There’s a fair amount of literature pertaining to walking sticks, and a whole lot more information pertaining to commercially available walking instruments. I’ll confess to having read very little of “Walking Stick Notes” so far, and have been deficient in boosting the American economy by purchasing crafted sticks. I’ll accept the fact that Ben Franklin gave his favorite walker to George Washington and that it’s now a national treasure. I have no problem believing that sticks can be family heirlooms and collectibles worth money. For me, however, the walking stick is a practical item, a natural tool to help me get somewhere outdoors and to better appreciate the place I’m in.
The walking stick is an extension of my outdoor self, no less important than binoculars to a birder or fly rods to an angler. My sticks range from a beaver-chewed alder staff to a crooked sassafras pole to a “systems piece” that I’ll refer to later. I use them as supporters and shields, as tools to pick up litter, or simply as an item that feels good and elemental in the hand. The stick can also function as a pointer– an attention grabber for a trail mate who is too self-absorbed to see the interesting wildflower or the migratory bird that he or she has just shuffled by.
A walking stick was possibly mankind’s first defense weapon and support tool. Early specimens were friendly as a shepherd’s crook or fearsome as a pike or spear. Today we can still imagine them being whittled on an Appalachian porch, or we can shape them into being from a suitable branch that’s fallen near a trail-head. High-technology has produced synthetic canes, as well, some of which have medical applications for physical infirmities.
Hiking staffs are generally four to six feet in length, intended for rugged terrain. A stick is often taken for granted while in use– right up to the moment when it snaps in two from being wedged in rocks as you descend a mountain with about thirty pounds of pack equipment on your shoulders.
My own preference is for a beaver-cut aspen or poplar stick about four feet long. I have several of these and am always looking for another when in the neighborhood of beaver dams and lodges. My favorite stick has the bark removed by rodent teeth. It’s knotty in convenient locations and is tapered from a thick butt (for a hand grip) to a slightly bent tip. It’s great for bushwhacking maneuvers. The wood is soft but light and durable. There’s a feeling of resiliency and life to it, and the stick slides readily through the hand when I want it to.
I’ve also got a manufactured “system stick” that my mother-in-law once gave me. Only in America can you find an item like this– a four-sided piece of finished hickory with a knob on top. It’s endowed with a compass that glows at night, with a wrist-cord and a retractable spike that’s good for wading, trash collection, and emergency hunting and fishing ventures. The stick has a replaceable rubber tip, plus an ingenious device for measuring the height of distant trees and buildings. It can double as aerobic exerciser, camera mono-pod, scale, and “thumper”– the latter being useful to ward off grizzlies, feral dogs, and serial killers. The instruction manual for this system stick includes the caveat not to use on toothy mammals larger than yourself unless you can aim straight, throw hard, and run real fast. Needless to say, I like to use the rodent sticks found in water.
I’m told that some of these factory productions come replete with built-in necessities such as sundials, swords, rulers, microscopes, and skinny violins. Perhaps swords and violins can soothe the beast on crowded mountaintops, but I’m still trying to fathom the application of sundials and microscopes in such locations.
An ordinary walking stick helps me get past all the gizmos and most of the nonsense in our lives. Tradition lives inside a simple stick. Let’s raise one in salute to each other when we chance to pass by on the trail.