The Joys of Barefoot Hiking

Take a hike--and leave your boots behind

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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 “trail name” of a mysterious character said to have walked the entire Appalachian Trail in bare feet last year. If this is true, then Mr. aka Tyvek put in some 2,160 shoeless miles, earning him the title Sole Man '98 in my book. Tyvek: durable, water-resistant, 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 , published in 1993. “In terms of getting in touch with nature, this is an intensive experience rather than an extensive one.”

Barefooting strikes some people as odd—a telling sign of our disconnection from the earth. We are almost always separated from the soil by at least half an inch of shoe. Bare feet, we've decided, are fine for the Third World, hippies, children who should know better, and the “barefoot and pregnant” on Jerry Springer. The rest of us keep our feet dead to the world.

His book is out of print, but 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 of the dozen or so such groups in North America, it now boasts a 40-person phone tree; 10 to 15 people show up for hikes once or twice a month. With its mild climate, liberal population, and ready trail access, San Francisco is a barefooting mecca. Still, baring your sole isn't steeped in “radical” tradition, Barrow argues; the angry young barefooter is rare.

“We're not masochists,” he chuckles. “We just like feeling the textures of the ground.”

For “the shod” (jargon for “people who wear shoes”), leaving the Nikes at home can open a new window of awareness; 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, 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!’ ” he says.

Chances are, the shod hikers had a 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 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 hundredth step hurt than take 100 steps with my feet in a puddle of foot sweat with the toes compressed,” Berrow says.

The social stigma is real, though, especially for barefooters who remain shoeless in the urban jungle. Most can recount wisecracks from passers-by, if not encounters with shoe police in restaurants or museums. 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 on the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail. “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,’ ” she says.

And so I take my first few steps, placing my feet straight down, rolling lightly from heel to ball. 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 a 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 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; 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 hesitant to stuff my feet back in socks and shoes. They are amazingly clean, unstained, warm. But it's back to 9-to-5, heel and toe, heel and toe. 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.

From Detroit Metro Times (Jan. 27, 1999). Subscriptions: $70/yr. (52 issues) from 733 St. Antoine, Detroit, MI 48226.