Monday, May 26, 2014

The Logistics of Using a Walking Stick when in the Brushlands and Desert

The late Colin Fletcher who wrote books about backpacking and hiking once noted that he never felt a wilderness trek had begun until he’d cut a branch at the head of the trail for his walking stick.  I gathered that Fletcher was of the mindset that no self-respecting woodsman was ever going to use a metal pole.  Those collapsing aluminum jobs screamed tenderfoot.  But aside from that it’s important to know that a wooden stick taken directly on site is far less destructive on the environment than a metal or plastic rod that requires either mining or drilling to obtain the raw material, then manufacturing (using even more energy) and finally must be transported (still more energy expended) hundreds or thousands of miles to a store or online customer.  A walking stick taken in the brush, on the other hand, expends practically no energy because if done correctly the severed branch (never a sapling!) will be replaced by more branches shooting upwards.  The process is called coppicing and it’s a good way to insure a steady supply of walking sticks.

Retama Walking Sticks

I’ve become a firm believer in walking sticks.  In the Brushlands and Southwestern deserts of the United States a staff allows a woods roamer to not only maintain proper footing when ducking under low brush or tromping across rocky areas but it also lets the hiker probe the ground ahead for venomous snakes.  Around these parts I’ve made walking staffs from a number of hardwoods that grow more or less straight.  My preference is to use lighter woods but I’ve made them from chaparro prieto (Acacia rigidula) as well as guajillo (Acacia berlandieri)—by the way, it’s pronounced gwah-hee-oh—and from granjeno (Celtis pallida) and retama (Parkinsonia aculeate) and even a couple using mesquite.   My favorite are made from granjeno and retama and if forced to choose my most favorite it would be retama because when dried it is both strong and ultralight.  You’ll usually find retama growing near ponds or in low-lying areas while granjeno (gran-hen-oh) occurs commonly throughout the drier upland regions.

If a rattlesnake happens to be coiled up it will start buzzing when the stick makes contact with the snake.  In effect, the cane serves as a good alarm system.  But as well limbs can be quietly moved aside using the stick thus eliminating the need to use a machete to clear a path.  It’s for that matter that I seldom use a machete when walking in the brush.  Machetes at work are noisy contraptions that alert game (and people) for hundreds of yards all around.  A stick, on the other hand, is stealthy and efficient.

I cap my walking sticks with a piece of PVC.  One of the sticks was capped with some copper tubing.

I look for branches that are about 1-1 ½ inches in diameter at the base and are as straight as possible.  Remember that the top of the branch will become the bottom of the staff while the bottom of the branch will be the top or handle section.  You can use a Swiss Army Knife’s saw to cut the branch but it’s important to coat the ends with some type of sealant as soon as possible.  White wood glue is my preferred sealant but lip balm, mud or even the sap from a nopal cactus works fine.  Leave the bark on until the branch is completely dry.  This is particularly important for retama that cracks if the bark is stripped off before the wood has lost a majority of its moisture.

                                             A mesquite walking stick

I used to make walking sticks about 54 inches long but have since downsized to about 48-49 inches in order to negotiate thick brush.  I’ve got a friend who stands 6’8” tall and for him walking through any sort of thick brush is a real chore.  Regardless, he needs a walking stick even more than I do because constant stooping is hard on the back unless you can help support your weight with a stick.  He, of course, needs a stick about 54-56 inches long otherwise the staff is simply too short.  In other words, you’ll have to gauge your needs depending on not only the terrain you traverse but also your height as well.  I just completed a stick for a lady who stands 5’1” inches tall.  Made of retama the stick is lightweight and just long enough to suit her needs.  She has a friend who stands an inch taller and she asked me to make her a stick.  A few weeks ago I found a nice branch pictured below that will make an excellent smaller walking staff.

The retama stick above is now fully dried and ready to be worked.

Retama is green when first cut.

In years past we used to obtain “walking canes” at the feed & seed store but these canes were used to keep nervous cows from crunching legs and ribs in a corral.  We’d attach an aluminum sleeve along the base to keep the cane from snapping if perchance we needed to coax a cow out of the way.  When I was in high school I worked a couple of cattle ranches on the weekends.  A lot of cow punching is done on foot and not on horseback like some would have you believe.  And most real cowpunchers don’t wear those pointy-dandy-ay tú dejame sonso, high heeled jobs that you’ll see in drugstores and maybe on the dance floor.  No, real cow scramblers wear tough, low-heeled, sometimes lace-up or dingy leather pull-ups built to take abuse and keep the vaquero from busting his back if he has to vacate pronto.  All of this brings me to another job for a good walking stick.  I recall once upon a time being in a corral with three very grouchy bulls.  My buddy and I were afoot and we’d managed to “coax” each bull into separate corners of the corral.  It was a precarious situation but it was at that point that I learned a valuable lesson about bull control.  There were several long canes of Arundo donax stacked in the back of the corral and for whatever reason I no longer remember I picked one up and held it straight up in front of me and leaning a bit towards the bulls.  I guess the bulls figured that the crazy kid in front of them had all of a sudden grown one great big horn.  “Damn,” they must’ve thought.  So they kept back and from that point on I learned that if I walk up to an ornery bull or cow in the brush I simply hold my walking stick up high and, like before, the bovines back off.  That’s a good thing to remember when things get dicey.

Old time feed & seed store cattle pokers

A couple of old walking sticks: The one on the left belonged to my Uncle John Peters and the one on the right belonged to my grandfather Longoria.

The walking stick below was once used by a little four-year old boy named Matthew who would walk with his grandfather around the yard.  His granddad used a cane so Matthew decided he wanted one too.  So the old man found a branch and fashioned an impromptu stick for his grandson.  Of course, Matthew’s daddy has kept the little walking stick in his shed all these years even though Matthew is now 26 years old.  Memories, you know.

My dad’s walking stick made from guayacan root.

PS: Once you’ve made a good walking stick then don’t throw it away.  When on the trail you can examine your walking stick and think back on past trips.  A mark or scratch will remind you of former treks.  A good walking stick tells a story of past adventures.  So keep your stick and let the trails write their own stories on the wood.  And then when you’re seated in your living room and wishing you were on some secluded path you can pick up your walking stick and note a mark here or a scratch there and let those times flood your mind.  Memories, you know.


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    1. Well, Mr. Barney, I guess I'd be passionate too (or quite upset) if I paid $70 American dollar bills for an aluminum pipe. The darn thing better work.

  2. Very impressive - I wish I had you as an uncle growing up in the valley. I was wondering if pine tar and bees wax would make a good seal for the Retama walking sticks.

    1. Yes, I was lucky to have had two uncles and a grandfather who were woodsmen and were willing to teach me what they knew.

    2. Forgot to answer the second part of your comment. Yes, pine tar is excellent. I've used it and have also used bees wax and that is perhaps even better.

  3. Great stuff. One note: In Colin Fletcher's day cutting a branch at the trail head might have been more environmentally friendly than a metal pole. The problem today is that some of the popular hiking places have so many people hiking them. If every person hiking in Yellowstone or Smokey Mtn. was to wack a branch off a tree or cut a sapling for a walking stick it wouldn't be long before there would be no branches or saplings. My idea is that everyone should buy one of your walking sticks and not harvest their own! Again, great stuff. Rich