Evolution of a Hiker
In search of a hiking staff worth sticking with.
I picked up my first hiking staff somewhere along about 1974 in the mountains of Pennsylvania; it was made of alder.
At the time I was stumbling around a very rocky portion of the woods; it was May and I was turkey hunting. I spied the arrow-straight stick lying there on the ground and fetched it up to help me along my way.
I still have that stick today. I added a 12-inch section of quarter-inch-thick ceramic-coated steel rod to the tip to make it an ideal length for me. Today that stick resides in the bowels of my camper, ready to be called upon at a minute's notice.
While in Pennsylvania, I tried other stick material of one sort or the other, but none came up to the standards of that first one when it came to utility. One "friend" even tried to secretly "appropriate" it from me, but I caught him!
It was my only staff until I moved to Grant County some 25 years ago. Out west, I've used more than that stick with varying degrees of success as I constantly tried to find the perfect one.
I have a few requirements in a stick that must be met. First, it must be as straight as possible with a length somewhere between six and seven feet (I'm six foot, two inches tall). I prefer a light stick in weight, well-dried and cured, about two inches in thickness at the handle and one to one and a half inches at the tip. It must be strong.
But these factors eliminate oak and other really dense hardwoods, simply because they weigh too much and can be unwieldy. I found box elder and juniper good for my purposes.
My first attempts at improving the staffs imvolved drilling holes in the center of the tips and gluing in a 16-penny nail minus the head. That enabled the stick to not slip on uneven or slippery ground, and thus, I did not slip or fall, either.
But the metal tip was noisy when it hit pebbles, stones or rocks, giving away my position to wary wildlife. So I switched to screwing into the tip a hex-head lag bolt a quarter-inch in diameter with a steel washer of the diameter of the wooden tip. That worked really well but still was noisy. In both cases, the metal tips prevented wear of the wooden tip.
My next move was to a stout broom-handle of six feet in length; it had the bonus of having a foam-rubber handle and it was strong and lightweight. Of course, I added the bolt and washer plus attached a length of rope for a handle, secured by good old duct tape — pretty, no! But the rope enabled me to sling the stick and keep my hands free when I didn't have need of it.
That staff usually resided in the back of my pickup.
But I still wasn't satisfied in my search for the "ultimate staff." That's when I discovered yucca stalks. For everyday hiking around my property, I settle on a yucca stalk; it is both light and strong and I have no problem in finding straight ones of any length. It is also stout enough to deliver a painful blow if needed.
It was seven feet originally, but over the years it has diminished down to five feet.
I used one stalk for over five years, until one day I leaned it against the garage between the doors, and it fell and I unknowingly backed a tire over it. To its credit it didn't break, but it was severely weakened, and even with a heavy wrapping of that good old duct tape, it wasn't trustworthy any longer. Sigh.
I like the stalks to be a year old and well dried and cured. I then sand the upper portion to get rid of splinters and install two rubber feet on the tip: One is the diameter of the tip and glued to it; then another larger one is slipped over the first and glued with silicone.
That arrangement worked fairly well — that is, until I kept getting minuscule splinters in my hand, and somewhere I lost the tips. Oh, well.
So for the past 39 years or so a single, stout staff has served me well as a third leg and I never needed anything else, but evolution with age goes onward. Awhile back sometime, I wrote another column about staffs, and a wife of a friend of mine asked her husband why I didn't use two sticks. So he relayed the question, and I replied I didn't need two of them. Secretly I thought, "Two sticks are for girlie-men." I would soon eat those words.
In fact, the subject was all but forgotten until I read a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I found that all of the "professional hikers" used two sticks, made of either aluminum or carbon fiber.
I still shrugged off the idea, until I suffered a life-changing injury totally unrelated to hiking but still debilitating. I labored to move uphill; a mile seemed like eternity and the injury was sapping me of energy and will.
That's when I asked myself, Why not two sticks?, remembering that woman's question. So I took my two yuccas and cut them to 40 inches — voilà! The next hike was much easier and I actually did two miles! I had found near nirvana! The two sticks made a tremendous difference; I could actually look about as I hiked while not having to stop to do so. If I slipped, one or the other stick steadied me.
But I had a problem with those yuccas: I still absorbed micro-splinters, and the left one kept slipping from my grasp. It was time to evolve to "real" staffs — "trekking poles."
I phoned my friend (husband of the question asker) and asked his opinion, since he obviously used two trekkers. Right away I was both shocked and dismayed that these critters cost big bucks! Too much for my meager budget.
But my friend had a solution: He had two that he no longer used, made of aluminum, adjustable, with cork handles and, best of all, at the right price!
I was in front of his house almost before he could hang up the phone.
Length for length, they are heavier than the yuccas, but the cork handles mean no more splinters; they have straps, too, so they cannot slip out of my hands, a welcome addition. The tips have metal rods and they are noisy and they stick in the mud, but those are minor annoyances. I can look around as I hike and I've managed to cut a bunch of time off of my old limits.
I've used them for four months now and can find no real faults with them. I seldom go on a hike without them. Oh, yeah, and being a "girlie man" be danged!
As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may The Forever God bless you too!
When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner hangs up his trekking poles in Silver City.