Image credit: Paul Allen
This is the story of how taking off my shoes changed my life for the better. In a way, it is the story of my life, so it is a bit long, but I hope your readers will identify with bits or pieces of it. I know I’m no poster child for your movement. I’m 43 years old and about sixty pounds over weight. I am a home maker and a mother of two kids. I am pretty typical in some ways, the chubby American, hard working, stressed and anxious housewife who spends too much time looking for bargains at Wal-Mart and not enough time taking care of her soul.
This past Christmas, something happened. I still don’t know exactly how or what, but my right ankle became so painful that I couldn’t walk up or down stairs. Just walking around my house was painful. I didn’t know if I had sprained it or if I had developed some bursitis or tendinitis. I went into a kind of dark time. I feared chronic joint problems and I knew that the over-eating disorder that was resulting in obesity for me was at the heart of it. This has been nothing short of a spiritual crisis for me this year. I quit my gym membership which had been barely used anyway; I stopped exercising all together complaining that I couldn’t do anything with my ankle and gained more weight. My ankle got worse through January and February and March.
The doctor told me to immobilize it, stay off it and prescribed prescription anti-inflammatory drugs that made me feel constantly nauseated. I had an ankle brace plus a boot with a stiff sole so that my foot could not flex. I sat on the sofa and became more and more depressed. If you wonder how a sore ankle could cause depression, just understand that this condition was more like the straw that broke the camel’s back. The depression was just under the surface for many years.
On April 17, while driving my car around town, I happened to hear a story> on the radio. NPR’s Robin Young was interviewing a young man named Matt Fuxon from my home town of Boise Idaho who was going to run the Boston Marathon Barefoot. They were on the air with “Barefoot Rick”. The discussion absolutely captivated me. I knew without a doubt that this story was speaking to my soul. Part of me thought it sounded crazy and stupid and dangerous, but the other part, the voice that I trust more, told me “pay attention”. I went home and looked over the prescribed ankle apparatus and the stability shoes and the prescription drugs, and the voice whispered to me, “You don’t need all this stuff”.
I took off my Merrell Hiking boots that I had been wearing all winter and I walked around the house barefoot. Then I went outside and walked to the corner of the block. The cement pavement was cold and stung. But I felt strangely alive. I know it might sound bizarre to you serious athletes, but I felt reminded that I owned this body and if that young man on the radio can run a marathon in his bare feet, then I can learn to run barefoot too. I especially liked his attitude. He said he wanted to do it, just to see if he could. Just to experience it. I looked down at my feet. They looked strange to me. They were soft and the skin looked especially white. I realized that I don’t look at them very often and that I had been wearing shoes constantly for the last fifteen years. It made me remember times in my past, when I was a young woman, when I had taken off my shoes and felt the earth’s energy rush up through my soles, ankles, and legs.
It was twenty-four years ago when I was nineteen years of age. I took a summer job (between college semesters) to work as a research assistant in a remote region of the Alaska bush. We were brought to our location by a fishing boat that dropped us off in the roadless wilderness. We had supplies for three months and a stack of scientific equipment as well as a pile of lumber and building materials. Our camp was a half a mile from the beach straight up a hillside covered with old growth trees and peat Boggs. My partner and I had to carry everything by hand, so we made many trips late into the sunlit evenings. On one of these trips, I was carrying an armload of three 2×6 boards that were about ten feet long. I was alone and in a funny mood. I took off my rubber boots and my wool socks and set them on a piece of drift wood. Then I picked up the lumber and tried to run with it up the hill. I don’t know exactly what came over me, but throughout that summer, I challenged myself to do that trail barefoot. The ground was spongy with peat and there were sharp twigs, but only round stones near the water. My partner often reminded me that the nearest hospital was sixty miles away by sea plane, but I ignored his concerns. When I wasn’t working I would take off running through the forest, leaping over fallen trees and dodging large ferns. Sometimes I felt as though there was an animal running beside me. I called him the brown eyed forest creature. He was my friend, my power, my connection to the wild place. When I was barefoot, I actually felt less afraid of bears. When I carried the gun, and wore my boots, I felt more afraid. When it was just me and my bare feet, I felt like I belonged there with the bears rather than in opposition to them.
When I came out of the bush I flew into Seattle. I walked around Seattle barefoot because I had actually lost my shoes and my heavy rubber boots were too much for the August heat. People looked at me funny. I remember transitioning back into city life. The culture shock eventually wore off and I bought new running shoes.
