- Arts and Design
Whittling a Walking Stick with an Ol' Timer
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Interview with an Ol' Timer
High up in the hills of the blue mountains yonder lives an ol' timer by the name of "Toothless Jake" Goldbug. He's a bit of a hermit, and hard to track down, but I was fortunate enough to find him hard at work, whittling a new walking stick on the back porch of his one room cabin high up in the quaking aspen. He was furtive and a bit distrustful at first, but when I asked him if I could interview him about his passion for whittling, he warmed right up to me. Though he was a bit hard to understand, because, after all, he was toothless, Ol' Jake had plenty to say about whittling, and a few other things besides.
Me: Thank you, sir, for granting me this interview. What are you making there?
Toothless Jake: That there is a new walking stick. I gave my last one to Little Mary Silverthorn up in Prescott Pines. She's getting on in years and still traveling out back to do her duty late at night. I done tol' her she ought get plumbin' in as much as 20 years ago, but she had a mind of her own, bless her. I thought she might like something to fend off the snakes in the privvy and all. She blushed and said it were beautiful, and I'm glad she took it off my hands, cause she was a right pretty little lady back in the day, mind you. She had freckles and a smile. Oh what a smile she had. (Toothless Jake stares off into the distance.)
Me: What kind of wood are you making your walking stick from?
Toothless Jake: You gotta slow down to whittle. That is rule number one. First, find yourself a good piece of wood. Take a good long saunter down by the crick, or through an arrayo, but make sure it ain't gonna rain, cause a good downpour'll wash you plumb dead, if you get my meaning. The desert is a hard mistress, and very unforgiving. Your walking stick wood It can't be too long or too short. Fruitwood won't do, as it isn't hard enough. Pine is too soft. You need a good hardwood specimen. Desert Ironwood or a true, hardy mesquite will do rightly. Make sure you put on a comfortable broad-brimmed hat, and tuck a pair of gloves into the back pocket of your Levis. You'll need a comfortable pair of cowboy boots or work boots for your walk, and make sure to avoid doing your wood gathering in the dead heat of the afternoon. No need to tucker yourself out. If you go early, just before sunrise, your expedition will be right pleasant, and you won't find yourself withering in the hot summer air.
And don't go cutting down any living trees. They have souls, you know.
Me: That doesn't sound too difficult. Just walk into the desert and find some deadwood to work on. That sounds like fun.
Toothless Jake: Beg your pardon Miss, er Wannabe? It's a lot more treacherous than you might think. First your got your wild hogs. Those javelinas travel in packs, and if you get caught out after dark, they'll surround you. They have long razor-sharp tusks and a mean spirit. My Ass-er mule, that is-got frightened off by them mean suckers, and that wasn't the worst of it. There's all kinds of treachery out in the desert and low foothills of the Sonoran. Mind you don't walk out in the dark, because if a mountain lion or a pack of hungry cayotes don't grab you, then you might just fall into an old empty mine shaft.
Me: Oh dear, what did you do next?
Toothless Jake: Well, I didn't have my walking stick, see. It has many uses, but I done give it to my sweetheart, dear Mary Silverthorn. So it was just me, my ancient six shooter, and my Bowie knife out there in the desert. I heard the cayotes start their ghostly yelping and howling, so I limped on home without the aid of my ass, er, mule. Fortunately, I'm tougher and meaner than any of those ol' cayotes. so no harm were done.
Me: So about your walking stick, what did you do after you collected the wood?
Toothless Jake: Tools for whittling don't need to be complex. Just a knife, a good piece of wood, and a place to sit on your front or back porch. But a view of the blue mountains yonder does seem to help some. I like how the trees break up across the ridge line there over the rise. I can see a deer or two bounding over the hills and watch the stars shine down on the hillside. Its real calming. I like it up here in the quaking aspen, high above the hills of the blue mountains. Most people don't know about this place here, and I like to keep it lonesome like. It's good for my soul, and my arthritis, and my heart condition. Just me, and my ass, Nero, and my skulking good fer' nothin' hound dog Boondogle.
Me: (Growing somewhat impatient) That's really philosophical, sir, but what about whittling that stick there?
Toothless Jake: Some folks say that whittling is all about coaxing the perfect inner soul out of a piece of raw timber, no matter how gnarly rough it is on the outside. Mind you, I do believe that is why whittling makes perfect sense to us cowboy poets, rough riding souls under the western skies.
First you strip off the bark, using the flat cold blade of your Bowie knife. You have to be right careful. Slow and methodical. See my finger there? Yes, the one that's missing a big piece off the top. That's what happens when you whittle too fast. That happened last time I was whittling. That was before dear Mary Silverthorn. Bessie Lowdown was my girl then. She was more demanding than my mule. I left her out near Dead Cow Canyon with a side of beef right on the campfire. She said my beans were over cooked and knocked the teeth right outta my mouth. I like my women spunky, but no one, and I mean, no one, criticizes my beans. They won the dutch oven cookoff 12 years runnin'. Why that Bessie Lowdown was as cold as a reptile and just as venomous, and even quicker to strike you dead. You can't have everything. Last I heard she took up with some religious group out in Utah. No she weren't the girl for me. Good riddance, for all I care.
Me: Uh, sir?
Toothless Jake: Yes, yes...whittling. After you strip off the bark, the real fun begins. I find it real helpful to have something gritty to rub against the wood, like sandpaper. Some people say that's cheating a bit, but even us ol' timers have to have our modern conveniences from time to time. Well, you just rub that sandpaper nice and slow, all over that wood. Get a heavy grit at first, but if you're good an' patient, soon you'll be rubbing that walking stick with a piece of sandpaper that's as smooth as silk. You want to pay special attention to the place where you'll be gripping your stick.
If you have some bees wax or some linseed oil, that polishes 'er right up there at the end. You get a nice sheen on your walking stick that way. Course, you might not want to dandy yer walking stick up too much if you're just gonna use it to bushwhack snakes and cayotes and the occasional bandit. But if you want something to impress the dandies out Wickenburg Way, you know those fellers who act like cowboys but can't tell nary a mule nor a mountain goat, well I saw one of those fellers with a dandy fine walking stick. it had a top mount of fine semi-precious blood red jasper, as big as an egg right on top for the handle. That were a fine walking stick indeed. But for me, I like to take a strap of good leather I've been working on, usually something leftover when I'm tooling me a new pair of boots or a saddle or some ought, and I wrap the hand of my stick nice and clean. Gives a good grip and saved me several times when I was beating off those desert predators...
Me: Uh, Sir? I'm sorry to end the interview, but speaking of desert predators, it's getting kind of late, and...
Toothless Jake: Oh, now, deary, you're not skeered are you?
Me: No sir, but...(A coyote howls from the top of a nearby ridge). I better be getting on. Thanks for the interview.
Toothless Jake: No problem deary. Now perhaps you ought to borrow that walking stick there? For pro-tect-shun.
Me: No, thank you. I'll be all right. We're not too far from the city here, after all, and I left a geo-cache at the end of your driveway. I expect someone will be showing up any minute.