Loss, Love, and the New Hampshire Hermit Who Went Viral
Deep in the woods of New Hampshire, a hermit, a landowner, and town officials clashed over a small piece of forest near the Merrimack River. It ended in the most unexpected way.
On a hot day this past July in central New Hampshire, Jodie Gedeon climbed into her kayak and slipped into the current of the Merrimack River. As she did almost every day after work, she paddled for about 20 minutes to the beach where she knew David Lidstone would be waiting for her. He was always there, sitting at the edge of the river under his brown fedora, his walking stick by his side, and his long white beard dangling down almost to his lap. But this time, when she arrived at the beach, Lidstone wasn’t there.
At first, Gedeon was more puzzled than concerned. After all, the old man was a hermit who had been living alone, completely off the grid, for 27 years. He had an almost spritely gait, a fiercely strong handshake, a lithe, wiry frame, and a sparkle in his blue eyes. She had befriended him 17 years ago and knew that he rarely left the area around his home. She also knew that his homestead, tucked into the woods beyond the river, was a never-ending project that kept him busy. He could have lost track of time working in his garden. Maybe he was tending to his bees, who had built their hive inside an old potbelly woodstove that sat on the deck of his A-frame cabin. She kept on paddling down the river.
The next day, when Gedeon returned to the beach and he still wasn’t there, fear began to rise up inside her. Yes, Lidstone’s off-the-grid lifestyle of farming and chopping wood kept him exceptionally fit for a man of his age. Still, he was 81 and lived alone. What if something happened to him?, she thought to herself.
Gedeon stepped out of her kayak into the cool, shin-deep water and dragged it onto shore, its plastic bottom scraping the sand, and set her paddle down before heading up the steep trail that snaked through the woods to his hideaway.
“David?” she called out.
She continued down the path and walked over to his vegetable garden. He wasn’t there. The door to the cabin was closed. She approached and knocked. No reply. She looked around, and everything in the yard seemed to be in place. But the man who lived there was nowhere to be seen.
Gedeon walked back along the path toward the water, climbed into her kayak, and immediately started calling other kayakers from the tight-knit community of people who lived and boated on the river. It wasn’t like someone, even a hermit, could simply vanish. Someone would surely have to know if he’d run into trouble. After a few phone calls, Gedeon finally got a hit.
Two days earlier, Lidstone was in his yard when he heard the sound of breaking twigs and footfall on bramble as two armed police officers approached his cabin. One of them flashed a badge and informed him he was under arrest. “We know that you are not armed,” the officer told him, “so there’s no need to handcuff you until we get to the station.”
Lidstone bid goodbye to his bees and his cats, grabbed his brown fedora and his walking stick, and made his way peacefully along the mile-and-a-half walk through the woods to the nearest road, where the police officers had parked their cruisers. They placed Lidstone in the back of their car and ushered him off to jail.
Lidstone lived in isolation long before he became a hermit. Soon after he was born in 1940 in a remote part of western Maine, Lidstone’s father went overseas to fight in World War II. It wasn’t just his father’s absence during his early years that marked Lidstone’s childhood, though, it was the sheer lack of affection: He never received a hug or kiss from either parent.
Following in his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps, Lidstone didn’t make it past eighth grade. He joined the Air Force when he was 18 and became a nuclear arms technician during the height of the Cold War, able to pack an airplane with its deadly payload in a matter of minutes. He says he went into the armed services a boy and came out a man. He later traveled halfway around the world, to the Middle East, where he worked for five years in the Israeli Forest Service.
Lidstone first moved to New Hampshire to care for his sick mother in 1971, settling down in Concord with his wife, with whom he had four children. He soon fell in love with a wooded lot in nearby Canterbury. It was only a few miles away from Interstate 93, but felt a world away from his daily life. The lot held dense stands of timber, and at its border gave way to the waters of the mighty Merrimack River.
Curious about the land he’d come to admire, Lidstone visited town hall to locate the deed. When he couldn’t find it, he figured there wouldn’t be much harm in setting up a rustic camp there. At first, he stayed on the land in a pup tent, warming himself by heating stones in a fire and placing them in the bottom of his sleeping bag. Slowly, he built an A-frame cabin deep in the woods. He made the platform first, to get the structure off the ground, and then he constructed the walls. “It took me five years to finish the chimney,” he said. “It wasn’t even completely done after over 20 years. I’d get something almost done and then move on to something else, so nothing was completely finished. But there’s not a nail in this structure that I didn’t drive myself.”
