Saturday, September 16, 2017
Birch walking stick
It's hard to take a photograph of a walking stick. They're long and thin, so if you pull in close to show the detail, the top gnawed by a beaver, the smooth, sun-bleached texture of the wood, you miss the tapering length. Pull back to show the length, however, such as my stick nestling where it usually lives, tucked against a bookcase in my office, and you miss the cracks and knots and wormholes.
The stick isn't in the corner of my office today. It's where I found it, in 2011, along the shores of Lake Superior in Ontonagon, Michigan, tapping into the sand as I wander the shore, or scraping against a gravel road, or probing the forest floor.
The thing is a joy to carry. It is very light. Birch, I believe, bleached light gray by the sun and buffeted by the waves, though I took my Gerber knife and shaved off a few stumps of long-ago branches.
A stick is helpful for hiking, not so much for support—the stick might snap if I really leaned on it—but for balance. It provides a sense of where the ground is, as odd as that sounds. It's more like a metronome, counting out the beat, like a conductor's baton, guiding the symphony of a good hike. Thus lightness is important because otherwise its something you have to haul.
And I suppose, like a scepter, a hiking stick adds a bit of ceremony to what otherwise might be a simple walk. You take the stick, you're planning on putting in some serious mileage, in your own mind if not in verifiable reality.
I've thought about drilling a hole in the fat end and adding a leather cord, a loop that could go around my wrist. I've thought about burning a mark for each year I've come here to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—five this year. But that would take away from the pristine nature of the stick. The tip is split, and I worry about it splitting more, and have thought about taping it, or using something decorative—winding copper wire maybe. But in the end I leave it. If it's going to split it's going to split. There are other sticks, though I've never seen one as perfectly suited to its purpose as this one. It just feels good in your hand.
In the mornings, I wake up far earlier than the friends who gather there—my not drinking might be a factor here—and so pull on some rag wool hiking socks and my Keen boots, grab the stick and head out of the door of the little cabin—"Squirrel"—that tradition puts me in. Two routes. Either along the lake or down the drive, to the main road, through the trees and then veering into the woods themselves. The shore is sandier, so the footing is less sure, but has the advantage that it is impossible to get lost. Not so the woods. It's odd to be in actual woods, as opposed to the trails I'm used to in parks. Here you can indeed get lost, and I have. The phone is a blank blue grid, the road, a memory, somewhere over there. Or was it over there?
Just lost enough to focus my attention, orienting myself where the hell I am, and wondering if I'll end up blundering into the depth of the UP and God-forbid miss breakfast. But I always find the road again.
Anyway, if Trump did some godawful thing Friday afternoon, and you're wondering why you aren't reading about it here, it's because I spent seven hours driving up here with my friend Rory Fanning, a former Army Ranger turned anti-imperialist, who wrote a good book about walking across America to benefit the foundation of his unit mate, Pat Tillman. I'd tell you the incredible thing he does at the end of the journey, but that would spoil the surprise ending. Buy the book.
I've written about coming here, now and then, so won't belabor the point. It's good to love your routine, your work, your family and your regular life. And it's good to drop everything and get away, even for a few days, to a good place, with good friends, taking with you a good stick, if you have one.