When I was sixteen, my brother gave me a walking stick for Christmas. He was nearly nineteen then, and had made it himself from a small tree culled from the forest that edged the cow pasture by our house, blackened it with a propane torch and burnished it smooth and clean using a leg bone from an unfortunate calf that hadn’t survived a past winter.
By modern criteria it wasn’t remarkable, but I loved it. It was nearly 5 feet long, had a bend about a foot below the top that made a perfect hand grip, and it seemed to me to be perfectly balanced. I was the envy of my scout troop with it, and later on, I used it often as I walked to classes at Ohio State University from my off campus apartment. It accompanied me on backpacking trips in Ohio, West Virginia, and Ontario, for up to a week at a time. I carried it on camps and hikes on my own, and later, with my son’s scout troop, and just on walks around the neighborhood. I’d tried other walking sticks, and later, sophisticated trekking poles, but I found them all wanting in comparison to my scarred, beat up, homely and homemade walking stick. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t “better” than my walking stick, they just weren’t as companionable.
Twenty eight years passed.
You need to understand that despite my love for the backcountry, I am not a tremendously skilled, experienced backpacker. From my boy scout days the scout motto, “Be Prepared” tends to conspire against any good intentions to keep my pack light. Even so, it seems I always forget something that I need for the trip. I’m out of shape, overweight, and at best I get two or three short backpacking trips in a year. Even those would seem fairly brief and non-adventurous by most opinions. I tend to prefer forest trails along streams or lakes over ones that lead into mountain passes or across hills, at least partially because they tend to be easier. Still, I make it a point to get at least one, three to four day trip a year under my belt, preferably where I can experience something approaching total solitude.
One recent July I had been on a short camping trip along the Glade Creek Trail in West Virginia. I’d base-camped some distance across the creek from the main trail and spent three days hiking along it and some of the side trails. I was tired, sore and happily recharged from the trip as I returned to my car at the trailhead. I leaned my walking stick against the right front fender while I doffed my pack, got it stowed into the back of my station wagon, and changed my hiking boots for sandals. Sometime during this process my walking stick fell unnoticed to the ground. Hot, sweaty and tired, I failed to miss it as I got in the car and left for home, some four and a half hours distant.
More than halfway back I realized I’d forgotten my walking stick. I seriously considered turning around then, but by that point it would have been dark by the time I got back to the trailhead, after midnight by the time I got to bed, and I was already tired. Common sense prevailed, and I continued on home.
I called off work the next day, and drove back down to look for it. My wife thought I was crazy, and I can’t say she wasn’t right. It wasn’t there, of course. I posted a sign at the trailhead offering a reward, and left word about it at the park office in Thrumond, in case someone turned it in.
No response. I only hope that whoever found my walking stick appreciates it. Old and beat up as it was, it still had plenty of miles left in it.
The following May I found myself “tending camp” while the rest of the scout troop was on a whitewater trip on the New River. It was cold and rainy, and I was at loose ends during the day. I decided to take a little walk around the area. The camp was a relatively “civilized” campground near Babcock state park in West Virginia, the type with picnic shelters, mowed lawns, and heated bath houses. It wasn’t too far away from the trail where I’d lost my walking stick last year.
As I walked by the forest edge along the tended lawns of the campground, a pile of cleared brush and branches caught my eye. There, right on top of the pile, was a nearly straight branch almost five feet long with a slight bend near one end. It was old enough that the bark had all peeled off, but still seemed sturdy despite its age. I pulled it off and considered it. It wasn’t my old walking stick, but of course, nothing else would be. The balance wasn’t quite as good as I remembered, and naturally it lacked the smooth black burnished finish of my old stick. Despite this, somehow, it seemed to fit.
Yes, I know this isn’t exactly in concordance with Leave No Trace principles. This, however, was not what you’d call a wilderness area in the first place. It was already on a brush pile created by man’s disturbance of the land, so I rationalized that I would be forgiven if I “rescued” it in this case. I gripped it at its natural handle and continued my walk, its swing and thud traversing my body like the feel of an old friend’s hand clapping your shoulder. It may take a bit of time to get used to it, but I figure I can give it the chance. My last one had twenty eight years, after all.
Copyright 2003, by Steven K. Smith
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