Initially, the home was a place for Lidstone and his wife to get away from friends and family in Concord. After a while, though, it became a place for Lidstone to get away from everybody—including his family. Over time, his stays in the woods grew increasingly longer. “I’d never had a happy marriage,” he says. “I got married for the wrong reasons.” Lidstone never divorced and remains married today, but his wife eventually moved away as her husband continued to retreat—not just from her, but from all of society.
Henry David Thoreau first brought attention to the Merrimack in 1849 when he wrote about a canoe trip he had taken with his brother, John, a decade earlier. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he bemoaned the rapid changes taking place in New England at the height of the Industrial Revolution, while also describing the natural beauty of the river.
Lidstone shared with Thoreau a sense of solace on the Merrimack, along with a desire to live in the woods, off the grid, and alone to revel in the natural world. Also like Thoreau, Lidstone felt deeply concerned about the evolving world around him. “Look back at how we made this a great country, all the hard work, the thousands of miles of stone walls, all the cleared fields and big barns,” he says. “Now everybody’s house looks the same, except that the numbers are changed on the front. We’re getting into a pattern where everybody does the same thing at the same time. We’re running out of people, individuals, who want to build a life that is more reliant on the things that we had in the past. How many people can live with a kerosene light and not turn on a light switch all day?”
Years turned into decades while Lidstone established a new life for himself at his hidden homestead in the woods. He became largely self-sufficient and highly efficient. He covered the roof of his A-frame with solar panels to generate power for his lights, a small microwave oven, a radio, and a television on which he liked to watch reruns of the show Hee-Haw. A collection of cooking pots hung from low wooden beams over his cramped kitchen, where he had a tiny stove. He drank fresh spring water, planted fruit trees, and grew his own food in a sprawling garden. He also raised chickens, which provided him with eggs and sometimes meat, and supplemented his diet with dry goods and other staples, including his beloved peanut butter, that he would occasionally go into town to buy. He worked for years as a logger and a mason and began collecting Social Security when he came of age.
In the late 1990s, Lidstone says, a lawyer representing a family in Vermont made a surprise visit. That is when Lidstone learned that the family had owned the land that he’d been living on since the start of the Kennedy administration. It had been passed down from one generation to the next. Lidstone, though, felt as though he had no reason to worry. After all, he thought, the owner didn’t want to develop the land and rarely visited it. What’s more, Lidstone says he made a verbal agreement with the landowner soon after the attorney left that Lidstone could live out the rest of his life there in the woods on the property, which was precisely what he planned to do. He was happy living as a hermit. He had no reason to think the outside world would ever intrude upon his solitary existence. Nor that he would want to invite it in.
One afternoon about 17 years ago, Gedeon was paddling along the Merrimack, about 20 minutes from her home in Boscawen, when she spotted an elderly man with a long white beard seated in a lawn chair on the shore. She was immediately intrigued. She passed by him a couple of more times, without saying anything. Then one day, as Gedeon floated in her kayak while enjoying a book, Lidstone saw her and reasoned that if she was a reader, she would likely be a good conversationalist. “I’ve always worked alone. I’m used to being alone,” Lidstone says. “But I was looking for someone to have a conversation with and share ideas on what the future should bring and how we can continue to reach for it in our own daily lives.”
They struck up a conversation, drank a couple of cold toddies together, and Lidstone eventually invited Gedeon into his cabin and into his life. Gedeon was about 30 at the time and had just lost her grandparents, the two people who had raised her and the only family she had ever known. She found it easy to talk to Lidstone, and he found her disarming. “Being raised by my grandparents, I have an older-generation mindset,” Gedeon says. “I think Dave found it comforting. I wasn’t pushy. Our friendship grew over time.” Sometimes Gedeon ferried over pizza and they would discuss the news of the day. Despite his isolation from others, Lidstone kept up on current events with a small transistor radio by his bedside, which he tuned to NPR each evening and listened to by candlelight.
Lidstone taught Gedeon the value of simplicity. “He had a place for everything and everything had a place,” she says. “He kept his food in a cooler submerged in the brook running through the property. He recycled everything he could, and was completely self-sufficient and independent.” He also offered Gedeon sage advice to help her weather hard times. When Gedeon was attempting to get over a bad breakup, he urged her to let go of her negativity. “Yes, he did you wrong,” she remembers him telling her. “But you can’t hold onto it. Hate will destroy you. You need to let it go.”
