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  Three Years Later

Other Adventures


Michael Sandler's talk was very helpful, but the thing he said that left the greatest impression on me wasn't even about running, it was an offhand remark he made that he had also gone hiking and backpacking barefoot. How had I never thought of that myself?! I had to try it, the hiking part at least, and that's just what I did. Several times over the summer while I was hiking I tried taking off my shoes and hiking barefoot for a while. When it worked, it felt great, but in the end I was forced to the conclusion that I could only do it under very specific conditions. The logic went something like this.

  • Here in the Rocky Mountains there are naturally a lot of rocks. For some reason, rocks a foot or two in scale seem to be particularly common, occurring both in small clusters and in large fields. Sometimes you can step around or between them, but sometimes you have to walk on top of them. In fact, I often do that even when I don't have to—once you're used to it, it's very easy to skip lightly from one rock to the next. So far so good. The trouble is, the rocks we're talking about are not round and smooth. In shoes I can plant the center of my foot right on top of any rock even if the top is a sharp edge or a point, but barefoot, well, I just don't see how it could ever work. Also, stubbing your toe against a large rock really hurts!
  • It's not just large rocks that are troublesome. I said in Walking Barefoot that it's possible to walk on gravel, but I forgot to mention that on large gravel it's only possible if you go slowly. At least, that's how it is for me, even now. And, guess what, natural gravel-sized rocks are very common on most trails here. Maybe one day my feet will become so tough that gravel doesn't bother them, but, again, I just don't see it.
  • Another thing I said in Walking Barefoot is that you have to watch out for poky things. That's not a huge problem on trails, but if you like to go cross-country sometimes, as I do, then yeah, it's a problem. I already mentioned thorns, pine needles, plant stems, and cacti, and now I'd like to add burs and pine cones. Also, you know how sometimes a stick will have a jagged stub where a side branch has broken off? And how those stubs inevitably seem to end up pointing upwards? It makes my skin crawl just to imagine stepping on one of those.
  • So, under what conditions can I hike barefoot? First, I have to be on a trail. Second, the trail has to be mostly free of rocks and large gravel; in other words it has to consist of packed earth or maybe sand. Ideally I'd know in advance that the entire trail was like that, but in point of fact I can't think of any trails that meet that condition. So, probably the best I can do is hike barefoot some of the time. It would annoy me a little to carry shoes along, and a lot to spend time putting them on and taking them off, but with Tevas or something it might not be too bad.
  • For tundra the conditions are different. Tundra typically doesn't have gravel or poky things, so the only question is how many rocks there are. If there are a lot, I have to wear shoes so I can skip from one to the next, but if there are only a few, I can go barefoot. In fact, when there's no trail I should go barefoot—that has to be better for the fragile tundra than clomping around in shoes.
  • However, it turns out that all these considerations (except maybe the part about tundra) are beside the point. The main reason I enjoy hiking is that I get to look around and admire nature, and when I was barefoot I had to spend too much time watching the ground. In fact, my attention was so focused on my feet that I felt like I was on board a submarine. First I'd travel a long way on instruments, then I'd stop, come to the surface, and see where I'd gotten to. The effect isn't entirely bad—part of why barefoot hiking feels great is that it requires your full attention and so is a kind of flow. It's just frustrating because it's not a kind of flow that includes looking around.

So, that's where things stand with hiking barefoot. It's not something I want to do right now, but I'm sure I'll try it again in the future. And, like I said, maybe one day my feet will get a little tougher or require a little less attention or something and the balance of logic will tip to the other side.

Although I haven't switched to hiking barefoot, the way I hike has changed, in two ways. First, because of what running barefoot has done to my calves, my ability to climb hills is now truly monstrous! Second, I realized that after the idea “bare feet are nice because they're lighter than running shoes” has mutated on the right side, to hiking boots, it can then mutate on the left as well, to running shoes. And it's still true! I've gone on several hikes in running shoes now, and it's definitely better; I have no plans to go back. On the contrary, I have plans to go forward—I decided to buy a pair of FiveFingers after all, but for hiking, not running, since among other things they're lighter than running shoes. We'll see how that goes! By the way, that's why I said “shoes” instead of “boots” the whole time in the discussion of hiking barefoot.

