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By Stephen McClure


The Montréal Review, December 2022


In the West Coast woods. Image Credit: Stephen McClure


A year or so after I met him, I tried to find Richard's lean-to in the woods near Beaver Lake. There was no trace of it.

I was pretty sure I was in the right place. But you could never find where Richard lived in Stanley Park. He had built his little shelter from leaves and branches just off Pipeline Road. It was cleverly camouflaged to blend in with the lush foliage of the forest.

One sign of Richard's presence was a rotting stump that he used for practicing kung-fu.  He'd attack it over and over with his sideways kicks, the sole of his foot smashing it hard and increasing the size of the dent he'd made. The controlled fury of his kicks was at odds with his mellow, unassuming personality.

Richard was a quiet guy and didn't talk much about himself. Most people do. We listen politely as others talk about themselves, waiting for a chance to turn the conversation to the topic that we find the most fascinating: me. But when you spent time with Richard you talked about other things, like the woods. Or space.

Space was the word he used to describe how an opponent would give you a chance, an opening, to attack when doing kung-fu. The way I understood it, the real art of kung-fu was to be able to see those spaces, those chances to turn defence into attack.

I kicked the long-suffering stump sometimes, but I never got into kung-fu the way my friend Ken did. Ken was one of Richard's students. He and I would go and visit Richard and talk about kung-fu and life in general, in vaguely Taoist and Buddhist terms, refracted through the lens of the streetwise counterculture that Richard seemed to come from. I say "seemed," because it was hard to pigeonhole him, and say he was this or that.

I knew Richard was from New York City. You could still hear a bit of the Noo Yahk accent in his voice. My guess is that he'd moved to Canada to avoid the draft, but I didn’t ask him. I didn't know Richard all that well, and I met him just a few times. But I can never forget him.

I’d say Richard was the closest thing to a truly free person I've ever met. Many of us fantasize about rejecting a corrupt, materialistic society and being free, but we never do anything about it. Our egos trick us into looking at society as something separate from us, something beneath us. But we are inextricably caught in its web of social interactions and responsibilities. We always put off our great leap to freedom.

Richard had made that leap. He'd cut himself off from regular human society about as much as you can without becoming a total hermit. He lived most of the year in Rouyn-Noranda in Quebec, where he could get generous welfare payments because he was over 35. At least that’s how he explained it.

Richard traveled by Greyhound bus all over North America to teach kung-fu to people like Ken for free. He lived rough in places like Stanley Park or in flophouses, depending on the season. He said his daily diet consisted of a piece of luncheon meat between two slices of white bread, and one banana.

Like Richard, his lean-to didn’t draw your attention. It was better than camouflaged -- it seemed like part of the forest. When he pointed it out to you, it seemed obvious that it had been there all along. It was so artfully hidden, well off anything suggesting a path. You could never find it on your own.

My brothers and I have a favourite spot in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Park: a huge hollowed-out, half-burned stump just off one of the main trails, but well-hidden by the dense vegetation surrounding it. We've been going there since the early 1970s, when together with our dad, we built a bridge over a creek that runs nearby. But when I visit Vancouver and try to find the stump, all too often I have the damndest time finding it, much to my embarrassment.

Leaving a trail and bushwhacking in the West Coast rain forest is always a bit dicey. A kind of magical thinking takes over as your mind tries to convince you that the bare patches of ground you see are actually parts of a half-overgrown trail. We call them "illusion trails." That illusion is dispelled the moment you lift your gaze to get a broader view of the woods – you realize you're nowhere near a path.

Richard didn't seem to have any difficulty finding his lean-to. I guess you could say he was "attuned." He was in his element in the woods of Stanley Park – an unpretentious Taoist sage whose teaching took the form of kung-fu.

It was strange to see him on the street, removed from what had become the familiar context of the woods. He wasn’t exactly a fish out of water, but if you saw him in the street or in your house, he was somehow … reduced. I guess he just looked ordinary.

Richard said his ambition was to disappear. I don't know whether he meant that figuratively or literally. Some people would say his attitude was pathological. Maybe his devotion to kung-fu was a way of channeling and controlling a deep anger he felt against society, and his apparently quietist attitude was a form of passive aggression. I think he wanted to drop out of society altogether, but wasn't sure exactly how to do that – or whether he really wanted to do that, in his heart of hearts.

Some years ago Ken told me that Richard's students had gradually stopped taking lessons with him. Then Ken lost touch with him. Richard had disappeared – at least to us. The word was that he’d gotten married and settled down somewhere. Of course, it's just a coincidence, but I couldn't help thinking of Joni Mitchell's song "The Last Time I Saw Richard":

Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on.

Somehow I can't picture Richard drinking at home and watching TV – unless it's an old kung-fu flick. In my memory he is inseparable from the forest of Stanley Park.

Pauline Johnson tells the First Nations legend of the Lure in Stanley Park.  A sorceress was turned into stone by the gods because of the evil she inflicted on people up and down the coast. Johnson says that no Indigenous person would go near the black-spattered white stone in the centre of the park for fear of its enduring malignant power.

Three different Indians have told me that fifteen or eighteen years ago, two tourists – a man and a woman – were lost in Stanley Park. When found a week later the man was dead, the woman mad, and each of my informants firmly believed they had, in their wanderings, encountered "the stone" and were compelled to circle around it, because of its powerful lure.

It's a disturbing tale, which contrasts with the idyllic image Vancouverites have of the unique treasure they simply call "the Park." But anyone who leaves behind Stanley Park’s crowded beaches, picnic areas and tourist attractions to explore its network of trails becomes aware of the shadows and echoes of the people who lived in the villages of Chaythoos and Xwayxway long before Europeans gave it the name Stanley Park, and of the powerful but indefinable presence that can be felt with every breath drawn and step taken in its quiet, majestic woods.

The lure that attracted Richard to Stanley Park was freedom. I hope he found it. But it wouldn’t surprise me if I turned a corner on Tatlow or some other trail one day and found him kicking a stump – or a black-spattered white stone.


Stephen McClure is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who divides his time between Vancouver and Tokyo. He has worked as a journalist for more than 40 years, including 17 years as Billboard magazine’s Japan and then Asia bureau chief.


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