Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hiking Sticks

Since several of my readers remarked on how those of us hiking in canyons all had sticks, I thought maybe it was time to introduce you to my favorite hiking stick.

I’m the guy in the photograph to the left at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. This was a few years ago when I still had hair. With me is my favorite hiking staff and have just completed the trail. The stick leaning against my shoulder had traveled almost the entire route. I had set out the AT several years earlier. After my first hike, I decided I needed a good stick. In a swamp on the north side of the Cape Fear River, I cut several possible young trees. These I skinned, then hung so that they would dry. After a few months, I choose an eastern holly to be my staff. It was strong and lightweight. Over the next 2100 miles, the stick and I traveled together. And in this period it probably lost 5 or 6 inches off its bottom as it wore down from constantly striking rocks. Over a period of three years, I hiked the southern 800 or so miles of the trail, from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the beginning of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Then, after going to grad school, I took a summer off and hiked from Virginia to where the trail ends, on the summit of Mt. Katadhin in Maine. After being on the trail for nearly three months, I’d lost all my excess fat and was as lean as I’ll ever be despite my diet that included 4 pounds of M&Ms every 10 days.

I was living in Virginia City, Nevada two years later. One Saturday in late fall I hiked across the Virginia Range. At a break, I left my stick. By then the stick had probably covered more than 2500 miles of trail along the Appalachian Trail as well as in Idaho and Nevada. I didn't realize I had left my staff until an hour or so later and it was too late to go back as darkness was descending and I still had a few miles and a long climb and descent before getting back into town. I planned to retrace my steps the next weekend in the hopes of finding the stick, but it snowed that week. The mountains were never completely snow free until late spring. Although I made other trips across the mountain that spring and summer, I never found my stick. Today, the stick that held me up, defended me from bad dogs, encouraged snakes to get off the trail, and was available to slay dragons and part the sea had the need arose, is recalled only in my mind and in pictures.

And yes, I am making a toast at a celebration on Katadhin. Three of us finished the trail that day. My sierra cup contains Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch. The other two hikers also had refreshments—one a bottle of champagne, the other a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Crème.


  1. You feel humbled? Hiking the Appalachian trail is one of my life goals that will probably remain unrealized.

    Wow Sage

  2. You rock Sage! What an amazing experience that would be...Also consider that hair is highly overrated. Very sad about your stick though....I can understand that feeling of losing something that holds so many short, it sucks.

  3. Sage with hair?!?! I can't stop looking at it.

  4. During a golf course expansion, a huge pile of young hickory saplings had been uprooted and after about twenty minutes of gnawing through one with a tiny pen knife that I happened to have, I freed six feet of a particularly straight one. I've had it for about fifteen years now and like yours, it is a little shorter but has seen me through many miles. It is still downstairs in a corner. I hope I have it for many years to come.

  5. Pia, don't give up on your goal! When I retire I want to complete the Pacific Crest Trail.

    Oz, although I miss the staff, I lost it in the fall of 1988, so I've gotten over it.

    Murf, you know I said that this was a few years ago, it was more like 2 decades ago!

    Ed, hickory makes a good stick. Holly, however, was unique--it's very light colored, except on the handle which became dark with oil from my skin.

    The stick also served other purposes such as holding up one end of a tarp, converting my backpack into a recliner, etc.

  6. I still can't believe that part of hiking may mean going through water waist high and you have to continue on while wet. I assume that is more fun than it sounds.

  7. Holly stick are definitely unique. I have yet to see one but I have heard about one... now.

    One of my favorite uses for the old walking stick is when you are bushwacking after a rainstorm. I use it to tap off the excess moisture from low hanging tree limbs and bushes before brushing past.

    My dream has always been to do the Continental Divide Trail.

  8. Wow, that stick was like a walking journal of your travels. Sorry you couldn't retrieve it. Maybe someone else picked it up and walked on. here from Michele's.

  9. Murf, it's the adventure of it all, for often the water is near freezing. I have also been through canyons where I had to swim since the water was so high.

    Ed, The Continential Divide is supposedly the toughest of the "big three." I have a friend from UT who is doing it in chunks. The holly that I used was from the SE swamps, it grows like a tree and has a straight trunk. I'm not sure of its distribution outside the coast plains.

  10. Wow. Only 4 pounds of M&M's every 10 days. You're my hero!

    Hello from Michele!

  11. Adventure? What a guy thing. :-) While I know there are females that do it, is hiking a predominantly male thing?

  12. There may be a few more men than women who hike, but I wouldn't say it's predominately a male sport. I've hiked with some incrediable women--one I remember smiled all day as we walked through the remenants of a hurricane in the southern Appalachians. Most guys would have been complaining, but she was great fun and her attitude kept me from complaining about the obvious (probably my macho side coming out).

  13. Thanks for that pic...It's the closest I'll ever get to that peak!

  14. What a great journey, Sage. I can't imagine hiking that far.

    My dad had a walking stick he kept with him for years, and used when he went camping. He didn't hike quite so much, but since he was getting older, it kept him steady.

    It was just an old pine branch he found one year that was unusually straight, so he cut it the length he wanted, sanded it down a little to smoothed it out, wrapped a leather strap around the handle end good and tight, and kept that thing with him for probably 20 years. By the time he stopped camping, it was slick as laquer, and he'd put a nice metal cap on the end to stop it from grinding down.

    Have NO idea where it is today, which, after reading your post, is kinda sad.

  15. Great stick, great pic and what a great adventure for you. I really DON'T like to say this but, maybe some day!

  16. Sage, that pic brought back lots of memories. While I have never hiked large portions of the Appalachian Trail. I have hiked to the top of Katahdin a number of times and am always wowed by it each time. Just curious, did you by any chance hike any of Knife's Edge up there?

    And that was a bummer to lose such a walking stick that had been with you through so much.

  17. Tim, I hiked a way out on the knife edge, but didn't go across it. However, I've been on other knife edges since. My only trip to Katadhin was at the end that that hike in 1987.

    Helen and Poopie, the two of you ought to get together and hike.

    Mike, sounds like there are some stories in your father's stick too, even if the stick is just a memory today.

  18. This is very inspiring for me to tackle all the trails in my new home of Britsh Columbia.... I got a sense of balance in your life too from the post... eating 4 pounds of M&Ms is ok as long as one knows they have to balance the indulgence with a good energetic hike... celerating reaching a peak with a drink and a picnic is sooo fun, I cant wait for Spring now!

    Michele sent me...