The Peculiar Case of a Modern-Day Hermit

Categories: Life Stories

What makes a person want to leave everything behind and live the life of a hermit, disconnected from family, friends, civilization? What are the thoughts that run through their heads in a constant state of solitude and isolation? Yes some of us want to live a more secluded life, closer to the land and in sink with nature. But to what extent will we be willing to go to achieve it? Is it healthy at all? This is a good read, hope you enjoy.

Years ago, I lived in a house in New York with roommates who all seemed to have emigrated to the city with the same goal in mind: to get as trashed as possible every night. They ingested any drug they could lay their hands on, went through women like a baby goes through diapers, and turned our Brooklyn brownstone into a place of such unrivaled squalor that it was hard to tell where the sidewalk ended and the house began. Though I liked my housemates, living in that place was a nightmare. It wasn't so much the 24/7 eurodisco that bothered me, but the total inability to escape it.

Since then, I've learned to appreciate solitude. At one point I even started writing a book about it, for which I wanted to study hermits—people who had committed to total solitude, away from others, to live their life in peace. The longer I stayed in the party house, the more appealing the possibility of going off into nature to find one became.

And so it came to pass that one winter, I arrived at JFK Airport with a one-way ticket to Arizona and a wistful image in my head of a hilltop encounter with a wizened old guru. I had chosen Arizona specifically because it would be a relatively warm reprieve from New York's winter, and because the state had a history of hermits, who had settled in theghost towns that Arizona's copper rush had left behind.

A historian in Phoenix had told me stories of these hermits, and suggested I look around the hills and canyons of central Arizona. He led me to a town called Cleator, which wasn't more than a handful of tin-roofed cabins an hour west of the I-17. It was dark when I got there and I'd have missed the place altogether if it hadn't been for the supernatural glow of the television coming from the open doorway of the town's singular bar.

The barman, a heavyset man with a pale face, was watching Lost. He set a beer in front of me and pointed to the place on the label where it said the ingredients were all natural. "Don't forget: arsenic's natural," he said.

I drank my beer and ordered another. At some point I worked up the courage to tell him why I was there. In the course of my trip I had asked several other people if they knew of any hermits living locally and each time I had seen them look at me like I was an absolute idiot. What was I doing, they must've wondered. Wasn't the point of a hermit that they wanted to be left alone? But after a pause, the barman began to tell me about an old man who lived alone in a ramshackle hut a few miles out of town. The hut was on the land of an old silver mine and the man, whose name was Virgil Snyder, had been caretaking the mine for the past 20 years.

The barman showed me his photo. If someone had asked me to draw a picture of a hermit, I would surely have come up with an approximation of the man in the photo. He was small—"No more than 100 pounds drippin' wet," the barman said—with a long white beard and he was holding the pelt of a snake in his hand.

"Take him beer if you're goin' up there," the barman told me on my way out. "And if he don't like ya, he'll soon let ya know."

For as long as there's been civilization, there have been people wanting to get away from it. In Christianity, the hermit tradition began with the Desert Fathers, a movement of ascetics who went out in to the deserts of Egypt starting in the third century as a reaction against the wealth and excess of the early church.

This idea of fleeing a corrupt society for a simpler, better life in nature has also inspired many artists and thinkers throughout the years. In 1845, Henry Thoreau famously set out to live alone in a hut by Walden Pond in Massachusetts, in order to "reverse the biblical injunction and labor for one day only, saving the other six for 'free time.'" During his stay, which Thoreau immortalized in the book Walden (the veracity of which is debated), he was arrested and put in jail for a night for refusing to pay his poll tax. At the time, he wrote in his journal: "The only highwayman I ever met was the State itself... I love mankind. I hate the institution of their forefathers."

This vision of the hermit as a noble rebel—not so much above the law, but answering to a higher one—has a seductive appeal. But it can also have disastrous consequences. In 1990, Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man, cut off all contact with his parents and gave away his $25,000 college fund to charity before embarking on a journey of self-discovery across the US. A fan of Thoreau, McCandless sought out further extremes of solitude, eventually heading out into the Alaskan wilderness with only ten pounds of rice and a rifle to shoot game. His body was later found inside an abandoned bus after he had apparently either starved to death, or accidentally poisoned himself.

Besides the physical dangers, there's also the question of whether solitude is psychologically healthy. Most research suggests it's not. Professor Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California who evaluated over a hundred inmates held at high-security supermax prisons in the United States, once wrote that "many of those subjected to [solitary confinement] are at risk of long-term emotional and even physical damage." Other research, also based on prisoners in solitary confinement (human isolation studies outside of prison are rare, mainly because of research ethics), has suggested that extreme solitude can make people delirious, paranoid, depressed, and actively suicidal.

"What you see when reading these studies is the same constellation of symptoms coming up in different cases, and they're simply too common not to be a pathology arising from the isolation," said Laura Rovner, a law professor at Denver University who has represented a number of solitary confinement inmates.

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