The emperor's new shoes

Jan 27, 1999 at 12:00 am

It’s an unlikely day for hiking, but this is an unlikely hike. It is early January, a damp 40 degrees; my body is wrapped in three layers, my hands stuffed in gloves, my head amply fleeced. And my feet? Bare, naked as the day I was born.

I am thinking of Tyvek. Not the industrial fabric, but Tyvek, the man, the legend. If the rumors are true, Tyvek is the "trailname" of a mysterious character said to have walked the entire Appalachian Trail in bare feet last year. If true, then Mr. aka Tyvek put in some 2,160 shoeless miles, earning him the title of Sole Man ’98 in my books.

Tyvek: durable, water-resistant, and – at least for this instant – my trailhead hero.

But I should watch my mouth. Words like "hero" don’t play well in barefooting circles, where simplicity is only natural and machismo is thin on the ground.

"Barefooting doesn’t have much of a conquistadorial element to it," says Richard Frazine, the Connecticut-based author of The Barefoot Hiker. "In terms of getting in touch with nature, this is an intensive experience rather than an extensive one."

Barefooting strikes some as odd or even abhorrent, but it is also an obvious metaphor for our disconnection from the earth – we are almost always separated from the soil by at least half an inch of shoe leather. Bare feet, we’ve decided, are fine for the Third World, for hippies, for children who should know better, for the "barefoot and pregnant" on Jerry Springer. The rest of us keep our feet dead to the world.

Frazine’s now-out-of-print 1993 bible of the bare reawakened the podiatric nerve endings. There are now at least a dozen barefoot hiking groups across North America. The oldest way to travel is suddenly new again.

Frazine, a 50-ish self-declared conservative, continues to help others take the path less traveled. Among them is Mike Berrow, who founded the East Bay Barefoot Hikers in San Francisco in 1995. Probably the most successful in America, the group now boasts a 40-person phone tree, with 10 to 15 people showing up for hikes once or twice a month, year-round.

With its mild climate, liberal population and ready access to trails, San Francisco is a mecca for barefooting. Still, baring your sole isn’t steeped in "radical" tradition, Berrow argues, adding that even in the age of extreme sports, the angry young barefooter is rare.

"We’re not masochists," he chuckles. "We just like feeling the textures of the ground."

In many ways, it’s an extension of every child’s love of mud between the toes. For "the shod" (barefooter jargon for "people who wear shoes"), leaving the Nikes at home can open a whole new window of awareness. Even on familiar trails, the experience of soil underfoot is a jarring reminder that we too often leave our sense of touch at home.

Like skiers dreaming of champagne powder, many barefooters can name their favorite trail conditions.

For Frazine, a skiff of snow in the warming spring air is a "must-do" delight. For others, it’s mud and moss, or autumn leaves that stain skin the color of scotch.

Berrow comes alive with the memory of a trail in the New Jersey Pinelands – 15 miles of soft sand, pine needles and bog. "I met some people walking with shoes on there and I just thought, ‘You idiots! You don’t know what you’re missing!’" says Berrow.

Chances are, the shod hikers had a very clear sense of what they were missing: stubbed toes, biting insects, soil-based diseases, sore feet, glass, sharp stones, cold, social stigma.

But the barefooters have answers. They have studies that show going barefoot strengthens the feet, ankles and knees, encourages good posture, and prevents bunions, bone spurs and athlete’s foot. They know a carefully placed foot can tread over glass without harm. They know bare feet may get dirty, but not sweaty or foul.

"I would rather take 100 steps barefoot and have the one-hundredth step hurt than take 100 steps with my feet in a puddle of foot sweat with the toes compressed. For me, that’s the trade-off," Berrow explains.

The social stigma is real, though, especially for those barefooters who remain shoeless even in the urban jungle. Most can recount wisecracks from passers-by, if not an encounter with "the shoe police" in a local restaurant or museum. But they endure.

When I caught up with Marian Rosenberg, she had just finished one semester at Washington College near Baltimore, going barefoot 24-7. In fact, the 17-year-old hadn’t gone shod for 11 months.

"I’m bloody-minded stubborn," says Rosenberg, adding that she began barefooting as a sociology project in breaching societal norms. "At the end of the week all I could find were my high heels, and I said, ‘I’m not putting those on!’"

It was Rosenberg who told me about Tyvek, in whose footsteps she followed when she joined other barefooters for a pilgrimage to the Appalachian Trail. The group tackled the Massachusetts section, including a climb to the state’s 3,491-foot high point, Mount Greylock, a monadnock rising out of a forest of maple, beech and birch.

