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Walking sticks support memory

By Roger Barbee - redhill@shentel.net

Several walking sticks stand in a corner of our screened porch. All are wood. A pair of the new fiberglass ones that look more like ski poles than walking sticks, hang, never used, in the corn crib. My favorite, a bamboo pole 6 feet long, stands next to my desk, a reminder of past walks.

The shortest in the pile is what remains of a failed marriage and its honeymoon.

I can't remember being taught to carry a stick on a walk through the woods; I just always did. A good walking stick came in handy: it served as a balancer climbing over tough terrain, an added comfort in moving a snake, served as a support to lean a backpack against, became a gauge for testing water depth, and it helped stir a campfire at the end of a long walking day. Most times, however, it was simply a natural comfort in the hand as I walked through the woods, and I taught my children the importance of a good walking stick for a wooded walk. My total of sticks is many and unknown since most were picked up early in a walk and then relegated back to the woods or left against a rock or tree for some other walker to find and use. However, some I have kept for particular reasons, and two are held in memory for their reasons of being.

A friend gave me the short, main branch of a dead dogwood tree, with part of the stump still attached. He thought that my youngest son, with whom he had shared camping trips, might like it as a walking stick. I peeled its bark, softened the edges of the stump burl, and sanded it as I watched sunsets from a small porch. I then hand-rubbed coats of tung oil into it, especially on the burl. The tung oil gave it protection and a patina, it had heft like a good baseball bat, and the burl gave it an authority. Plus, it was the perfect length for a boy. He used it for several walking seasons, but at some campsite on the river he forget it. I hope some soul found it and is using it today.

Another walking stick of memory was made on a hike with a friend to the Malvern Hills in England. For years he had told me of the majesty of the hills and one summer in early August we took the train to Malvern and walked to the hills. He, an artist, went about half way to one of the summits and sat comfortably sketching the views. I continued on, and on my way to the top I found a discarded, small cherry sapling that someone had ripped out of the ground for whatever reason. Taking out my knife, I sat and began to shape that young shoot into a presentable walking stick. I spent a glorious, summer day sitting above Bill as he sketched, and I worked on the stick, all the while enjoying the view from the hills while occasionally glancing at Bill as he sketched. At the close of day, I trekked down to Bill, and he showed me his sketches before placing them in his satchel. I showed him the walking stick, and giving it to him said, "God made it, and I fashioned it for you. I hope you like it."

Later, when we went into his favorite pub in Oxford, he proudly showed it around with, "Look what my mate did for me." These years later, I don't know where the walking stick is, but I have framed and hung several of those sketches.

One of the longest sticks in the porch collection is a wate-scarred branch that Joe, my youngest child, found on a walk along the west bank in New Orleans. We had gone exploring along the levee on a Sunday afternoon, and he scavenged in a pile of drifted wood and came out with a rather large, dead limb that he used in exploring the water's edge, looking for treasures. Before long he found one: a thick, discarded nylon rope that had floated to shore after breaking from a barge. He said that the rope would make a great swing in our yard, which it did. Since he could not manage both the rope and the large walking stick, he gave me the stick with, "Take care of my stick." I still do.

Mary Ann, my wife, enjoys walking through our three acres of woods. However, she is uncomfortable with the spider webs across the path. One of the sticks in the pile was once a back piece from an oak rocker that had seen better days. After I sanded it and applied several coats of lacquer, Mary Ann has a short but sturdy stick with a carved end to carry on her walks. No more spider webs to ruin her jaunts in the woods. It sits ready for use among all the other sticks, all with their own story. However, my favorite leans against the wall next to my desk.

Before my accident, I was an avid hiker and caretaker for a section on the Appalachian Trail at Whiskey Hollow. Reading Colin Turnbull's "A Thousand Mile Walk" I got the idea of using bamboo for a walking stick as he did. I found a fine shoot about 2 inches thick and cut it off at 6 feet in length. I rubbed it with a good, dark walnut oil stain, placed a rubber leg guard on one end, and duct tape on the top end. Later, while hiking the Big Blue Trail, I found a feather that I liked and it hangs from the top, a decoration of sorts for this most utilitarian piece of wood. Miles of trail were shared with this stick, and it supported my pack through many nights of rest. Since I can't hike now, I keep hoping that someone I know will plan a through hike on the Appalachian Trail, and I will ask him or her to take this bamboo walking stick to share the journey. For now, it leans against a wall, a reminder of past pleasures in the woods.

For Christmas in 2000, Rebecca, a daughter, gave me a pair of (then) modern fiberglass poles. I hung them in the corn crib later that winter so they would be ready for my first hike. A summer accident kept that hike or any subsequent hike from happening, but I keep them hanging where I placed them in 2001 as a reminder of a thoughtful gift for an unrealized wish.

All but the fiberglass ones are just pieces of wood, made by God and fashioned by a man's hand. But they are more, for each has its story, its personality. Like us, they are all the same, but all quite different. So, the next time you go into the woods, look around for a stick you would like to share your walk with and at the end lean it somewhere for another walker to find and enjoy, or bring it home for your next ramble.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs, and five cats. You may contact him at: redhill@shentel.net


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