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The Walking Stick


Bob Hyman

At 9,400 feet elevation, Mount Baden-Powell is the second-highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail leads from a trailhead on the Angeles Crest Highway at 6,500 feet to the summit. The trail is a series of steep switchbacks along the mountain's north face, with spectacular views of the Antelope Valley and the high desert areas to the north and east. From the summit, the hiker can view most of southern California from the mighty San Jacinto range to the Pacific coast. Few hikers, of the thousands who make the trek annually, know for whom the mountain is named until they read the plaque at the summit. To Scouts, of course, the peak is synonymous with our founder. In some ways, a hike to the summit and back is much like a journey over the Scouting trail, as the following story tells.

The sun was already high in the morning sky when I pulled from Angeles Crest Highway into the Forest Service parking area. A balmy pine fragrance floated on the crisp mountain air and Los Angeles seemed like a million miles away. I stretched momentarily before putting on my daypack. The trail to the summit was only four miles, but I knew I would appreciate the sandwich and jacket if I made it to the top.

I paused at the trailhead to read the National Forest posters before starting out. As I stood there, I caught a glimpse of the old man coming down the trail toward me. "Good morning, sir," I hailed, not wanting to startle him. He stopped, planted his walking stick firmly, and glanced up. He acknowledged my presence with a wave and carefully resumed the descent. I watched as he came down the last few treacherous steps of the steep trail and onto the pavement.

"Beautiful day for a walk," he said.

"Yes," I replied, "I'm really looking forward to it. Did you make it all the way to the top?"

"Why yes, I did," he answered. "It was really worth the effort. How about you, are you going all the way to the top?"

"I'm not sure," I replied. "This hiking stuff is new to me. I'll go up as far as my legs allow, then rest on the way down." I felt embarrassed that this old man could probably hike circles around me.

He looked at me and grinned. "You know," he began, "You might think that going uphill would be the hard part, and that coming back down would be easy. But it kind of works the other way around."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "Think of it this way. You start out all fresh and full of energy. The beginning - even if it is all uphill - is fun and easy. It's finishing the hike - the coming back down - that's difficult."

"I guess I never thought about it that way," I replied. "Maybe I should find an easier trail to start out on."

"Well," he said, "There are easier trails you might consider. But, then again, none of them are quite as rewarding as this one." I must not have looked totally convinced, because he continued on, "I wouldn't worry about it too much if I were you, though. You look like you're in fairly decent shape."

I still wasn't sure if he was serious, or just trying to ease my concerns. "Besides," he added, "There are plenty of other hikers on the trail this morning. It's not like you're out here all alone."

I glanced around the parking lot and felt comforted by the sight of other empty cars. "Here," he said, handing me his walking stick, "Take this with you. It'll help, especially on the way back down."

I looked closely at the stick. It was nothing more than a relatively straight section of an aspen sapling, about an inch or two in diameter and about four feet in length. Most of the mottled white bark was still attached. The numerous black blotches and chevrons along its length looked liked thousands of tiny signatures. The smooth handle was polished and well worn, and the bottom was cut and splintered from multiple encounters with hard unforgiving granite.

"Why, thank you," I exclaimed as I accepted the gift. "Did you make this?"

"No," he said. "In fact, someone gave it to me earlier, when I was first starting up the hill. Enjoy your hike."

He was right, the stick really did make a difference. I made it all the way to the summit without too much difficulty. And, just as he forewarned, the trip back down was indeed a bit trickier.

Thank goodness I had the stick to steady myself over the rough spots. I actually felt pretty good as I neared the bottom.

I really wasn't paying too much attention when a voice called out, "Good afternoon, sir." I stopped and looked out to see who was hailing me. There by the trailhead stood a young man, looking apprehensively up the trail. I waved to him. He watched me carefully as I made the last few steps down to the parking area.

"Beautiful day for a walk," I said.

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