From inanimate object to treasured companion, The Stick enchanted our family camping trips.
It was a plain stick the diameter of a young person’s pinkie. About four inches long, it was stripped of bark and whittled at both ends into dull points. It was known simply as The Stick. And over the years no one ever presumed to give it any other name.
My young daughter, Sarah, found it in the dirt around a wilderness campfire grate. We briefly wondered what could possibly have been the use of this curious object. Or was it idly whittled just to pass some meditative camper’s time? Whatever the case, the stick soon found a purpose, one that lasted four decades.
The morning after its discovery we were boiling water for coffee in a cook-kit pot. By lifting the lid via a small, floppy metal ring, we could check the progress of the boil. Except the lid and ring were often too hot to touch. We tried a fork, but the spaces between the tines were too thin to fully engage the ring. Then we spied the stick on the rock where my daughter had left it. It slid through the ring and lifted off the lid as if that were its preordained destiny. From that moment forward, The Stick joined us on every camping trip, an item as essential as gorp.
Before each trip, as we consulted the inventory checklist for the utensil container, The Stick, at the top of the list, was the first to be confirmed. Over the years it evolved into something of a talisman whose company seemed necessary for a successful trip.
For 40 years in countless primitive campsites from grizzly country in Glacier National Park to moose country at Isle Royale National Park to black bear country in Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters, The Stick faithfully tended to our morning coffee pot. It was steadfast through family changes, failed camp stoves, and sticky-fingered grandkids who were not yet initiated into the cult of The Stick. Whether beneath a smiling sun or huddled under a sagging tarp in a grim, chilling rain, we depended on The Stick to spare us burned fingers as we greeted another day with a ritual as formal as a Japanese tea ceremony.
This past summer, while washing camping utensils after our most recent venture into the wilderness, we discovered The Stick was missing. My wife, Barbara, and I shook out every backpack, every Duluth pack, every sleeping bag. Nothing. Too devastated for even perfunctory finger-pointing, we had to conclude the inevitable: We had left The Stick behind, resting on one of the rocks surrounding the fire grate. Just where it had been found a long time ago in a campsite far, far away. We had lost the icon of our wilderness awakenings, the patron saint of our transition from dark to light, from night to day, from sometimes
dream-troubled sleep to all the possibilities alive in a fresh morning.
And now we had to tell the children and grandchildren. We had to own up to our own irresponsible carelessness after so often chiding them about cavalier treatment of camping gear. They gasped in disbelief and groaned at the realization that our camping lives would never again be the same.
Consoling ourselves, we mused about how long The Stick existed before we’d found it 40 years ago. How many campers had found a use for it since its fashioning? How many campsites had it visited with those happy campers? Whatever its history we came to realize that we had never “owned” The Stick. We just had it on loan to enjoy and treasure for a span of time before it passed into other appreciative and imaginative hands.
As for the future, we speculated about how far and how long the travels of The Stick might last. And we felt privileged to have held on to it for so many years.
Of course, there is no guarantee that some future campers, as dusk falls over their campsite, might consider The Stick to be perfect kindling. If that should happen, may that campfire warm their hearts, lift their spirits, and light their way to both good humor and humble reflection as The Stick always did ours.