While I was hiking around on trails in my running shoes, for some mysterious reason the idea of trail running crossed my mind, so I tried that too. What I found out is, I don't like to run continuously because it interferes with looking around (for the same reasons that hiking barefoot does), but I do like to run in short bursts. If I'm going down a mostly clear trail, it's only natural to build up some speed; if I'm going up a steep section, it can be nice to gather upward momentum instead of starting anew with every step; and if I'm faced with a long flat stretch, well, sometimes I'm just full of irrational exuberance. The only problem is that to prevent my backpack from bouncing around, I have to pull down on the straps, and then I'm that much less ready to catch myself if I trip and fall. But, maybe that will change as I get better at running without being bouncy.

Now I'd like to turn from running and hiking to more mundane things, like picking up trash. I mentioned picking up trash in Walking Barefoot in connection with broken glass, but somehow I neglected to make the other connection, which is that when I go out on a trash walk, I almost always go barefoot. At first I wore an old pair of shoes, but that didn't last long. You see, I live near a creek and a ditch. The wind naturally deposits trash in both of them, so I often end up there, wading in the water and/or squishing around in the mud. In that environment, going barefoot is in addition to its other virtues simply more practical.

There's one other mundane thing I want to talk about. One unusually busy day this past summer, I wanted to get out for a barefoot run, but I also had to return a DVD, and I didn't have time to do both. After going back and forth for a minute, I noticed the obvious solution—run barefoot over to the video store! That was fun. Later I gave that more literal way of running errands another try or two, but in the end I decided it wasn't for me. At least, the running part wasn't. The barefoot part I liked pretty well, and now as a result when I go out on an errand walk, I usually think about whether I could go barefoot.

In retrospect, it was extremely fortunate that the video store had a drop box. I've gotten used to being barefoot in public spaces outside, but the idea of going into a store barefoot? Wow, it's almost unthinkable; the mental barrier is unlike anything I've ever encountered. If I'd had to go inside to return that DVD, probably I would have rejected the obvious solution and consequently never discovered the joy of running errands barefoot. Where did the barrier come from? Why is it so strong? Does it have any rational basis? Those are good questions that I'm totally not going to answer. I will say three things, though. One, I grew up seeing “no shoes, no shirt, no service” signs everywhere. Two, stepping barefoot on bits of food in a fast-food restaurant would be nasty. And three, in practice I avoid the whole issue by bringing a pair of sandals along and putting them on whenever I want to go into a store. It's a bit perverse, but that's where the flow of events has led me.

Finally, I'd like to point out an interesting fact about those sandals. They're dirty on the outside, as shoes normally are, but they're also dirty on the inside, because by the time I put them on, my feet are already dirty. So, let's say they're dirty/dirty. What about other combinations of clean and dirty?

  • dirty/dirty. Just for the record, yes, this category is nonempty. It includes shoes for running errands barefoot.
  • dirty/clean. Normal shoes fall in this category.
  • clean/dirty. When I come home after walking around barefoot (for whatever reason), I like to wash my feet, but I don't have any way to wash them at the door, and I don't want to track dirt all over the house. I eventually resolved the dilemma by buying a cheap pair of flip-flops and keeping them near the door for use only in that exact situation. Those flip-flops fall in the category clean/dirty. At first I wanted to call them anti-shoes since they protect the clean floor from my dirty feet instead of vice versa, but now I know they're just shoes of another kind.
  • clean/clean. I don't own any shoes in this category at the moment, but I know they exist. People often wear slippers around the house in winter to keep their feet warm. And, people in Japan do the same kind of thing, and not just at home. Even a school or an office building may have a genkan (entrance area) where one can change into uwabaki (indoor shoes, not necessarily slippers). That seems like a very civilized way of doing things!

I'm glad I thought about the categories separately, but now that I've brought them together I can't help noticing that all the examples follow a simple rule. Shoes are dirty on the outside if you wear them outside, and they're dirty on the inside if you wear them after going outside barefoot.

I'm tempted to say a few words here about socks and overshoes and different levels of cleanliness, but no, that's a good place to stop. Maybe in a few years I'll have more adventures to report.



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@ November (2011)