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  • Laurie Hertzel

What one man learned living alone in the wilderness for 40 years

Ken Smith has spent most of his life alone in the wilderness. For years, he was a “homeless nomad,” wandering through Alaska, Canada and Scotland. Now in his late 70s, he is simply a hermit, living in the Scottish Highlands in a cabin he built of fallen trees.

The word “hermit” might bring to mind ancient monks in stone huts or, possibly, the Unabomber. But Smith is a gregarious hermit, downright jolly. His new book, “,” is in part an effort to dispel myths about what it means to be a hermit. “More often than not, introversion and reclusion, the fundamental character traits of a hermit, have become closely associated with those who have a real visceral anger and forceful hostility toward humankind,” he writes. “This is absolutely not the way of the hermit, and is a dreadful smear on all those who prefer the quiet life — all introverts, as well as hermits and recluses.”

Smith didn’t move to the wilderness to find God or to avoid people; he moved to the wilderness to become part of nature. When he first visited the Highlands at age 15, Smith “felt immediately at ease when wandering alone in those mountains,” he writes. “They spoke to me in a way that nowhere else had.” He might not have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the hermit life had it not been for an assault he suffered in his 20s.

Leaving a pub late at night, he was jumped by “a gang of eight lads with shaven heads,” who beat him, kicked him and left him for dead. He was hospitalized for months and underwent four brain surgeries. After recovering, he decided to live the life he wanted rather than one “stuck indoors in a suit and tie, trapped behind a desk.”

And so off he went, to the Yukon.

The first half of this book is a rip-roaring read, filled with death-defying adventures — fighting off grizzly bears; avoiding a charging bull moose; nearly freezing in an ice-encrusted tent. Smith falls into a raging river, loses his supply pack and nearly drowns. Still, he loved it all: “It was intoxicating, invigorating, and utterly liberating.” Smith is a good storyteller. Written with Welsh writer Will Millard, his book flows smoothly, with just enough of the vernacular to give it personality.

In the second half of the book, Smith settles down on the shores of a remote Scottish loch, builds a cabin, plants a garden. Compared with his nomadic adventures, this is a downright civilized life, even though it’s an eight-mile walk to the nearest road, nine miles more to collect his mail and nine miles beyond that to town for groceries.

He still has brushes with death — his cabin burns down; he endures tremendous storms and the coldest winters on Scottish record. But at this point the book morphs into a sort-of wilderness how-to guide: how to build a cabin, catch a fish, tap a birch tree, remove a tick.

Smith has been the subject of a documentary by a Glasgow filmmaker, making him possibly the most famous hermit in Britain. (Late in the book, he’s picked up hitchhiking by a guy who says, “I’ve seen you on the television!”) He has suffered a stroke and cancer but always returns to the cabin. “Living in civilization is hard for me,” he writes after one lengthy hospital stay.

So what has he learned, in a lifetime alone? His opinions about his life decisions remain firm: “I’ve spent the majority of my life living outside the conventions of mainstream society, and I’ll tell you what I think is weird, and it ain’t the hermit. It’s how entire generations of people have been conned into believing that there is only one way to live, and that’s on-grid, in deepening debt, working on products you’ll probably never use, to line the pockets of people you’ll never meet, just so you might be able to get enough money together to buy a load of crap you don’t need, or, if you’re lucky, have a holiday that takes you to a place, like where I live, for a week of the happiness I feel every day.”

Is he never lonely? Does he miss his family? Does he ever wish for a wife or a partner? How does he get through those long snowbound winters without going stir-crazy?

What we are left with is a love story to the mountains in the mist, the pulsating northern lights and the red deer at dawn. And to independence. Maybe that is enough.


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