• Blog
  • April 10th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance



The late, great, hard-to-define, inscrutable, Leon Redbone (who was fond of taking Polaroid photos of his audience), grabb  ed me with his first recording popular among people like me who appreciate musicians who don’t conform to the norm—and God knows,Redbone was far from the norm. But he left the world with this bit of wisdom which has livened my life. As he told us in song , “if I ever left my house without my walking stick well it would be something I could never explain.”


Never mind that credit card thing, take Leon’s advice and never leave home without your walking stick. Mine is about 6 feet long, longer than recommended for a walking staff/stick (ideal is supposed to be a staff that reaches from the ground to your armpit), but I love it and would not be without it, not only for its varied uses, but for its intricate design. It is not carved at the upper end as so many walking staffs are, but has instead been decorated by the sharp bill of a woodpecker.


I don’t know what the bird was looking for, but when I left the staff outside, the hungry, bug seeking woodpecker drilled a neat hole and, possibly miffed at not finding a juicy morsel inside, ripped off a couple of chunks of the Eastern red cedar, and then flew off looking for greener pastures.


I harvested the staff from our woods which are a composite of Eastern red cedar, various oaks, hickorys and a few other trees that make up a typical mid-Missouri forest. Cedar is so dominant that we named the road into our place Cedar Grove Lane and would’ve named it Cedar Glade Lane except that somebody copped that name first for another road north of us.


Among the first things any diligent little Sunday school going kid learns is to memorize the 23rd Psalm, “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me….” There’s lots of cool stuff in that psalm. In case you have forgotten, it begins “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….” I’m not so sure that I want to be considered a sheep, in need of somebody to herd me, but I like that part about “shall not want.” I take that to mean that I won’t go hungry nor ever be without a good bird dog or in times when I may lust for one of Oscar’s French dip sandwiches, and a good quail hunt.


(Oscar’s, by the way, is a local restaurant which not only has outstanding French dip sandwiches, but also outstanding catfish dinners.)


Before we get to the walking staff part, the 23rd Psalm continues “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadith me beside the still waters.” While snoozing in a green pasture on a soft summer day can be pretty relaxing, I think I’d be careful to look around for deposits left by the pasture residents before lying down, and the prospect of still waters, possibly with bass or trout, is considerably more appealing than sprawling amid cow flops.


Anyway, back to the walking staff which, in the Psalm, belongs to the Lord, not to me. I’m just a sheep who needs herding with the rod (or possibly a good butt whipping) and protection from predators with the staff. Various Celtic tribes pioneered the use of walking sticks, possibly about the same time God did, at least 2000 years ago and since I have Celtic DNA (Scot Irish) I gravitated naturally to using a staff on rambles afield.


The Celts used their walking staffs for weapons and, according to one source, as a sort of primitive pole  for vaulting across streams and ditches. Druids used a staff as a leadership symbol often in religious ceremonies. “It was a form of status and the type of wood used depicted the rank of the person in the ancient tribes.”  Thus says one website on the history of walking staffs. Since cedar is one of the most ancient of woods, I would hope that my peckerwood scepter carries with it both status and rank, and perhaps the kind of magic properties nowadays most often performed in the hands of Harry Potter characters.


Early on, walking staffs became more elaborate with intricate carvings, mostly having to do with a story or mythology. I don’t know what kind of story my woodpecker was trying to tell, but I suspect it had to do with edible insects, and the bird gave it up because the story had no good ending.


John Muir said it best “the mountains are calling and I must go.” Muir, a Scot, and a former sheepherder is considered the Godfather of the National Park system and was Teddy Roosevelt’s prime advisor when it came to preservation of wildlands. He preferred to be called a saunterer rather than a hiker as did his predecessor and major influence Henry Thoreau. There are varying interpretations of the meaning of the verb “to saunter”–one proposing that it means to go to the holy land and another that it merely means without country.


Saunterers argue that hiking is merely going from one place to a destination, whereas to saunter is to pause and smell the flowers. Boiling it down, can you find morels by charging along with purpose? You need to use that (shall we call it a saunter staff?) To poke through the leaves looking for the elusive fungi. In a pinch, you can use your saunter staff to flip rattlesnakes out of the path, knockdown spiderwebs, and lacking rattlesnakes flip, those deadly little sticks that somehow otherwise would leap between your legs and send you sprawling.


