As a kid growing up in the woods, I fantasized about being a warrior princess: a powerful girl trained in the arts of survival and war, who could stalk soundlessly through the brush and skillfully ambush prey. I wanted to live in a house made of earth, fish in the river with a spear, wear clothes of sewn buckskin. In real life I kept a diary of my fake exploits by writing on birch bark with a burned charcoal twig. But the truth is, I could be living this way; in fact, I know people who do: folks who hunt their own meat, grow their own vegetables, and make their own clothes, their knapsacks, their baskets, their houses. I’ve seen how long it takes to make a buckskin dress. It’s a lot of work. And, it turns out, so is the simplest of components in my childhood daydream: walking barefoot. When barefoot folks walk soundlessly, I don’t think it’s because they’re trying to be silent; they just have to place their feet very carefully. I went for a walk in the desert to discover just how gently we have to walk on this world when we take away all the stuff between us.
It all started with a minor hamstring injury. I’d been attempting to rest my tweaky leg for a few weeks until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to do something physical to get my ya-yas out. I’d browsed through some of the new books we have at the shop on barefoot running, and balked a little at the advice of both authors, that minimal shoes are no substitute for being truly barefoot. I’ve been wearing and running in my KSOs for years now, and always felt like I got a lot of feedback from the ground; I love how thin they are, and when I read this criticism of them, I really didn’t believe they could be that different. I decided to use the down time on my leg to go for a slow, gentle hike on the Yetman Trail to see if they were right.
The Yetman Trail, as it turns out, is not a great trail for a first-time barefoot hiking experience. I remembered it as being a flat, short jaunt to the Stone House on old soft dirt trail. In actuality, some of the trail is soft, with a dense layer of dust that’s comfortable underfoot, but the majority of this trail is what should be expected from the Tucson Mountains: volcanic gravel. Barefoot folks who write books and blogs on the subject love to stress that your bare feet get a lot of “sensory awareness” that you just can’t get through any shoe or sock. That’s a really lovely way of saying that most things hurt. This stuff hurt. The trail also crosses the wash several times, which is a deep bed of pumice waiting to scratch all your calluses off. I walked barefoot for maybe a quarter mile before the soles of my feet started feeling raw and overwhelmed, and then I took my Fivefingers out of my pack and put them back on. For a moment, I thought: barefoot is bull crap.
But it was when I put my shoes back on that I realized Vibrams really do insulate your feet from the ground a lot. Suddenly my flimsy thin footwear felt like a couple of plush pillows. My feet were happy and cushy and protected, and Barefoot Ken Bob and Jason Robillard were right: being in shoes is an entirely different experience. I walked at a quick pace for half a mile before the trail smoothed out again, and I suddenly found myself itching to feel what the ground really feels like again. I took my shoes off, and lasted maybe another quarter mile before I had to put them back on again. So it goes. While walking at a (literally) painfully slow pace, I at least got let in on one of nature’s little secrets: spring’s first California poppies, hidden behind a rock a few yards off the trail. With my normal proclivity toward running or at least blazing forward to a destination, I probably wouldn’t have noticed them. I found myself stopping a lot to take photos of all kinds of details on the trail. I was moving so slow anyway, what was a couple of seconds more to snap a picture?
I went for a much more successful walk at Catalina State Park, where the trails really are smooth and soft, and all the wash crossings make it fun to get your feet wet. I still walked slow, and it wasn’t exactly comfortable; I stepped on cactus needles a couple of times. But I started to appreciate how we take our comfort for granted sometimes. The earth is not soft; there are rocks everywhere, and the dirt is gritty, and there’s plenty of detritus that will give you a sharp poke. Maybe it’s not such a useless endeavor to learn to tread lightly.