About ten minutes up the southeast slope of Mt. Mansell, on Maine's Mt. Desert Island, I dart off the trail and poke around among a scattering of fallen red pine saplings. When I find one with a fairly straight trunk, I carefully break off a six-foot section; a stray hunk of granite from the trail serves as a makeshift adze/sanding block, and as I walk along I use it to dislodge twig butts, round off the end, and polish my new walking stick to comfortable smoothness.
Eleven-month-old James watches this whole operation curiously from his child pack. "Daddy has to be very careful of his balance when he's carrying you, James," I tell him. "That's why he needs a walking stick. Otherwise, he might slip, and you'd get a nasty bump."
I think he knows I'm not telling the whole truth, though. The fact is, I just like the heft of a walking stick in my hand. Always have. I don't actually lean on it like a cane (not yet, at least), but I find that swinging it lightly, touching down every third or fourth step, gives a feathery assist to my balance and helps impart a nice, easy rhythm to my walk.
If pressed, I probably could come up with plausible arguments for using a walking stick in the woods. On sharp drops or ascents, a good push on the stick helps keep things moving smoothly, and if you have an injured knee (as I had last summer) a walking stick can save you from doing an involuntary Walter Brennan impersonation as you go along. You can use it to ward off wet or thorny vegetation; for balance in rock-hopping or fording streams; to point out deer and hawks to companions, or pry up a log to reveal the wildlife underneath, or reach the topmost fruit in a berry patch.
When you attain a summit, a walking stick makes an admirable support for your camera, or just for your folded hands as you pant and enjoy the view. And now that I carry James on my back, I can add safety as my crowning "reason" for wielding a staff.
As it happens, a walking stick figures prominently in one of my all-time favorite woods walks. That was a brief morning foray a dozen years ago with a group of Audubon Society birders near the shore of the Rio Napo in northeastern Ecuador. We wanted to have a look at virgin rain forest, and a 70-year-old Yumbo Indian named Alejo had offered to guide us.
Once in the cathedral forest, the going was fairly smooth. To get there and back, though, we slipped and lurched behind Alejo for an hour or so each way, while he glided tirelessly along a tortuous, all-but-invisible path that wound across streams, along immense fallen logs, through dense growths of vines and between narrowly spaced, savagely thorned tree trunks. For our benefit, he improved the trail with his machete, cutting away brush and saplings without breaking stride, but eventually he realized we couldn't hope to keep his pace. I suggested walking sticks might help.
He thought that over (he seemed a little surprised at the idea anyone might need such a thing), then paused by a stand of palmetto and cut each of us a green walking stick, for which we were deeply grateful. The stick Alejo cut that morning is long since returned to the soil of the Andean rain forest, but its supple heft and springy touch on the trail are part of the tangible memory of that morning.
The truth is, and I think even young James suspects this already, my love of a walking stick is more atavistic than practical. Staff in hand, fancy roaming free, I am kin to the great walkers of yore: Moses with his shepherd's crook; Johnny Appleseed, planting the Midwest; John Muir sauntering through the Sierras and South America.
It won't be long before James is ready to carry his own pack along a trail and, if he wants, to carry a stick like his old man. Or not. I'll probably tell him about the practical part. The other stuff I think I'd better let him figure out for himself -- on that far-off day when he becomes a middle-aged walker and dreamer.
Peter Salwen is an urban historian from New York City. He is the author of Galapagos, Lost Paradise and Upper West Side Story: A History and Guide. He also conducts guided walks of New York City architectural and historical landmarks.
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