I once wrote an article on walking staffs and a reader sent me a beautifully crafted staff for which I hope I thanked him profusely. The knob end was intricately designed by nature herself, featuring  aberrant protrusions that were perfect for fastening a leather thong through which I could fit my hand, like the grips on ski poles. It had a resemblance to the caduceus symbol of the medical profession. I used this staff for many years—actually abused it to the point where the tip splintered and the finish wore completely off. It has been retired, replaced by the woodpecker designed staff I now use.


I’ve been called a peckerwood more than once now it actually is an accurate description, at least of my saunter staff. A good percentage of hikers don’t use a staff but there are so many advantages to one that I can’t see why not. first of all, it provides stability. Rather than two feet, you now have a third  point of balance and the more decrepit one becomes, the more need there is for all the balance you can get (speaking as one for whom the description “decrepit” is discouragingly accurate).


A survival website called Survival Weekly offers a bunch of suggestions on uses for walking staffs, including using one to string up a radio antenna. Possibly this could be used to tune in late night jazz sitting around the campfire warding off the neighborhood timberwolves. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” I’ve never dealt with a savage breast before, but you never know— a little John Coltrane late in the night has untapped potential when that howling you hear just outside the firelight is not Miles Davis. However, it’s more likely that you will use your walking staff for things other than fending off aggressive critters in the wee hours.


I’ve never encountered a mountain lion or a ticked off grizzly bear while hiking, but depending on location it’s not impossible. However, even armed with my sturdy woodpecker-carved cedar stick, I’d be more comfortable with a can of bear spray and a .357 magnum revolver. Maybe I could just loan ursa arctos horribillis my iPhone ear pads for a little soothing John Coltrane? Except I don’t have an iPhone and ear pads. I don’t have a .357 magnum or bear spray either, but our mid-Missouri woods are so far devoid of apex predators—oh,we have the occasional reported mountain lion and once a timber wolf showed up in North Missouri, but I’ll take my chances with my woodpecker stick.


The most dangerous critter I’ve ever encountered was a striped skunk once. He seemed to know whose path it was and it wasn’t mine. I agreed and we carefully skirted each other and continued on our respective way. Once, on a ramble through our woods, I spied a cedar tree with claw marks above my head. If it was a white tailed deer buck rubbing its antlers, it was the biggest one in the history of deer. And if it was a cottontail rabbit nibbling, it had to of been at least as big as Harvey, the mythical invisible rabbit friend of Elwood P. Dowd, Jimmy Stewart’s best friend in the movie of the same name. My first thought was “bear!” That was years ago and I’ve seen no evidence since, nor any bear. But I have my stick.


One comment on the survival website says “use as a crutch, improvised paddle or pole, for signaling, a prop support for cooking, snake management, stringing an antenna for ham radio, a digging stick, temporary seat, rescue work, and many others.”


I can’t quite see the use of the saunter staff as a improvised pole. As a long-time canoe poler I can testify that unless you are more than 12 feet tall, your saunter staff will not be effective as a canoe pole—a typical canoe pole is about 12 feet long.


I use mine extensively in late summer during what I call “spider time.” That’s when the mature web builders of the forest decorate the trails with intricately woven snares to catch supper. I feel remorse every time I knock down one of these webs, but the alternative, is to face plant one dead center and while there is no peril from the non-venomous little arachnids, most folks, including me, dislike scraping sticky web out of their eyelashes. So, I hike the trails waving my staff in front of me like Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.


Leon Redbone died about a year ago, way too young at 69. “Oh the thing that makes me click on lovers Lane/would go for naught if I were caught without my cane.” Rest in peace, Leon. And rest assured I will not be caught without my stick.

Read More

1 Comment

  1. CJ

    April 24th, 2020 at 3:58 am


    And thanks for my birthday saunter stick! I love it!

Leave a Reply


By Joel M. Vance     There were a dozen couples grouped around a table in a nightspot, all of us on dates. I knew the guys but was only vaguely familiar with their girlfriends so I studied their names more assiduously than I ever did, for example, algebra. It would be horribly embarrassing to […]

Read More
View the Blog »


By Joel M. Vance   In a few days we will be celebrating Thanksgiving and doubtless there will be many reproductions of ...


By Joel M. Vance   Last week’s post was an attempt to avoid talking about or even thinking about the looming election. ...