I had a revelation while walking in the woods the other day: our shoes spoil us.
My husband has been entreating me to hike barefoot for years. “C’mon,” he says, “it feels great.”
No, no, I reply. It’s too hot, too cold, too muddy. The rocks hurt. What if I cut my foot?
My husband shrugs, “you don’t know what you’re missing.”
I’ve always kind of dismissed him. I mean, who wants to walk around barefoot? Shoes keep us safe. They give us traction and balance. And, less practically though no less true, we often choose them for their style. The shoes we choose reflect out preferences and personality. Who would even think to walk around without them, except for in our homes, or maybe at the beach?
And so it has been for several years that I have kept my feet swaddled in Smartwool socks, buoyed by the comfort of several-inch thick rubber soles. Until recently.
There was nothing particularly special about the day. Just out for a hike in the nice summery weather.
When we came to our first creek crossing, the choice was made for me. Several days of rain had produced higher than normal water levels. I’d be up to my ankles in the water, and with a couple miles left to go, soppingly, squishy wet shoes were not an option. They had to go.
“You’re gonna love it,” my husband said.
The first plunging step was cold and jolting. In the heat of the day, it was a blessing. The stones underneath were smooth and slippery with algae. I had to walk gingerly. Each step seemed a little uncertain, but it was thrilling. I felt each contour of the streambed on my skin. There was a burst of movement as something living spurted past the oncoming weight of my foot. How often had I tromped through unaware of the life underneath me?
Across the stream, my husband waited for me. He seemed surprised when I continued to walk forward on the trail instead of stopping to put my shoes back on. He raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything, so we moved on.
The section of trail we were on was smooth and even and sandy. The coolness of the forest surrounded us, and I appreciated that the aura of serenity was tangible underfoot. You know how you can smell the freshness and life around you while out on a hike? I know it sounds weird, but it was like that with my feet. The soil was a living presence. I stepped lightly to avoid disrupting the journey of the harvestmen that scuttled by, sharing the trail with me. And my steps were silent. I could sneak up on anything! I felt like a coyote. I felt really… connected to everything around me. “Your skin on the soil makes you more aware of what’s around you. You participate with it instead of walk through it,” my husband said.
We came to a muddy patch in the trail. Normally, I would have tiptoed through, trying to avoid the wettest spots, but now I plunged through uninhibited. The mud squished up through my toes. It was exquisite. It occurred to me that while spas may charge a lot of money for exotic beauty treatments that involved slapping mud all over their customers’ faces, not many folks would voluntarily dip their toes into a mud puddle. And what a shame! The feeling was joyful, whimsical, fun. “Walking barefoot grounds you,” my husband said, smiling at his own pun. He was right. Why should it matter if we get dirty? The dirt is where we come from, and where we will someday return.
The terrain changed, and we started to ascend upwards. Runoff from rains had degraded the trail, and the climb was uneven. There were larger rocks to step on and over. I was worried I would find traversing the way difficult, but realized that my balance was even better than it would have been with shoes. The contours of my feet hugged the obstacles beneath me. My toes instinctively curled around fallen tree limbs and debris. I felt like a cat. “Our feet were designed for this,” I heard my husband say behind me, “we didn’t evolve to wear shoes. We weren’t born with them on. We don’t really need them, we’re just used to wearing them.” And I suppose that is true. Undoubtedly, shoes provide some protection from the elements, whether that be jagged surfaces or cold temperatures. But when I reflected on the indigenous cultures I’d read about from around the world and across time, I realized that they really were mostly barefoot.
The last leg of the trail, the path changed entirely. Gravel had been spread across the surface, and the difference was shocking.
Ouch! Each step was a cascade of painful moments. My easy coyote stroll was replaced with a pinched, awkward gait. For the first time, I was looking off into the distance, trying to assess how much further we had to go. My husband grimaced next to me. “The worst places to walk barefoot are the places people go the most. Gravel. Blazing-hot asphalt. Shards of glass and other junk.”
He changed his tone, “We can’t necessarily change the way the world is. But we can adapt to it. You learn to take the bad things in stride. Encounters with adversity toughen you up. Every step you take makes you stronger, and one day, you’ll walk over the gravel without even thinking about it.”
I thought about this statement, how it applied to both life and feet. We arrived at the car. My feet hurt, and they were filthy, but I had made the trip. I thought about the little Amish boys we had driven past earlier in the day, how they had been running across their gravel driveway unflinchingly- laughing, as a matter of fact. I admired their innocent resilience. Callouses had never seemed so beautiful.
On the way home, I decided two things. First, I will go for more barefoot hikes. Second, I had married a pretty smart man.