Form and Function

Last week’s newsletter advised readers, via Cabot Yerxa’s “On the Desert Since 1913” columns, on how to use a stick to carry a rattlesnake home. So it makes sense to follow that up with his further thoughts on the value of a stick. He wrote the following after listing important items to carry for a walk in the desert (in addition to a lunch, canteen of water, knife, matches, magnifying glass, compass, and field glasses).

I wish to mention one more item of equipment, which is very essential and adds much to any walking trip. And that is a stick. Not a cane. A cane is not long enough nor strong enough. Also it is too straight. If you walk many miles, a straight cane becomes an irritation; because all about you, nature fashions things which are not straight. What you need is a walking stick of natural wood — for instance, manzanita, white oak, or perhaps greasewood.
A crooked walking stick has many uses. Carrying this walking stick creates a balance and swing to your walk, which greatly lessens fatigue. With it, you examine animal holes, overturn rocks, and find lizards or snakes in hiding. It will push away cactus or thorny brush and permit you to pass through without severe scratches or torn clothing. If a fire is needed, it will pull pieces of wood within reach; and as long as the fire burns down, it will enable you to keep the fire together. When the fire is no longer needed, with this you can push dirt over the ashes.
If you wish to sit down or to sleep, the stick will clean the ground of rocks or cactus thorns and miscellaneous brush.
Often on a walking trip, you will have water canteens, lunch, perhaps a camera, or extra clothing. In this case, stand the stick straight up in the ground and tie the neck handkerchief to it as a marker. Then you can safely leave your extra equipment and find them on your return. Things left on the ground in the desert are often very difficult to find again.
If extra clothing, canteens, or other things become heavy or burdensome, then swing them from one end of the stick on your shoulder like a soldier’s rifle. For a rest and change, put the stick across the small of your back and then loop each arm over this in the crotch of the elbows.
Tying a handkerchief to a stick was far from the only use of a square cloth, as Cabot wrote for Palm Springs Villager.
A red handkerchief ’round his neck is not something just to make a desert man or cowboy look picturesque. A big bandana is part of his equipment for the life he leads. With a good handkerchief, he can tie it tight around his neck in bad weather and receive much protection from cold and wind. It creates quite a noticeable degree of warmth. Paradoxically, in hot seasons, if tied loosely with the large part kept high on the back of the neck, close to his hat, the heat of the desert sun is modified and the blood stream kept cool as possible.
A red handkerchief is the towel of a man traveling light, performing its use as such and washed when opportunity offers. It is a napkin if one is needed. And for handling hot dishes or coffee pots at campfires, it is indispensable. If mosquitoes are a nuisance, the face can be protected in sleep. When the weather is too windy for a hat, the same handkerchief knotted up makes a practical head covering. In case of cuts, burns, or bruises, the handkerchief is available for bandages and can make a sling if one is needed. Should rest be necessary in the daytime, the handkerchief folded over the eyes induces sleep. As a tourniquet in cases of snake bites, it might save a life or retard the effects of poison until a doctor arrives.
A bandana is very practical as a marker for a camp in heavy brush and makes an excellent flag in running survey lines. On camping trips, money or watches tied in a handkerchief are kept free of sand and are easy to find.
I do not know of any greater joy than bathing the face with a wet bandana after a grueling day’s walk through deep sand on the desert. If there is enough water and soap, it can be used as a satisfactory washrag.
A large bandana spread over a small bush in the desert makes enough shade for one’s head to lie down and rest. When wet and used on wrist or back of neck, it will prevent injury from too much sun. While wet over bottles and canteens, the evaporation will keep the contents cool.
Bandanas spread flat on the ground answer as a table on which to play cards or place lunch.
When placed on a counter in a store with the four corners tied together, it will hold a surprising number of small articles and will not break like a paper bag.
When we consider how many things in modern times serve but one purpose,
it’s nice to know that we can still grab a stick and a square of cloth and be ingenious.