I can take or leave walking sticks, and even when I take them I usually leave them, which is part of their problem. Walking sticks are just extra gear to forget somewhere along the way.
Consider the “knobby walking stick” employed by author Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail tramp detailed in A Walk in the Woods. The staff is a gift from his children, a gesture that brings Bryson to the brink of tears, and though he treasures it he abandons it at virtually every stop. That he retains it long enough to wield like a club when he hears what he is sure is a bear outside his tent is courtesy his laggard friend, Stephen Katz.
Though I am indifferent to walking sticks, I don’t begrudge or mock their use. Unless they’re those glorified ski poles that cost twice as much as actual ski poles because someone thought to market them to affluent outdoorsy types as “trekking poles.” And walking sticks are not to be confused with canes, which are a douche-y affectation unless you have a legitimate limp (per the pragmatist economist Thorstein Veblen: “The walking-stick serves the purpose of an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure”).
But sometimes nature presents you with a dead tree branch that’s too good to disregard, at least until you leave it behind later when you pause for a drink and a snack. And sometimes that branch makes so perfect a walking stick that it must be shared with others.
Such was the case on Saturday, which happened to be National Get Outdoors Day, an occasion Agent Orange would probably cancel if he knew about, as part of the holiday’s mission is to connect underprivileged citizens with our public lands, both of which he loathes. Thus Wyatt, who would attest if he could speak that he is underprivileged, and I set off for the wilderness.
The roads to our intended and backup destinations were closed (for habitat preservation and maintenance respectively), so we turned down a county road that I was about 57-percent sure cut through Forest Service land. After a brief—Wyatt would argue interminable—excursion over twisting gravel roads, we encountered a series of Forest Service trail markers.
The human, whose eardrums were being lanced by the impatient and increasingly frequent whines from the back seat, quickly settled on a spot. I followed Wyatt up an old four-wheel-drive path toward a Forest Service sign, which I initially thought was casting an odd shadow. Propped against the notice was a pale, wiry branch; it was worn white by the elements, its splinters smoothed away, but it remained sturdy, and it fit comfortably in my hand.
And handy it proved on the rocky, rollercoaster terrain. It bolstered me up steep inclines; balanced me down uneven slopes; gauged the depth of a creek so I knew how wet I would get if I fell in. It was a silent sidekick to our encounters with young bighorn sheep, who grazed nonplussed as we passed; a nervous deer that bolted from a meadow into the sanctuary of an aspen grove; and a panoply of birds, darting, circling and singing.
Despite nearly being forgotten every time we halted (for pictures or water or the treats that Wyatt knew I packed and he hadn’t had yet), the walking stick made it full circle. It waits to prove its worth to the next lucky person to ramble this way.