Photos by: Greg Chaney
That was so many years ago that I practically forgot about it. That I had experienced this need to run naturally like the animal I am.
What happened in the twenty-four years since I ran barefoot in Alaska? I went back to school. Went back to my social life where I was going to classes and dating and working in restaurants to pay for my tuition.
Life hit me pretty hard. I lost my first born child to SIDS and my husband and I spent a year drifting jobless and numb.
We found ourselves living in Costa Rica with an indigenous group of people who called themselves Bri Bri.
It was the summer of 1992 and I was walking barefoot in the rainforest with a group of Bri Bri women who were commenting on the fact that American women seemed to never have children with them. They asked me about it and I cried and told them (in my worst broken Spanish) that our daughter had died only recently. These women knew all about this and treated it in a most understanding and human sort of way. I felt safe there with my feet sunk deep in the mud, poison frogs lurking behind mossy logs, killer wasps and spiders and strange unfamiliar creatures all around me. But I belonged there and I wasn’t afraid. Once again, like in the Alaska bush, I was home, barefoot in the forest, even though I was a thousand miles from Idaho.
We stayed there for three months. These friends, who always went barefoot, taught me something about belonging to the human race, connecting to the earth, and about enjoying life and not living in fear. They taught me a better way to be with the memory of my daughter.
Life continued. We lived in Hawaii for about seven years where I became a serious runner and learned to run barefoot along the sandy beaches. But even that was fifteen years ago. Since I moved to Idaho, I have felt governed by a new set of rules. These rules have to do with insurance. They have to do with being sold something you are not sure you really want or need.
People in this culture seem obsessed with insurance and without really thinking about it, I joined right in. As an over protective mother of two children it was an easy and natural transition. I feared for their lives, I feared for my own. We bought life insurance, home owners insurance, life flight insurance, and health insurance. If you spend enough money on insurance, your chances for survival are “improved”. If you buy an all wheel drive vehicle, you will be less likely to crash. If you buy health insurance you will be less likely to die. If you buy expensive sun glasses, you will protect your eyes; if you buy tight socks you won’t get varicose veins. If you buy healthy foods you will be self insured against heart disease and… If you buy expensive athletic shoes, you will insure yourself against knee and foot pain. Protect your foot from the wicked nasty dangerous environment, support your arch from falling flat, and even be able to run away from a burning car.
I learned the hard way that there is a very large price to pay for this false sense of security. I developed mental illness. In the hospital I was told that I was having panic attacks and that I was suffering from anxiety disorder. I felt always on the brink of disaster. Even venturing out into public places became a source of worry for me. This was often cycled with depression and a constant over eating to soothe my nerves and interrupt my fears. I am not out of the woods in this, but I have learned some new things about health. Things they don’t teach you in Weight Watcher Meetings.
Now I walk most days barefoot or in my thin flat flip flops. I have been doing this for a month now since I heard the barefoot runners talking on the radio. After fifteen years of unhealthy living, this has been a big change for me. Yesterday I hiked a mile up Hulls Gulch in the Boise Foot Hills. Today, I hiked around Veterans Memorial State Park. As I walked through the heavily used sections of our city’s green belt, I noticed how I walked avoiding the broken beer bottles and sharp pieces of scrap metal, dog feces and sharp gravel. As I walked I had some thoughts about fear and insurance.
We are not naturally afraid all of the time. But we are told over and over again to be afraid, to be very afraid. The same people telling us to be afraid are often those who are trying to sell us some kind of insurance and it is in their best interest to make us feel like poorly designed animals. Animals that are not capable of walking around sharp things or leaping over ant hills. Friends look aghast at my bare feet and ask, “But what if you cut the bottom of your foot on a piece of garbage or step on a thorn?” Then I reply, well, I would probably cuss a blue streak and pull the object out or bandage the cut. But truly, the fear reaction of such an injury is disproportional to the reality of such an injury. If we take a moment to think about these fears, they are pre-packaged and sold in the isle of self doubt.
The real question is what if I continue to protect myself from my environment? What if I continue to be sold things I don’t actually need or even really want simply because deep down inside I am afraid to die?
Well, I have been on both sides. And I am here to say that the amount of insurance one has against injury and death is inversely proportional to the amount of joy one feels from trusting instinct.
I don’t know where this journey will take me, but I do know that when I look down at my filthy feet all covered in dirt and scratches, I see more energy and light than I saw a month ago. My feet are getting strong and I am feeling less afraid every day. I believe that barefoot hiking is helping me tremendously with my anxiety condition. And did I mention that my ankle doesn’t hurt anymore?