As I speak to Rosenberg, the Massachusetts nights are growing long and crisp, and snow threatens. She’s starting to contemplate a little time in shoes – or maybe moccasins. But soon enough, she says, it’ll be back to bare feet.

"I like it. It’s notorious; it’s cool. It’s just another way of saying, ‘I’m me, I don’t give a damn what the rest of the world thinks.’"

And so I take my first few steps, following advice to place my feet straight down, rolling lightly from the heel to the ball of my foot. One small step for man, one giant leap for ... damn this mud is cold! But the chill fades remarkably fast, replaced by the cool of moss that wraps each step like the perfect insole.

Before long I’m seeking out new textures, even deliberately squinching across a sharp stone or pocket of gravel to scratch an itchy instep. The straight-down step, which sounded unnatural, turns out to be a nearly automatic protective response.

My greatest difficulty is balance – I stagger up a steep series of rock shelves, my body overreacting to each foot’s microadjustments to the terrain. Even a shard of glass isn’t disconcerting: The foot melds over it like a snail over a razor blade.

I hike to the top of a knoll and enjoy a mild case of summit fever. Then I spot "the shod." Anticipating questions ("Bit cold, isn’t it?"), seeing assumptions in their eyes (I remember my first acid trip ...), I scramble back to the trailhead and the social security of my size eight-and-a-halfs.

Going downhill is harder, and I scud a bit on the rocks. Back on flat ground, I start feeling cocky. I won’t give the shod hikers the pleasure of mocking me, but I will leave them a mystery, a few footprints through a patch of mud. But my silent feet hardly leave a mark.

In the end, I’m a little hesitant to stuff my feet back into socks and shoes. They are amazingly clean and unstained and warm. But it’s back to 9-to-5, heel and toe, heel and toe.

Back at home, I again strip off my shoes – and receive an unexpected reward. My feet flood with sensations, a physical memory of my hike. For the next hour, it feels as though someone is gently erasing a story written on my sole. It is delicious, and I pity the empire of sneakers, stilettos and pumps.

Bare your sole

How to take the first step.

Are you broke, pressed for time, hungry for a new experience, tired of a world where The Next Big Thing requires an SUV full of gadgets and Gore-Tex? Barefooting might be your best next step.

"There really isn’t anything all that tricky about it," says Paul Lucas of the Dirty Sole Society, a Web-based network of barefooters. "I mean, just take off your shoes."

A few simple precautions can smooth the transition from tenderfoot to trailblazer.

Before your first hike, spend some time barefoot at home or in the yard. You’ll be surprised how quickly your soles toughen up.

Remember to step straight down, rocking your body weight from your heels to the more responsive balls of the feet.

Pay attention to what your feet are feeling and how they respond.

Watch where you step; as you grow more aware of your feet, the need to search the ground with your eyes will fade.

Dress for the weather. If your body core is warm, your feet can remain comfortable even as the temperature approaches freezing.

Choose a short, relatively easy trail for your first hike. For your own pleasure, choose one with a variety of textures, but do avoid tough stuff like long stretches of gravel.

Build on your successes: after a month of reasonable perseverance, you’ll likely be hiking five miles in comfort.

But ... but ... I live in Detroit.

No problem, says Keary Campbell, an Ann Arbor barefooter. Here are just a few easy-to-access areas Campbell recommends sans souliers: Kensington Metropark, Milford; Bird Hills Park, Ann Arbor; Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ann Arbor; Park Lyndon, Lyndon Township; Lower Huron Metropark, Belleville; Maybury State Park, Northville; Hudson Mills Metropark, Dexter; Indian Springs Metropark, Clarkston; Stony Creek Metropark, Washington (MI); Pinckney State Recreation Area, Pinckney; Waterloo State Recreation Area, The Gerald E. Eddy Geology Center (site of a 35-mile trail), Chelsea.

Be prepared to handle the curiosity and occasional derision of "the shod."

Remember, many myths surround going barefoot. For example, research by barefooters shows that, contrary to popular belief, driving barefoot is legal throughout North America; meanwhile, no state or federal health authority yet contacted prohibits businesses from serving customers who aren’t wearing shoes.

For more information, surf by the home page of the Dirty Sole Society, or visit the site's page for barefoot hikers. The latter links to an online version of Richard Frazine’s 1993 sole-baring opus, The Barefoot Hiker.