By Gary Pearson
Strumming his guitar deep in Korea’s Jirisan National Park’s mountains, he sits merrily belting out a rendition of Sweet Caroline in near perfect English.
But for the rustling trees, everything goes completely silent upon the song’s conclusion. We are wrapped up in the moment and would soon come to realise why he so dearly covets being at one with nature.
Lee Chang Ho dwells in one of the Korean national park’s highest houses, living for a year in almost complete seclusion. Only one neighbour and her dog live close by.
Panshick, my Korean co-teacher and one of Chang Ho’s most trusted and loyal friends, introduced us.
Hours before on the drive to meet Chang Ho, Panshick tells us how his enigmatic friend is a truth seeker and, for reasons of self-discovery, decided to make the drastic decision to move to the mountains.
Il Won to his Friends
Nicknamed Il Won by his closest friends, Chang Ho moved from Seoul, one of the world’s most populous and frenetic cities, to take his place alongside nature.
Il Won, in Korean, has multiple meanings. “Il” stands for number one, while Won signifies both Korean currency and is considered to reflect being a part a member of a community. Panshick goes further, saying Chang Ho deserves his nickname for having a clean and pure heart.
We cannot see the mountains as we approach Jirisan National Park, the low-lying fog so dense it totally envelops the canvas. The fog clears and we are almost immediately struck by an array of vibrant autumn colours. The fog, like wrapping paper, waited for the perfect moment to reveal its gift. Marigold, cider and tiger oranges combine with butter, canary yellows, adding to the garnet and mahogany reds to form the fantastical autumn scene.
After a quick stop to see Ssanggye Temple, a revered spot for many Koreans, we slowly ascend to Il Won’s residence. As we slalom up the incline and distance ourselves from towns, villages and any sign of human life, trace elements of paranoia trickle in.
Could Panshick be in the midst of a treacherous plan to kidnap and, even worse, torture us?
Though fit for his age, I convince myself he lacks the strength to overpower us. Then again, he could always resort to slipping something in our drink when the time arises. A few moments pass and I realise the only thing I should fear is having these thoughts in the first place. Too many scary movies will do that to a man. For this, I blame Ezra, whose thirst for horror movies cannot be quenched.
Groaning and roaring in distress, Panshick’s 4X4 barely possesses the strength needed to climb the final hundred meters, the gradient so steep it feels like we’re on a rollercoaster that may not make it to the crest.
We finally make it and are met by a relentless, anger-filled bark. Il Won’s only neighbor has a dog that looks – and acts – more like a wolf. Its dagger-like teeth pronounced and on display, the menacing beast does its utmost to break free of the chain, the only thing refraining it from tearing us limb from limb. It wasn’t the kind of greeting we had anticipated.
We barely notice Il Won as he walks out of his cabin to greet us, our undivided concentration still firmly on the ravenous K-nine. Finally satisfied the beast will break free, we turn attention to our host.
Il Won’s mainly grey and silver hair overshadows the few remaining black streaks, his younger years still battling against the sands of time. His grey, black and white plaid shirt matches perfectly his hair, mirroring shirts worn by Canadian lumberjacks.
Pleasantries are swapped and we notice, like most other older Koreans, Il Won has a rather loose grasp on the English language. He understands a few words but has difficulty forming words and sentences.
He goes back inside the cabin to make final preparations for lunch. The cabin, for all its simplicity, is quite homely. An open fire warms it in the winter and Il Won still enjoys the luxury of electricity and running water. He sleeps on a mattress, which rests firmly on the floor. He grows a lot of his own fruit and veg but gets everything else he needs at a nearby convenience store.
Ez and I barbeque pork and wash lettuce outside with a hose. At least it feels like we are contributing. Korean barbeque, complemented by an assortment of traditional side items, is served for lunch. It’s the first opportunity to try and communicate with our welcoming host. Panshick helps by translating.
We find out Il Won was a highly regarded DJ and event planner in Seoul for many years. He recently retired and grew weary of the big city life.
Il Won’s wife, whom he sees once or twice a year, remains in Seoul with his daughter. He is acutely aware of the sacrifices he’s made. Some might perceive his search for self-discovery as an abandonment of sorts. But not Il Won.
He says he felt his identity slipping away, the main contributing factor in his decision to move nine months ago. He loves the outdoors, his desire to be living amongst nature weighing heavily on his conscience during his remaining months in the capital.
“I need for my happiness, for a clean soul,” he says with conviction. “I am free and at peace.”
He hurries inside and returns seconds later with an old, tattered notebook, which looks like it’s been around for centuries.
“Do you know Neil Diamond?” he asks, turning the pages with the sort of eagerness scarcely seen in a 55-year-old man.
The lyrics of his favorite artists, including John Denver and Neil Diamond are handwritten on each page.
Before long, Il Won is playing the guitar and belting out Sweet Caroline. Ez and I join the sing-along almost immediately, impressed by his boyish exuberance. Either that or the soju – a kind of watered down Korean vodka – and beer are starting to take effect.
Il Won sings the lyrics perfectly in-tune, not missing a beat as he slides seamlessly into the chorus. It’s as if his sings with a native English tongue.
Music connects us in a way that only travel can rival. It is what I love most about this type of unexpected encounter. Il Won has memorized the entire notebook’s contents and, like a jukebox, can play any song on request. He plays and sings night and day, though usually without an audience but for the rabid dog next door.
Satisfied with lunch and our group hymns, it was time to enjoy a brief hike in Jirisan National Park, otherwise known as Il Won’s backyard.
We navigate the steep embankment on which Il Won lives, ensuring every step is assured on this uncertain terrain.
Thick bush encases us, tree branches reaching out as if to touch our faces as we pass by. We stumble out of the dense foliage and, brushing off all twigs, leaves and loose debris, notice the landscape in all its rugged tranquility.
We join a popular hiking trail after a brief stint in the untouched wilderness. It’s our first sight of people since arriving on Il Won’s playground. Though living in chosen isolation, Il Won has the advantage of not being totally disconnected with society.
I understand why he finds this place so endearing. Almost untouched but for a few hikers, he answers to no one, living free and spontaneous.
I deliberately tread on each fallen leave and twig to hear the crunch beneath my weight. Autumn is about more than fallen leaves and beautiful colours. It signifies the fleeting nature of the natural world, reminding us of the impermanence of life.
Il Won points to a creek running parallel to the hiking path.
“It’s my shower and bath,” he bellows with great pride.
I imagine the water to be as invigorating as it is emasculating.
Moments later, Il Won unexpectedly breaks into the chorus of Hank William’s I’m So Lonely I Could Cry.
His rendition, much like I would expect from the water in the creek below, has a particularly chilling effect. Though appearing happy and carefree, I feel there is more to Il Won than meets the eye. I think his impromptu rendition of I’m So Lonely I Could Cry has a more literal meaning.
Then again, maybe he just loves a good sing-along.
Nevertheless, Il Won graciously invites us back to his little, self-sufficient cabin in the woods. We will happily visit his humble abode again, whether or not he is so lonely he could cry.
Gary Pearson lives in Canmore, Alberta and has freelanced on behalf of the Canadian Press, The Edmonton Journal, The Travel Itch, among other publications. He can be found on Twitter @newagejourno.