LivAbility Magazine

Edition 20 | Spring 2020

An older white man, in his 60s, sits on a rock outside in the desert. In the background of the photos are two Saguaro cactuses. The man finds dead cactuses and makes canes/walking sticks for hiking from cactus bones. The man is looking off into the distance and wears a tan t-shirt and holds a handful of various walking sticks that he has crafted.
Photo by Shane Crowe

Oftentimes, the Earth provides an adaptive aid

By Shane Crowe

Desert trails can be treacherous, even for the most seasoned hikers. Many find sticks and branches along the trail to aid in navigation of these rocky, narrow paths. Mark Zipfel has taken to crafting specialty hiking sticks out of the ribs of fallen saguaro cactuses to better traverse the terrain.

“I started hiking when I moved here about 20 years ago,” Zipfel said. “I was exploring new trails and some of them got a little difficult and tricky. I saw a dead saguaro branch laying on the ground, and I thought ‘I’ll use this to walk.’”

Over the years, Zipfel has crafted a variety of walking sticks with different lengths and grips for his needs regarding specific trails.

“I have neuropathy really bad in my right leg, especially in my right foot,” Zipfel said. “My right foot gets pretty numb, so I don’t really feel the ground.”

Zipfel is also blind in one eye, so he uses his sticks not only to assist with his footing, but for assistance with his depth perception. Both factors are key to navigating steep hikes like Camelback or Piestewa Peak.

Various cactus bone walking sticks.
Photo by Estefania Cavazos

“The process begins with me finding a saguaro that has died,” Zipfel said. “Some of the green has fallen off some of the branches, some of the ribs are exposed. So I, along with many, many other people tend to go break off one of those ribs.”

A saguaro rib can be anywhere from 10 to 20 feet in length and must be pared down depending on its intended use.

“Once I get them out of the ground off the saguaro, I try to break them off to a manageable eight, seven-foot size,” Zipfel said. “Then I bring them home to my shop, which is on my balcony, and I sand them first and cut away parts of the rib that are little bulky or too much for what I want for the walking stick.”

The sticks are then stained and varnished, as well as fitted with a grip that can be made from fabric or pieces of a more porous cactus bone.

Zipfel began utilizing the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center when it opened to help with his neuropathy.

“I knew that I wanted to work out, and I wanted to get involved with the gym and keep active,” Zipfel said, “because that way when I do get sick again, I will be in a better physical state to rebound more quickly.”

In addition to staying in shape, Zipfel also volunteers at Ability360, assisting two stroke survivors to complete various exercises. Zipfel saw his two worlds come together when those around him at 360 began to notice his craftsmanship. Like, Luke Rumbyrt, a personal trainer at Ability360.

Rumbyrt requested a personalized stick that was about trekking pole height.

“He put a little bead and teddy bear cholla and some extra stuff,” Rumbyrt said. “He just really took his time, he varnished the whole thing, so it’s not going to splinter or break at all.”

The stick is sturdy, lightweight and always garners a few compliments while out on trails, according to Rumbyrt.

Many have asked Zipfel if he sells the sticks and his answer, until recently, has been, “Unfortunately, no.” However, he was recently asked to be a part of the Tempe Sixth Street Market, occurring every Sunday from November to April.

“They told me that if I were to have space every Sunday, that they have nothing like that there,” Zipfel said. “I just need to get set up for that; however, there are only so many saguaros, so I don’t want to get too big. If I got too big, it becomes a manufacturing plant. That’s not me. I’m doing this because I love it, and it helps people.”

Subscribe to LivAbility

Shane Crowe

Shane Crowe is a senior at Arizona State University where he double majors in journalism and digital culture. Shane was born in Phoenix, Arizona and enjoys camping, making music and pursuing creative projects with his friends. He hopes to one day stick to a regular exercise schedule.

Read more by Shane Crowe.