Some years ago, I wrote about our late former mayor Howard Morgan leaning on a cane when he came to vote at the precinct where I worked.
It was not a cane, he informed me, but a walking stick. He’d had some health problems and all he needed was another leg, so to speak, to form a steadying tripod on the ground.
As we greeted each other and he came closer, I noticed that this was not an ordinary stick. When I admired it, he handed it to me to examine while he went about the business of a democratic government.
The stick appeared to be of walnut, divided into perhaps 12 segments, each about two inches long and separated by carved wedding band-like rings. In each section, small crude pictures were cut: horses, clasping hands, birds, a two-story house complete with tiny windows. They reminded me of the rustic paintings on walls of prehistoric caves in southern France, where unsophisticated artists left their simple, yet unmistakable, figures.
Howard’s wife, Dolly, told me that the stick – hardly prehistoric -- once belonged to her grandfather. She’s very matter-of-fact about such things, and shrugged when I asked if he had carved it, and when. All she knew was that it had been in her house for years, and when Howard needed a walking stick, it served him well.
Dolly was in her early 80s. Her grandfather was probably born around 1850, might have reached for a walking stick at about the turn of the century. Was the stick new when its rounded top first came to his palm, or did he acquire it from an elderly relative?
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
I’ve been for years an aficionada of the companionable staff, striking out for woodsy walks as a child with one of my father’s tomato stakes in hand. Later I became an admirer of the stout sticks for sale in souvenir shops, but their absurd price tags put me off.
I’d rather pick up a fallen branch when the path underfoot turns uneven, or do without, muttering and grasping Dave’s arm for assistance.
In Bavaria I came across a bin of small dark canes priced remarkably low and ideal for our treks on Alpine paths. For 10 D-Marks, around $6 then, I had exactly what I needed to help pull myself up grades and stabilize myself on descents. I could even decorate it with the small pressed-metal emblems that announced completion of specific hikes.
My Mittenwald cane was somehow left home when we went to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 1997, so again I scouted the racks of hand-carved staves in the shops. Wondrous they were, with the wizened faces of old spirits seeming to emerge from the soul of the wood itself, or adorned with feathers and beads, or simply polished with a glossy wax.
But prices were still outrageous and I resolved to march on unaided by the reassuring contact of hand on staff and staff firm against the earth. And that’s how my walking stick found me.
We were visiting Mendenhall Glacier, just north of our daughter’s home in Juneau, when we noticed that the U.S. Forest Service, custodian of that natural splendor, was clearing alder thickets near the interpretive center. The bent trunks of the slender trees, considered scrub in the far north, lay helter-skelter along the sometimes uneven path.
They were already cut and were of no use to anyone except, perhaps, connoisseurs of alder-smoked salmon. I chose the straightest 40-inch staff I could find and Dave cut it with his trusty Swiss army saw blade.
For the next several days, I amused myself peeling off the loose gray-and-brown mottled bark and sanding the edges of it, as well as the knots where I cut off small branches. The top is beveled slightly, the rich yellow wood there smooth to the hand.
The stick has a slight bow to it, and in my grip turns naturally so that the end that strikes the ground reaches eagerly forward. As we traveled, I accumulated a few trinkets: wooden beads, a tiny deerskin pouch, a piece of clear white shell. Strung on leather thongs, with a loop to slip over my wrist, they make a pleasing clatter as I walk.
The stick is every bit as fine as any I’ve seen in a gift shop, and cost almost nothing. It has saved me several times when loose gravel rolled underfoot, has helped pull me up steep embankments, and gives me a wonderful confidence when walking on boulders or soft sand.
Now my demon requires I carry either the little cane or the staff occasionally. When muscles were in spasm recently, that staff made walking possible. I read somewhere that using one can increase walking efficiency as much as 30 percent, actually taking that much weight off the legs on each stride.
On the flat, my staff swings in an easy rhythm: a-thud, step, step, step, a-thud, step, step, step. Not acceptable to my walking mates on Peachtree City’s paved cart paths – where thud becomes THUNK – it is perfect for dirt byways and high grasses. Its length becomes a pointer, or allows probing for an unseen snake that might be offended should my foot find him first.
A friendly companion and connection to the earth, our sticks are, and a comfort on life’s often uncertain road.
Contact Sallie at firstname.lastname@example.org.