Gedeon wasn’t the only one who took valuable lessons from their friendship. Lidstone learned the importance of something he had given up long ago: human connection. After opening up his world to Gedeon, he increasingly sought out conversations with other passersby along the river. He earned the nickname “River Dave” and became something of a local legend. Slowly, he could feel himself learning to trust people again.
For someone who had spent decades as a recluse, Lidstone started making an awful lot of noise in 2015. One day, he was sitting on his porch with his feet resting on a stool that he’d made from crushed beer cans when he detected a noxious smell and decided to investigate. He grabbed a video camera that he’d once bought to film wildlife, and a fishing pole, and then walked to the riverbank. He saw a dead fish floating in the water, then another. Before long, he had spotted several of them. There was something else floating in the river that day: chunks of debris, some of which he was convinced was asbestos. He also noticed that a stretch of the river near his home was covered by a sheet of green algae. Hiking through the woods, he found piles of sludge where he had never previously seen any. At one point, he caught a truck dumping waste on a cornfield near the bank of the river and recorded it on his video camera.
Lidstone was furious and could not stay quiet. He called environmentalist and former New Hampshire state Senator Harold Janeway, and also called into a local radio talk show, demanding action. “C’mon, guy, you gonna do anything at all?” he asked the host.
Lidstone was not satisfied by simply making phone calls, though. “I bought a DVD burner and took one of my sludge videos and gave 164 copies out to townspeople, showing them the big mess,” he says. “My first love is God’s creation. He gave us a perfect country, and we’re doing everything we can to destroy it.”
At the same time, Lidstone says, he believes that his relentless advocacy for the river put him at odds with the state and with Canterbury town officials, and he is convinced that what happened next was an act of retaliation.
Later that year, unbeknownst to Lidstone, town officials had reached out to the owner of the property where Lidstone lived to relay that someone was squatting on the land. By that time, the owner—the one Lidstone says he had spoken to and who had agreed to let him live there—had passed away and left the land to his brother, an octogenarian named Leonard Giles. “The man from Vermont, Giles, was left this property by his brother and didn’t even know where it was,” Lidstone claims. “He’d never seen it. He did not know that I had a verbal agreement to stay there for the rest of my life.”
Lidstone was right: Giles had not known that there was someone living on his land. He might not have even cared if town officials hadn’t shared their concerns: The land, it turns out, was not zoned—or taxed—as a residential property, but had been used for timber harvesting. Furthermore, there was neither a septic system nor a road to the property, violating zoning laws required for that class of property. After learning that Lidstone had cut down the trees to build a home that Giles didn’t know existed, and after the town wanted to change the tax status of the land to residential because of that home, the property owner decided he didn’t want a stranger living off his land, so it was time for the elderly hermit to go.
Lidstone does not blame Giles for his decision, choosing instead to point his finger at town officials for stirring the pot. Ken Folsom, Canterbury’s town administrator, admits that the town informed Giles that someone was living on his property, but insists it did not do so with any negative intentions toward Lidstone. “The town administration doesn’t have any animosity toward Dave,” Folson says. Indeed, there is no evidence that the town was retaliating against Lidstone over his river advocacy. Meanwhile, Giles did not respond to a request for comment.
Lidstone stood his ground. Even in the face of a court-ordered permanent injunction that Giles secured ordering Lidstone to vacate the property, Lidstone refused to move. He stayed at his home and continued to do what he had done for years: clean up the riverbank, raise chickens, grow his own food, and cultivate his beehive. That is, until that hot July day when police officers carried him off to jail.
As soon as Gedeon learned that Lidstone was behind bars, she sprang into action with the help of her son, Tyler, who had known Lidstone for much of his life. Tyler jumped on his laptop and started an online petition to compel Lidstone’s release. Within the first 24 hours, he had gathered more than 3,000 signatures. True to their Shaker roots, townspeople in Canterbury rallied around the aging hermit, whose reputation as an anti-authoritarian folk hero continued to grow.
After five days in jail, Lidstone appeared in court to address the judge who was presiding over his case. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, the hermit stood up for himself and his way of life, echoing the words of Henry David Thoreau. “You came with your guns, you arrested me, brought me in here,” Lidstone shouted at the judge. “You’ve got all my possessions. You keep ’em. I will sit here in your [jail] uniform until I rot, sir…. But I’m telling you, sir, you step on me, I’m gonna bite your ankle.”
