Time Bandits and the Presidential Rail Trail
Updated: Feb 28
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun’
Pink Floyd, Time
Invariably, when you tell folks that you have young kids they repeat the same mantra: “Treasure these times, they go too fast!” In fact, you begin to hear it so much that you wonder if there is some secret script everyone is working from.
There’s no way to know this wisdom is true until you’ve lived it. After all, when you look back on your own childhood, often the opposite seems true. What was little more than ten to fifteen years feels like a lifetime of memories. It feels like half your life, but simple math tells you this can’t be true.
But then one day you might be lucky enough to have kids, and suddenly when the haze of a sleepless baby in the house fades you realize they’re already developing into a little individual. Work beckons and you put your head down, and when you look up another year has gone by.
And that wise old man’s voice stirs, “It goes too quickly. Savor it.” There’s a gnawing in the pit of your stomach that time is escaping. You want to grab hold of it, stop it from gushing down the drain- gone forever.
But how do we make best use of the time? How do we savor it?
Maybe the secret to slowing it down is to create oversized spaces in your memory. Those times to cherish and revisit. There are those BIG memories. Those that take up big spaces.
While I don’t think you have to make big plans to make big memories- it certainly doesn’t hurt. It also helps to find a new space- to explore something new. Maybe it is that adventure that slows time down and opens a space in your memories where you can pour in all the good stuff.
In the summer of 2019 I made a plan for just such a memory- and now more than three years later I’m still enjoying it.
My plan started ambitious enough: a bikepack across northern New Hampshire with my six year old son. He had just learned to bike earlier that year and I was itching to properly introduce him to bikepacking. After considering our options, I stumbled upon the Presidential Rail Trail running east to west across the northern tier of the state of New Hampshire. I also found that it could be linked to the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail running north/south from Littleton to Woodsville, NH by simply doing a short on-road section between Whitefield and Littleton.
Truth be told, I had originally planned to keep going on to Groton, Vermont and then Montpelier following the Cross Vermont Trail, but I decided to be more realistic about our time constraints, and settled on a route that only took us across New Hampshire.
That summer I also purchased a Surly Big Fat Dummy cargo bike. This would allow us to carry all our gear, and my son could jump on the back if he grew tired. I attached a hub to the rear of the bike which was identical to the front wheel hub on my son’s bike. This allowed me to tow his bike after removing the front wheel. It was my insurance policy for busy roads and the tired legs of a six year old trying to keep up with his dad. We affectionately called it the Singletrack Minivan.
To make things even more interesting we arranged a two night stay at Appalachian Mountain Club hut at Zealand Falls before our ride. My stepfather, Mark, who had recently hiked Mt. Washington and was looking to keep his impressive hiking streak going would join us there. It was also decided that Mark would support us on the ride by driving ahead to each of our intended stopping points and setting up camp. If he was feeling particularly restless he could also pull a bike off the back and ride to meet us en route. While I was more than capable of carrying all our camping gear in the bottomless bags on the Singletrack Minivan, this would make the trip much easier on my legs.
After two blissful and memorable days hiking and staying at the Zealand hut, we arrived at the minivan in the mid morning and made our way down to Gorham, NH where we ate lunch and set my son free on the large playground in the center of town. Just after noon we pulled up to the trailhead where I finally unloaded the Big Fat Dummy as well as my son’s Specialized Riprock 20.
The bike towing mechanism I had engineered prior to our trip immediately came in handy as my son grew tired only a few miles into our climb out of Gorham. But instead of tears, or arguments, I simply threw him on the back, hitched the bike up and kept riding. Mark drove ahead and we made a tentative plan to meet at the Jefferson View Motel and stay the night.
The trail was a wide, smooth doubletrack that gets a decent amount of maintenance from local snowmobile clubs. Given the great condition and railroad grade- it made for pretty easy riding: even if I was hucking about a hundred pounds of bikes and child.
