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I’m Kit Cross, a freelance writer living in Chemainus. The tragic death of Chris MacDonald a few weeks ago, in the tenting site for people without housing at the Fuller Lake Arena parking lot, got me thinking about another man and another story, one memorialized in a mural in downtown Chemainus and on the paths through Askew Creek Park known as the Hermit’s Trail.
That man was Charlie Abbott, who arrived in Chemainus before MacDonald was born. Both struggled in their lives — with addictions, with finding home and a place to belong. Abbott coped by rejecting people, and so locals came to call him the Hermit. MacDonald never quite gave up on people, though many rejected him.
“It saddened me that people couldn’t see the human face sitting in front of them,” says Samantha Fincham, owner of Misfit’s Fitness Studio in Chemainus. MacDonald used to visit with Fincham, and she would sometimes cook him breakfast.
Though Abbott now has local legend status, he too faced rejection, and his story shows the ways our communities, then and now, fail to do enough to support those who need it.
According to reporting by the Times Colonist, Abbott was living under a bridge on the outskirts of town when some of the neighbourhood tough guys rousted him one too many times and he decided to move on. He found his way to the piece of forest sandwiched between St Joseph’s School and Askew Creek. There, he dedicated himself to manicuring his home. He moved rocks, built trails and cultivated gardens.
Scott MacLeod, 58, of Chemainus remembers Abbott. MacLeod lived across from the graveyard up Chemainus Road and used to ride his dirt bike to school down the railway tracks past the entrance to the trail.
“It was a loud, noisy dirt bike and he didn’t like it,” MacLeod says.
Abbott made that clear by standing at the edge of the forest with his hands over his ears or shaking his stick and shouting.
The days passed. MacLeod’s bravado wavered, curiosity got the better of him and eventually he summoned up the nerve to stop and see what Abbott was up to.
“I followed him back into the woods to see he was doing,” MacLeod recalls. “I was amazed that this little man could lift and carry the rocks for the steps and the walls all the way from the creek bed. He just plugged away at it.
“I’d stop by maybe a couple of times a week and just go in and help him. No point in asking if he needed help – most likely he’d have refused. Sometimes when he wasn’t around, I’d leave oranges or bananas or some cookies from my mom. Because if you handed it to him he wouldn’t take it.
“I don’t think he ever said more than 100 words to me. One day I caught him kinda smiling when I was trying to lift rocks that he was lifting and I couldn’t!
MacLeod left Chemainus in 1982. And in true small-town story fashion, time marches on. The Rotary Club eventually hauled an old trailer up to Abbott’s site and with a great deal of convincing, they got him to move in. It didn’t last long though. After a particularly cold night, some of the Rotarians went up for a wellness check, broke in the door when there was no answer and found him huddled, shivering and hacking his lungs out. In 1989, Charlie Abbott died in hospital of pneumonia at the age of 87.
Three decades later, I’m sitting at the base of a 100-year-old Douglas fir. The woods are full of them, and red cedar. Maybe not old growth – this land was logged in the past – but about as old as it gets in the town of Chemainus. Walls and rockeries of moss-covered river stone break through the undergrowth of thimbleberry, ivy and buttercups – all in full bloom – that make up the forest floor of what’s now called the Hermit’s Trail.
I can hear nesting robins, and the faraway purr of a Cessna single-engine plane overhead. The wind moving through the treetops makes it easy to ignore the passage of cars on Chemainus Road. Based on the extraordinary attention to detail in the wall construction at this spot, I can imagine without any effort that I might be sitting in Charlie Abbott’s kitchen. And that he is hiding in the shadows, wishing that I would just get out of his house and leave him the hell alone!
Chris MacDonald, the man who died last month in his tent, was not a hermit. He was, according to a recent story in the Chemainus Valley Courier, an advocate and community leader. While Abbott found peace by cultivating a piece of paradise, MacDonald most wanted to serve people, especially those who struggled as he did.
Abbott outlived MacDonald by half a lifetime. MacDonald certainly had more gifts to offer the community of Chemainus. Perhaps he would have earned his own mural, his own legendary status, with a few more years to build his legacy.
Thanks for reading,