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Hiking Barefoot

I like to hike barefoot. Not all the time – there are months here in the Santa Fe area when it’s simply too cold to be unshod. And there are other times when you are on a mission, for example, when you’d like to get to the top of Santa Fe Baldy before the thunderstorm, and back home before dark, and you’ve got to cover several stony miles in a relatively short time. Or you might be hiking with friends, and don’t want to slow them down.

But that brings up my point: hiking barefoot slows you down. It slows you down and opens up dimensions of walking and sensing that cannot be experienced any other way. As Richard Frazine says, in the Bible of barefoot hiking, The Barefoot Hiker, “there is nothing uniquely inadequate about human feet”. I don’t know if you’ve been in REI lately – or any other sporting goods store – but you’d think, based on the almost bizarre selection of hiking boots laid out for your overwhelmed eyes, that stepping outside – especially on a hiking trail – was fraught with extreme environmental danger. You see people on a pleasant walk in the woods that are outfitted for an assault on K-2.

We had our first day of temperatures in the high 50’s this week, which was my cue to get outside for the first barefoot hike of the year. The Santa Fe River Canyon Preserve, about which I wrote a week ago, was my natural choice since almost all the snow is gone, and the paths there are mostly dirt. You do have to break into this kind of walking in a gradual way, after a winter of protective boots and wool socks.

A perfect path for that first hike

The first thing you’ll discover about this mode of hiking is that you have to slow down and pay attention to the path. I estimate that I walk at about a third of the speed I might walk in shoes. Your eyes are scanning the ground ahead of you and you become aware of every footfall, since you have to choose your steps. If you want to look at something off the path, you need to pause. You’ll soon realize that the human eye-foot coordination is literally hardwired into you – it’s like reawakening an extraordinary evolutionary skill that you didn’t know you had. Even more remarkably, a meditative calm creeps softly into your walk. A mindfulness of walking comes to you that can turn a common hike into an almost blissful retreat.

Enjoying the warm texture of a beaver-felled tree

The next thing you’ll notice is that you’ve added an entirely new dimension of sensuousness to your walk. The feel of the ground changes with every step. The temperature of the path varies in an utterly remarkable manner. You begin to connect with the Earth in a way you probably never have experienced before. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s almost like you are tasting the ground as you walk.

You’ll also discover this: your footfalls are nearly silent. Since you are likely to be by yourself, this quietness will lead you to see birds and animals along the path that ordinarily would have been flushed far earlier. I understand why some hunters hunt in moccasins, now. (You’ll also be sneaking up on other hikers, possibly, so be aware of your invisibility.)

And for what it’s worth, your hike will have far less impact on the trail than it would if you were wearing boots. Here’s a picture of a muddy place on my walk, scarred by many boots. Keep in mind that I walked back and forth over this same stretch when I chose to take the picture, but you can see almost no evidence of my passage:

Boot-scarred path, ripe for erosion

In another couple of months, I’ll be conditioned enough to walk on most of the trails around here, even at high elevations. You do have to work up to this; they don’t call these the Rocky Mountains for nothing. I carry shoes in my pack for backup, and a cloth, soaked in alcohol in a baggie, to clean up afterwards and wipe any small abrasions. For some reason alcohol takes off pine pitch, with which you’ll be liberally splotched, around here.

But I urge you to try this out sometime – I think you’ll get a pleasant surprise. Read over “The Barefoot Hiker” for some important guidelines, first. And then, as the Nike people say, Just Do It.

Guess which one I picked.

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