After a long steady climb out of the valley we happened upon an old bottle factory. We admired the largest collection of broken glass I had ever seen carpeting the ruins of the old building. As we sat there an eastbound bikepacker stopped for a chat. We learned she was a college student who had ridden from her home in the midwest, and was on her way to start college classes in Maine. She warned that she had seen a bear not far up the trail and so we were on high alert as we continued. Stopping further along the trail, my son hopped on his bike again and we found ourselves descending. We stopped at one point to view an army of ants marching along the side of the trail and a toad furiously picking a meal from the endless ant streams crisscrossing in front of him. A short and steep climb brought us up to an overlook where a memorial was laid for a group of motorcyclists who had been killed in an accident near that spot. The view of the Presidential range from Jefferson was breathtaking. It was a mostly clear day and we could see the very tops of the mountains impossibly high above us.
I re-attached my son’s bike and we rode a couple hundred yards along the busy narrow road finally reaching the motel, where we found Mark waiting with the minivan. We rented one of the brightly colored cabins for the night, and after my son spun himself silly on their tire swing we went into Whitefiled. Torrential rains poured down as we ate a hard earned pizza in the local shop. Silliness ensued when we stopped at the Dollar Store for the next day’s snacks, and a foam sword battle erupted, which really didn't end until the end of the trip.
In the morning we fueled up at the Water Wheel Restaurant not far from the cabins with the largest pancakes I had seen in years. Bellies full, we started from the lookout point and headed out on the trail.
Our second day on the trail was again easy double track, which was almost entirely downhill. We passed through forest, and along grassy meadows. At one point the barking of dogs announced our arrival to a sledding dog kennel, where we saw a team of dogs eagerly calling out our presence.
Hunger struck as the late morning passed and we stopped at berry bushes along the trail to raid them of their precious cargo. A generous leafy canopy from the trees kept us cool and protected from the midsummer sun, which was beaming down.
After crossing a large swamp with the mountains gloriously set in the background, we finally arrived at the Whitefield airport where we had agreed to meet Mark. Given that the trail petered out at this point, we drove from Whitefield down to Littleton where we would join the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail for the remainder of our journey.
We filled our bellies at the local diner in the middle of town, and found the trailhead across the river, where we unloaded bikes and headed out on the hot and dusty trail. There was more traffic on this trail than the Presidential, as it was a corridor for ATV’s and so we occasionally had to pull to the side to let riders pass. And we also had some stop to ask what we were up to, and chatted up some folks who were curious about our adventure.
The trail wound along the road, through the middle of some of the local villages until moving down closer to the river. There was a decent mix of wooded spots amid the sections surrounded by fields. This trail, with the additional traffic, and the course through the middle of local villages, felt much less remote than the Presidential Trail. But it never felt crowded.
As the late afternoon set in, we turned up off the trail and onto the main road, where we biked to our next meeting point with Mark: the local KOA campground.
Nestled aside the river we cooked a full meal on the campfire and regaled Mark with tales of our afternoon’s adventures and the people we had met along the trail. By nightfall, we retreated to our tents with tired eyes and eager anticipation for the next day of adventure.
Another glorious day greeted us, and what moisture we had collected along the river during the night quickly evaporated into the morning air. We packed up camp and promised to meet Mark in Bath for lunch, later that day. After towing my son on the busy, but wide shouldered road back to the trail, we decoupled and started the day’s journey. Along wide open fields we rumbled through the river valley south toward Bath.
The rest of the morning was a pleasant mix of riding through the town of Lisbon, and then a remote feeling section of fields and forests before reaching the covered bridge in Bath.
We met Mark in the center of Bath, where we devoured some delicious subs from the Brick Store before crossing back over the bridge and onto the rail trail toward Woodsville.
These last miles were short but memorable with remarkable views of the river and surrounding valley. Overall the trail climbed slightly upwards into Woodsville where we met Mark once again with the van.
With our trip completed we packed into the van and drove to the P&H truck stop for our reward: the best banana creme pie this side of the Rio Grande.
Three short days were all that this trip occupied in time. In the galactic scale of time, they are a nothing, an almost nonexistent passage of time. But in my memory and that of my son and stepfather they are three days that are crystallized and illuminated in our minds even three years later. They are a treasure: a source of accomplishment and connection that hold strong against the passage of time. We revisit them when we’re together: the broken glass carpet, the colored cottages, the sword fight, and the camp by the river all come up time and again.
But what is true for having small kids is just a true for time with all our loved ones. The time is short and passes quickly.
And so now I have become the old man, and looking you in the eye, earnestly say this to anyone who will listen: “Treasure these times. Hold on tight because they go by so quickly.”