David Lidstone, 81, walks along a path away from the Merrimack River in New Hampshire on Aug. 10, 2021. Lidstone is an off-the-grid hermit known to locals as ‘River Dave.’ (AP Photo / Steven Senne)
By C. Douglas Golden August 15, 2021 at 1:07pm
For 27 years, 81-year-old David Lidstone lived off the grid in Canterbury, New Hampshire.
His water was from the Merrimack River. His power was from solar panels. His food was grown, and pets and chickens were his company. He’s known as “River Dave” by boaters and kayakers who pass by his two-level A-frame cabin, according to an Aug. 5 Associated Press story.
The property is on a 73-acre plot that is family-owned and used for harvesting timber. Therein lies the rub: Even though Lidstone says the owner gave his word he could stay on the property, he has nothing in writing.
The owner, 86-year-old Leonard Giles of Vermont, says he never even found out about Lidstone until the town administrator discovered the cabin in 2015 and contacted him “with regard to the solid and septic waste disposal and the potential zoning violations created by the structure.”
Giles complained that Lidstone was squatting starting in 2016.
After a years-long legal battle, Lidstone found himself in jail. While he was behind bars, his cabin burned down on the afternoon of Aug. 4 under mysterious circumstances in a case being investigated by local law enforcement.
According to the AP, Lidstone was jailed July 15 on a civil contempt sanction after years of legal wrangling following a 2017 order by a judge mandating that he vacate the property. Officials said he’d be released from jail should he agree to leave the cabin.
He wasn’t going to.
“You came with your guns, you arrested me, brought me in here, you’ve got all my possessions. You keep ’em,” Lidstone said during a court appearance on the morning of Aug. 4, according to the AP.
Should this hermit have been put in jail?
“I’ll sit here with your uniform on until I rot, sir.”
Unfortunately, that’s what he ended up doing for a while.
“You’re doing your own thing in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, so there’s a lot of sympathy to you for that,” said Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman.
“But there’s a lot of weight on the other side of the balance sheet, and not just about what the (landowner) wants to do with the land, but the weight I feel to uphold the judgment of the court and the rule of law.”
The judge also suggested that Giles and town officials try to reach an agreement via a mediator. Giles’ lawyer turned down the offer, citing logistical reasons.
Lidstone has his supporters, such as kayaker Jodie Gedeon, who became friends with him 20 years ago.
“He’s just a really, really, big caring guy and just chooses to live off the grid,” she said. “It really is about humanity, it really is about compassion, empathy … he’s not hurting anybody.”
Gedeon and others have petitioned officials and collected money to pay his property taxes. They also came out to a town selectboard meeting Aug. 2 in support of Lidstone, although the board said it had no standing in the case.
And then there were other problems — such as the fact the cabin was in violation of zoning laws, has no access to a road, and doesn’t meet environmental regulations.
“You guys are in a quandary. So are we,” selectman Robert Steenson told the AP.
To top it all off, there was the mysterious fire that burned down the cabin.
“The vast bulk of Lidstone’s personal items had been removed from the cabin before the fire, Giles’ attorney, Lisa Snow Wade, said on the night of Aug. 4,” the AP reported.
Said Canterbury Fire Chief Michael Gamache: “Several outbuildings remained, and no animals were found, either running around or deceased.”
“I’m devastated,” Gedeon said when she learned about the fire.
Before the fire, there were three options for Lidstone’s release from jail: Either he agreed to leave the cabin, the cabin would be demolished by Giles, or 30 days would pass since his jailing.
Lidstone chose to rot — although he was released from jail on Aug. 5 after the judge ruled he would have less incentive to go back to “this particular place in the woods” because the cabin had burned down, according to the AP.
After the fire, however, he says he doesn’t think he can return to the life he knew.
“I don’t see how I can go back to being a hermit because society is not going to allow it,” he said during an interview with the AP on Tuesday. “I would have people coming every weekend, so I just can’t get out of society anymore. I’ve hidden too many years and I’ve built relationships, and those relationships have continued to expand.”
One possibility is for him to resume his life on a property owned by the Concord Friends Meeting, a Quaker meeting in the same town. He’d need the permission of the congregation, however.
The fact it ever came to this, however, is a sign of how our society’s bonds of sanity have broken down. Giles says he didn’t even know that Lidstone was on his land until 2015, even though Giles’ family has owned the land since 1963 and Lidstone had been there for 27 years.
The only reason Giles knew is that the town was concerned about “the solid and septic waste disposal and the potential zoning violations created by the structure,” according to the AP.
The town was concerned a simple cabin on a 73-acre plot created zoning difficulties — and, unbelievably, didn’t meet environmental regulations. No one could reach a commonsense solution to this.
At the very least, however, it’s provided Lidstone with a perspective on why he chose the life of a hermit.
“Maybe the things I’ve been trying to avoid are the things that I really need in life,” said Lidstone, who has been estranged from his family. “I grew up never being hugged or kissed, or any close contact.
“I had somebody ask me once, about my wife: ‘Did you really love her?’ And the question kind of shocked me for a second. I … I’ve never loved anybody in my life. And I shocked myself because I hadn’t realized that. And that’s why I was a hermit. Now I can see love being expressed that I never had before.”
The Lord has a reason for everything. Of course, it’s a shame when that reason is filtered through bureaucracy, questionable intentions and a legal fight that never needed to happen — but maybe calling attention to those was part of His reason, too.