like ants crawling on an elephant.

I might be solo backpacking in the dry interior east of Santa Barbara when one of these people rises up quietly from the brush, appearing very startled at the apparition of a friendly-looking, aging schoolteacher. Although I’ve heard rumors, or legends, of female hermits out in the forest, I’ve only encountered males, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say the the males are far more common – just like in our prisons and the U.S. Senate.

Among this group there are mentally ill and suicidal types, but they aren’t all that way. Nor do most of them steal, as Knight did, although a few columns back I mentioned another mentally ill survivalist who in 1999 set fire to the Malduce Cabin.  Odd as they may seem, hardly any of these guys make bombs and mail them to scientists, as the Una-bomber, Ted Kaczynski, did. True, most of the publicly-known examples are characters who messed up or who were criminally insane, but several years ago I came to know one of our local solitaries.

Let’s call him Cedar Creek Charlie – and I’ve changed not only his name but his location, since I’d guess he’s still there or around there. “Charlie” was living in the brush, but near an almost-abandoned U.S. Forest Service car-camping site.  After a mute nod, carefully avoiding a full-faced stare, I realized after a few visits — the location is a fine embarkation point for several backpacks into wilderness zones — that Charlie was okay. He was not so skittish as at first, and I began to see what an amazing minimalist he was, or had become.

On future trips there, my friend Chris and I would haul along some cans of beef stew, fresh greens, maybe a six-pack of beer in cans (Charlie prefers Coors lite), and newspapers.  Although he’d fled the “civilization” over at Los Olivos or Santa Barbara, he admitted shamefacedly how much he needed to see his baseball standings, read the obits, and simply scan local doings of ordinary Californians.

Why do people make this “running to the mountain” journey?  Is it about solitude, or simplicity, or something else?  Most eremites have to live on the rim or edge of civilization – how else would St. Jerome, in his famous desert cell, have gotten all of that parchment? And how else would the backcountry oddballs I know get coffee, sugar, bullets, fishing gear – their necessaries? Of course, there is also the well-known phenomenon of the urban hermit. Such a one might live in the converted garage of a friend or family member, go out just once a week to cash the Treasury check (disability perhaps, or Social Security) and buy groceries at La Bamba Market, then creep back into his modern cave.

Men lost most of the jobs during and after the Great Recession of 2008, and it’s men who seem unable or unwilling to retrain or find different jobs.  Once a welder, always a welder.  A recent Atlantic Monthly lead article celebrated “the end of men,” and we’re all painfully aware that over 90% of our bulging U.S. prison inmates are male.  With few exceptions, most shooters and suicides are male.

Another reaction men can have when confronted by catastrophic loss of status in our competitive “shame culture” is simple flight.

A guy might not just flee from his partner, or the responsibilities of his family (and he just lost his job); he might choose to opt out completely from society, from all the BS of his civilization.  Forget the screens, the taxes, the cops, the bureaucracy, the cells, and the incessant hassles.

Some might hide in plain sight right in town, but tougher or more desperate characters somehow get back to one of the five nearby wilderness zones and live right on the edge of the line. I never saw Charlie with a permanent car, but from time to time a battered green Jeep or an ancient VW bug would be at a particular site with two tents up, and Charlie would be there. I’d guess a brother or a son had brought him necessities and replacement survival gear. Even the famous 5th Century C.E. desert monk from Syria, St. Symeon Stylites, who lived as a hermit for 37 years on a high platform, had a supply system.

The supply system concept helped me get over some shock when I first spied a five-gallon propane tank in the corner of the one picture printed with the Los Angeles Times article (4/12/13) about Knight.  That article’s headline read, “This hermit wasn’t living off the land.” (A later article in The Guardian showed Knight’s piles of new sleeping bags, further sullying his image as a survivalist.) Amusingly, Knight never hunted or fished. He was quoted as saying, in true Ishi style, “It’s easier” to just take stuff from the vacation cabins.  His main winter campsite (Maine winters were far too harsh for him to move around in, he said) was just a fifth of a mile from a road, though through trackless terrain.

Cedar Creek Charlie is much more of an ascetic idealist, and he would never stoop to robbery or petty theft. But it’s also true that his difficult times simply aren’t as challenging as Knight’s were, since Santa Barbara backcountry winters are usually mild. Also, there aren’t many vacation cabins to loot if he or anybody else were so inclined.

Charlie wouldn’t say too much, and I avoided quizzing him directly.  His clothing was OK, but very worn, and he’d somewhere gotten access to prescription lenses.  How could I begrudge him a few contact points with the civilization he’s clearly forsworn? I enjoyed collecting newspapers for him.  His English was good, and his mind worked well.  He would talk about local conditions, the amount of water up Sespe Creek, and where to find deer.

Perhaps Charlie is an American original, decaying teeth and all.  In Hindu society, the figure of the sannyasi used to play a big role.  In Sanskrit, the term means “to let go” or abandon completely.  His winter tent and his summer tent are all Charlie has. There are many more out there like Charlie, I believe, who manage to create their own heterotopia along the perimeter of wilderness zones within Los Padres National Forest.  For him, present time stands as still as the oak giant in the clearing, and his awareness focuses totally upon our physical ground of being, the green earth.

Five local “wilderness areas” within Los Padres National Forest South and near Santa Barbara:

San Rafael Wilderness     197,380 acres

Sespe Wilderness            219,700 acres

Chumash Wilderness       38,150 acres

Dick Smith Wilderness     67,800 acres

Matilija Wilderness          29,600 acres

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