BEDFORD — Jim Hedrick and his fiancée Emma Carroll never take a walking stick when they go for a hike.
This is somewhat ironic — collectively, they have made hundreds of them.
As they admit this, it’s as if it’s the first time they’ve realized it, and they begin laughing.
“We just like looking at them,” Carroll laughs.
Hedrick has been making walking sticks at his home tucked away off U.S. 460 for five years. He has volunteered with the Bedford Area Welcome Center for 18 years, and a few years ago, his sticks caught the attention of someone at the welcome center, who asked to purchase some and sell them to visitors and residents.
Making the walking sticks is purely a hobby for Hedrick and he enjoys giving them away to people, but the welcome center insisted on paying for the sticks.
“They said, ‘We actually want to buy them from you,’ and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Hedrick said. “I said, ‘No, I’ll just give them to you and you sell them.’”
But Hedrick gave in and allows the welcome center to pay him a fee for the walking sticks, which the center in turn sells for about $20 each.
Hedrick used to put in 12 to 16 hours a week volunteering at the center. Five years ago, his wife, Cynthia, developed cancer, and he needed to stay home more to take care of her.
“To fill in time that I couldn’t really go anywhere, I developed hobbies around the house,” he said. He also turned back to woodworking and his love of walking sticks.
Cynthia died two and a half years ago.
Hedrick and Carroll met at church, and he proposed three months ago.
As it turns out, both were into woodworking before they ever met.
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Carroll has been making her own sticks for 20 years. She doesn’t sell hers, preferring instead to store them in her home in Hardy.
Hedrick calls Carroll his inspiration. He said he takes the wood and enhances its natural beauty, but Carroll carves art into her walking sticks.
She said she is trying to convince Hedrick to let her teach him how to carve designs into his sticks, and he said this year he may let her.
“She’s the artist,” Hedrick said. “She has really been, to me, my inspiration this last couple of years.”
The two have figured out a system working together in the shed and share tools and woodworking advice.
“It’s really neat because we’re both really into nature,” Carroll said.
When she walked into Hedrick’s house for the first time, Carroll immediately saw a piece of wood in his living room that had large round knots and a monkey head carved into the top.
She told Hedrick she collects that kind of wood and even makes her own and asked where he found it.
Hedrick said he got it in Alaska, where his love for walking sticks began.
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In 1967, Hedrick was drafted into military service and served in Alaska during the Vietnam War. He spent a lot of time outside hiking. He would go for walks and cut a limb off a tree to use as a walking stick. He especially enjoyed a special tree found in Alaska called “diamond willow,” which has diamond shapes in the bark.
Sometimes he would toss the sticks at the end of the walk or give them away to people.
“God makes the wood, he produces that limb on that tree, it’s his masterpiece, I just enhance it,” he said. “It’s his creation.”
It wasn’t until Cynthia, his wife, fell ill that he took up woodworking again and began to do more with the sticks than just cutting them off the tree.
Hedrick’s inventory is kept in his backyard. All the trees on his three-acre property are used for making the walking sticks. It’s as simple as that. Trees outside his house include maple, sugar maple, cedar and alder.
As he works in the yard, he can occasionally hear cars zipping by. But in the summer months, the fullness of the trees drowns out the noise, leaving him to work in peace. The singing of birds is the only music he needs as he sits scraping bark off the limbs.
A large shed holds a pile of limbs in the process of being dried out, a pile for those ready to be worked on as well as various tools and blocks of wood.
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Hedrick starts by sealing off the two ends of the branch, which keeps the wood stronger and keeps the sap inside the wood. Then he just lets it sit for a couple of months, depending on the wood.
Before ever starting on that piece of wood, he steps on it and bends it to make sure it won’t snap.
“If it breaks, it becomes firewood,” he said. “I want nothing out there to break.”
Once the wood dries out, Hedrick decides whether he wants to pull the bark off it or keep the bark on. Then he smoothes down the rough area and puts a sealer on the wood.
He uses sandpaper, steel wool or glass to make the wood as smooth as possible.
“Every piece is different, no piece is alike, and that’s why I like the challenge of it to see what it will come out looking like,” he said.
He hangs the finished product in the shed for about a week while it dries and decides if it needs another coat of wax.
Michelle Crumpacker, administrative manager at the Bedford Area Welcome Center, said Hedrick has been a wonderful volunteer and is a talented craftsman.
“We are a popular destination for all outdoor enthusiasts, so adding walking sticks for hikers or just for those who need a little stability for everyday strolls was a good addition to our selection of diverse items that we carry in the gift shop,” she said.
The sticks are beautiful, giftable, and stylish and no two are the same, she said.
“I love that these are unique and made right here in Bedford, Virginia,” Crumpacker said.