My feet were not always this confident.
When I first started hiking, my city-bred soles were appalled at the lack of smooth pavement. They were unsure of which route to take when the road was not clearly signed. They hesitated, stumbled, and skidded on unsteady bases. The rough-hewn road of hiking has taught them many useful lessons. From the sun fractured clay of California’s Death Valley to the craggy heights of the French Alps, my feet have slowly, continually adapted to the vagaries of the ground beneath. Now, they smartly side step loose pebbles and twigs, they feel and analyze the moss covered stairs for slippage, and they shimmy up the steep trail with assured confidence. The classes continue in the back water treks and wilderness trails of the world, but these are the beginning tutorials my feet have mastered on their hiking seminars.
Stand and Deliver
It was important that my trotters learned to think for themselves because in the world of hiking, looking where you are going defeats the purpose of enjoying where you are. For so many hikes, I missed out on ephemeral moments because my eyes were trained down at the ground. They were focused on finding every uneven heave and jumble of rock which could provide a stumbling block to the feet. I am sure I have missed a sizable number of ghostly cobwebs, fluttering butterflies, and secretive animals because my eyes were too busy watching my shoes. After finishing several trails where I walked much but saw nothing, I decided my feet would have to learn to see for themselves. There were some painful stubbed toes and a few almost mishaps, but soon the lower extremity of my leg had learned to see the road for themselves. Now, my head can look forward and swivel every which way, because my feet do their own reconnaissance.
Feel of Dirt
It is important that my soles know the feel of the ground underneath them, so that they can adjust their gait. Hiking the back woods of Appalachia is nothing like traipsing up a rocky volcanic mountain in the Caribbean or covering the miles across India’s desert plains. Each trail has its distinctive feel and the more diverse terrain I encounter, the better my feet get at understanding the dirt they tread. The chipped wood and moist loam underneath soaring trees have a mushy feel that lets my toes curl comfortably around the bits and pieces lining the footpaths. The jagged edges of granite and limestone dig sharply into my soft pads, but are sturdier than the loose gravel from sandstone that sends my heel careening in every direction. Soft sand, muted by age and erosion into buttery softness feels like down pillows upon which my pediments can sink. Every time I go hiking, my feet learn to love the feel of the ground they walk.
Learning to Step
My feet don’t move in the same way they used to. Back then, when they only knew the hard tat-tat of concrete sidewalks, my trotters stomped heel-toe-heel-toe throughout life. Now, my feet have evolved into hiker foundations. They have adapted to the imperfect ways of hiking paths, the unsymmetrical shapes of pebbles, the variant textures of nature’s roads. They move with a dancer’s malleability, conquering the distances and altitudes with agile strength and maneuverability. The hurdles of city walking were a mixture of cracked tar, uneven curbs, and nubby footpads at pedestrian crossings. Now, my feet have become experts in chipped clay, slippery moss, and marsh mud. They have assimilated the sunken feel of rain clogged soil and memorized the touch of super heated salt plains. They can caper with any type of trail they meet and come out a winner.
At Long Last
The ultimate test of my hiker’s feet is that they return me safely to the beginning no matter how long the journey. Though they are stronger than yesterday, they have not conquered all. I started with small distances until I could build up their resistance, like a muscle trainer. Every hike, I went a bit further, took an extra turn, ventured on a secondary road. Challenging my soles to cover one more mile, to go past the next tree stump, to attempt the upcoming trail marker. Yet, I understand that I am not their commander during these adventures, merely the watchful coach able to cajole and urge but never order. My pediments rule each expedition, warning me when the way is too long or hard, sternly reminding me to measure the distance back to the starting point as well as the distance forward. They are in charge of choosing the trail head, the fork in the road, the sign post that appeals most.
I have had the privilege to go many places most people don’t dare because of my feet. They have allowed me to see the majesty of nature, to hear the stillness of the wilderness, and experience sights no one else could. Hiking brings me adventure and amplifies my perspective, but I would not be able to do any of it without my feet. Which is why, I always let them lead the way while I follow.
We hope that if you love to hike, you respect both Nature and other cultures when pursuing your passion. For guidance, always follow the Leave No Trace ethics codes.