Like most country kids from the old school, I grew up with a walking stick in my hand. Whether looking for the cattle or just hiking, a third “foot” made walking on our West Virginia hillsides a little easier. On really steep hillsides, I’d sometimes end up with a staff in each hand. A walking stick also came in handy for extending your arm when handling cattle (NOT beating them), putting the bluff on strange dogs and for killing the occasional copperhead. I never had to use one for that purpose, but I always felt a little better knowing that if I ever had to defend myself against man or beast, at least I wasn’t empty-handed.
Sometimes, we’d use native saplings for our sticks, but since we had a sawmill, our sticks were often stout edging strips from the mill. Frequently, there would be a collection of them leaning against the house outside the kitchen door, ready for any family member or guest. At times, you could tell if you had company by the strange sticks outside the door. Other times, you knew who they were because they brought their favorite stick and put it with the others while they visited.
When I was in my mid teens, my dad and I were working in the woods one day as the leaves were beginning to turn. As I grubbed out a dogwood tree by the roots, I noticed it was a good size for a walking stick. Rather than trim off the limbs, I left them on, so the leaves would continue to draw sap from the trunk. Leaving it at one edge of the clearing, I waited a few days until the leaves all dried up and then trimmed off the limbs. When I returned to the barn that day, I put a loop of baling twine on the root end and hung it up out of the weather. I left the bark on so the stick wouldn’t dry too quickly and crack.
The following summer, I cut the roots off with a bow-saw and cut the stick long enough that I had to raise my chin slightly to rest my chin on it. The bark had dried tight to the stick, so it had to be whittled off with my Barlow. I then rounded the “corner” around the top of the stick and kept whittling until all the saw marks from the bow-saw were gone. I didn’t sand it, but left the little facets from the knife cuts to show. I scraped all traces of remaining bark off the stick with my knife and then carved checkering on the bottom end for traction. I prefer a wooden tip over metal for my part of the country. Lastly, I rubbed some mineral oil onto it. It wasn’t white, but it was a lighter color than I really cared for, but it felt good in my hand.
That staff was a frequent companion until I eventually married a second time. During those years, it helped bring in the cows, aided my ascent of many a steep hill, was a steadying force when walking through the swift water of mountain streams and walked with me on many a mountain trail and woodland path. I had to recarve the checkering on the bottom end of the stick a couple times, and probably re-oiled it with mineral oil a couple times over the years. It had gradually turned a warm, toasty gold color. My hands sliding on and gripping the staff over the years had given it a slight sheen. Eventually, though, the cows were gone and my days in the woods were rare and getting rarer.
Eventually, I found myself working in a factory and friends with a fellow worker a few years older than myself. He was a millwright and had done a lot of “government work” for me over the years and I was always looking for ways to help even the score. After a knee operation, he was having some trouble getting around, and I decided to give him my walking stick. I told him its story and where all it had been and what it had done. I wanted him to understand how special the walking stick was to me, so he would realize how special his friendship was to me. I told him, mostly joking, that the Indians would consider such an item “good medicine,” and that if he took good care of it, it would take good care of him.
I inwardly shuddered when the first words from his mouth were that he should dip the top end in a bucket of rubber coating to give him a better grip. I smiled and told him that might ruin the “good medicine” and suggested he not cover up the hand-whittled top. A few months later, when I asked if he was getting any use out of the stick, he told me that he’d broken it weeks earlier PRYING ON A LOG! I could have strangled him! Lesson learned. Good medicine isn’t transferable to those with bad judgment. © 2013-