It didn’t take long for a video of Lidstone’s court appearance to go viral online. News stories appeared in media around the country and abroad, and money was donated to his GoFundMe account from well-wishers across the world. Even the judge whom Lidstone had showed up seemed sympathetic, telling Lidstone during a subsequent hearing that especially in a “Live Free or Die” state such as New Hampshire, he understood his plight and urged the town to seek mechanisms—zoning variances, or an agreement with Lidstone to pay for the required improvements to the land—that would enable him to stay put. Still, Giles’s lawyers refused, saying their client just wanted his land back. The judge ruled that he would not keep Lidstone in jail for more than 30 days, adding that Lidstone could leave jail even sooner if he agreed to stay off the land—which he refused to do—or if Giles dismantled the A-frame.
After that last hearing, Lidstone returned to jail, where after 27 years of living alone he was now bunking with about 50 other men in a dorm room. That night, they all gathered around the TV and tuned in to the local Channel 9 news, where they saw vicious flames consuming Lidstone’s beloved home, reducing it to ashes.
Earlier that day, one of Giles’s sons had apparently entered the camp and piece-by-piece begun to dismantle the home Lidstone had built. Somehow during the teardown, the wood structure caught fire. As the prisoners watched images of the camp burning to the ground in a blur of leaping orange flames, there was not a dry eye in the house, Lidstone said.
Was it foul play? Lidstone wondered. Canterbury Fire Chief Michael Gamache explained to reporters that the fire could have been caused by an electric charge left over in the solar panels, or if the power saw Giles’s son was using struck the metal supports on the house, it could have created sparks. But Gedeon doesn’t buy it. “This was anything but an accident,” she says. “Dave’s garden was also trampled. All of his flowers were pulled up and someone slashed all four tires of his ATV.”
Lidstone was freed from jail the day after the fire. He had spent 23 days locked up, and he managed to make friends. On his way out the door, several of the jail guards, who had pooled their money, handed him a wad of cash. As he walked into the bright August day, his best friend was waiting for him. Gedeon felt waves of joy when she saw her dear friend again in person. They embraced and she took him back to her house.
The next day, Gedeon drove him to the head of the trail that led to his home. When they got there, though, Lidstone was the only one who stepped out of the car. He needed to do this part alone. He walked the path that he knew so well to where his home had once stood. He wanted to see if his animals were still alive, and whether he could salvage anything from the wreckage. He was devastated by what he saw. Just a couple of months earlier, he’d bought 18 chicks. They were still babies when they all burned to death. Of his dozen grown chickens, only four survived. His honeybees were gone, too. As Lidstone sat there reeling from the destruction of his world, there was one positive bit of news: His two cats, Stealthy and Brindle, scampered out to greet him.
Several hours later, Gedeon paddled down the river to meet Lidstone at the property, where she found him too devastated to even speak. He walked toward her, slumped into her kayak, and they paddled upriver together, leaving his home of nearly 30 years behind for good.
Lidstone had lost everything, but in the months that followed he began focusing on all that he had gained—especially the showing of love from friends he didn’t even know he had. When he speaks about the outpouring of support, he has a hard time holding back his tears. People he knows, and some he doesn’t, have offered him their couches, their homes, and their land. He has more offers than he can accept. Four GoFundMe pages raised nearly $40,000 for “River Dave.” Tech billionaire Alexander Karp, CEO of Denver-based Palantir Technologies, sent an emissary to Canterbury and presented Lidstone with a check for $180,000.
After nearly three decades, Lidstone’s hermit days are finally over. He has become too famous, he says, to ever be left alone, and he is fine with that. Plus, now he has the money to live where he wants. “I had an old camp tucked about a mile and a half in the woods that I could barely walk to because I’m 81, and now I have the opportunity to buy a camp on the roadside where I can come and go,” he says. “What looked to be a tragedy has turned out to be one of the better things in my life, and I praise God for that.”
It isn’t just the fame or the money that has changed him, though. It’s the love he now feels. He has realized something he hadn’t before: that he had never loved anyone in his life. Lidstone says that through the connections he has made with people, he’s realized that the things he was trying to avoid in life are precisely the things he needed most. Maybe, he reasons, he was a hermit all of those years for nothing. As Thoreau said in defense of a simple lifestyle: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” In the end, Lidstone didn’t have to choose. He got it all.