American Hermits in the 1980's

The December 1983 issue of the now-defunct American magazine LIFE featured an article titled The Hermits: Virtuoso Survivors in American Solitude. In keeping with LIFE's emphasis, the photographs are intended to be the showcase of the article, with text a kind of lengthy caption. Perhaps the photographs are of uneven quality (large, dark, diffuse shots supplemented by small and uninformative insets.), as is the depth of the article itself, but the feature does offer a unique view of some American hermits (or call them eccentric solitaries or loners) in the 1980's.

The topic was prompted by the writer's reading of a newspaper story about a moss gatherer in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. After following up with magazine stringers, forest rangers, and hunting/fishing guides, the reporter and a photographer decided to profile the six in this story. As the issue editor puts it in an introduction:

After her visits with such solitary people in such remote areas, [Rosemarie] Robatham [the writer] came to some conclusions about hermits. Though each one told her, "I didn't belong, I didn't fit in," she found to her surprise that they were not fierce misanthropes. "We thought we might find shotguns aimed at our heads if we intruded. Instead, most of them were amiable, easygoing individualists. Even a hermit enjoys someone to talk to for a day or so."

Here, in brief, are summaries of their stories under LIFE's bylines:

  1. [no byline for first hermit]
    The Colorado hermit lives in a stone hut in a mesa in Greasewood Canyon, sixty miles east of Moab, Utah. After duty in Vietnam in the early sixties, he moved into the San Francisco rock and drug scene, where he created psychedelic art for celebrity musicians. But one day he took his few belongings and hitchhiked anywhere, stopping in Moab, and eventually finding a place to settle. He lives off paintings that he creates and sells in Moab, and from dinosaur bones he happens to find. He is a disciplined yoga practitioner and often paints by lamplight at night. Hermit life is not lonely -- his former city life was. "That loneliness went away when I became aware of the whole earth as a living thing," he says.
  2. A Ramshackle Retreat in the Utah Mountains
    This hermit is seventy years old and lives near Monticello, Utah in a nearly inaccessible two-room shack. He visits the town monthly (except winters) for provisions, living off modest pensions. He cares for dozens of wild horses but never manages to sell them as he intends. After World War II he was an alcoholic for twenty years before becoming a hermit; his only addiction now is receiving mail, which he never throws away. Says the article: "He looks out over the endless wilderness, his blue eyes shining. 'You know, when the weather's changed to warm and the coyotes are carrying on and the birds are talking to you, now them's the things I enjoy. I hope I'll die out here.'"
  3. The Spirit of Deep North Country Waters
    The Minnesota hermit is a 76 year old former nurse who discovered Knife Lake in her early twenties. The isle on the lake near the Canadian border was willed to her by a former patient, and her sale of the wilderness to the Forest Service guarantees her life-long residence and an income. She lives in a log cabin, year round. She canoes, gathers autumn berries for her own brew of root beer, and buys provisions from the town of Ely. Long winters make the island inaccessible to any without snowshoes. Winter in the 1.5 million acre wilderness is filled with silence. "It is the time I like best," she says. "I have the whole place to myself."
  4. A Dirt-biking Navajo Drifts with his Hero
    The full-blooded Navajo hermit living near Elk Mountain, Wyoming, herds two thousand sheep on thirty-thousand acres, for which he is paid $500 a month. He lives in a cramp camper and picks up weekly provisions from a ranch truck, which also brings catalog orders: appliances and gadgets powered by miscellaneous batteries. Before drifting into sheepherding, he drank and fought. "If I had stayed in town, I'd probably be dead now," he admits.
  5. A New Jersey Jungle to Hide In
    The Pine Barrens, a vast 1,500 square mile New Jersey forest, is only sixty miles from New York City and thirty miles west of Philadelphia, but it is sufficiently isolated for the moss gatherer, who rents a dilapidated house from a deer hunter for $45 a month. He harvests sphagnum moss and pine cones to sell to florists, a tedious job involving long hours raking the spongy forest floor. "It's back-breaking work," he says. "Nobody wants to do it any more." Hence, nobody bothers him. He is in his mid-forties and suffered childhood traumas: when his father deserted the family, when he spent years in foster homes, when he dropped out of high school, when his adoptive mother was murdered.
  6. The Man the Homesteaders Left Behind
    The nearly seventy year-old former rancher on the Arizona Strip, about twenty miles outside of Fredonia, found himself alone and isolated as ranchers deserted the increasingly dry area years ago. Now he tends 3,000 flat, arid acres with 400 cows, living in a run-down house on property dotted with junked vehicles. The cows provide income, and he drives to Fredonia weekly for provisions. He is a solitary by attrition; isolation came to him gradually. "I wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience I've had, but I wouldn't give you a dime for any more of it. Still, I guess I've been out here so long I wouldn't fit in anywhere else."

Photographs from LIFE, December 1983.