After my wife died, my daughter Rebecca began the job of sorting clothes, but what sadly struck her at first were several pairs of shoes that Jo had worn … all lined up on the couch like they were waiting for their owner’s feet. “Absence makes the loss grow deeper.”
We take for granted that shoes are part of us in covering our feet ever since mankind went upright on two legs, putting a high importance on foot coverings. Somewhere along the line, maybe 40,000 years ago, hides were wrapped on for protection, and thus began the crafting of footwear that advanced into a vast business and countless styles.
That is not to say that footwear is always necessary, since in moderate weather going barefoot appeals to some people. I, too, was a “barefoot boy with cheeks of tan,” as Whittier described him, when I was a boy in Missouri, who couldn’t wait until winter passed and I could be foot-free and shoeless again. I don’t know how I did it — running barefoot out in the stubble fields over stickers and stones without qualms! Some cite health reasons to go barefoot in grass and sand … but throughout the fields?
I think of Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe in Northern California, who became known in Oroville when he emerged from the woods in 1911, found crouched in a barn yard, meagerly clothed and barefooted. Ishi was taken to San Francisco museum to live, and continued to go barefoot. It was noted that his feet were wide with toes of equal length having not been confined in shoes. Being barefooted was the mode most of the time for Native Americans until moccasins were worn.
Some “shoes” made of sagebrush bark was found in Fort Rock Cave in Oregon that were dated at 8000 B.C., and other discoveries were made elsewhere that were much older.
One of the greatest barefoot events of the Western Frontier was made in 1806 when mountain man John Coulter was captured by the Blackfeet Nation, and they stripped him naked to run for his life. He outran his captors for eight miles to reach a river and hid in a drift. His bare feet were sliced badly by cactus, but he then walked 200 miles to a Fort to live to tell the tale!
Back in my homeland of Missouri there was a relative, James Hessenflow, who farmed barefooted. At family reunions, Uncle Jimmy would grab a softball and run barefooted out into the field, yelling “let’s play ball.” Never mind that he was 70, his feet were tough as leather!
Leather for more modern shoes was tough but slick-soled unless you fastened “hobnob” nails to the soles, like John Muir did when exploring the Petrified Forest. At Oakland Camp one summer, I led a hike-group to the Cascades, and one senior, Tom, from the city wore leather-soled slippers. He slipped constantly, crossed the log-bridge by crawling — but reached the falls and was happy!
Thousands of styles have been devised, especially in the last few thousand years, and today the market is marooned in endless choices, often as arguable as camera models. Hiking boots are critical. My best pair was Cabelas kangaroo hide high tops — extremely tough, soft and light. They’re worn out but I can’t throw my old friends away, although Neil Armstrong, first on the moon, had to leave his boots behind as there was fear of contaminating Earth. Today, I wear Nike Monarchs, and their bouncy comfort saved my feet.
Wild animals have adapted their feet to earth’s conditions, and must wonder what those things are on man’s feet. The versatility of hoofed mammals, especially mountain goats and sheep, is remarkable, better than any shoe, and provided by nature free of charge!