How irritating — that they would spread salt so liberally everywhere, not only in the streets, but on the smooth white sidewalks where I’d planned to run (and not a patch of snow in sight). Later I asked my Mom — she didn’t know, but agreed it must have been the City, which forced me to consider the possibility that the local population was so lacking in balance and agility that a late November snow-dusting was seen as potential calamity. In any case, due to the salt I cut my run short at 4 miles instead of 5 and stepped into a favorite coffee shop for my morning cappuccino, only to be confronted by a young woman behind the counter. I saw a pale white face, light-blue surgical mask, and a pair of hazel eyes glaring at me.
“We can’t serve you — it’s the health code.”
With raised eyebrow — “In Illinois. Really?”
“Even if it’s not against the law, it’s our right.”
So I left.
Once back at my hotel, I opened laptop, entered the mileage in my training log, and saw I’d finally crossed the boundary — I’d just passed my 10,000th mile of barefoot hiking, walking, and running. And then I went back out, still searching for my morning coffee….
Back in May 2022 I reported on my 9,000th barefoot mile. Six months later, here are the highlights of the last 1,000 miles:
- finishing up the Catskills AllTrails Challenge, a multi-year project that consisted of hiking barefoot every single mile of trails in the Catskill park (350 miles total not counting out-and-backs)
- thru-hiking the John Muir Trail (finally — it took 3 years before I could do the whole thing without shoes)
- bagging 10 more barefoot peaks in New Hampshire
- three 5k’s, one 5-miler, one ten-miler (with an unexpected mountain in the middle), and one half-marathon
As the list makes clear, the main focus over the last six months has been hiking, with the John Muir Trail representing a very special experience, and many of the other activities undertaken in preparation for that thru-hike. Now I really want to get back into barefoot running — I feel this overpowering urge to rack up more miles as quickly as I can, because, of course, the clock is ticking.
Barefoot on the John Muir Trail
The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a 211-mile footpath in California’s High Sierra mountains, named for the man who fought to preserve Yosemite and who inspired his 19th-century contemporaries to reconnect with Nature. In 2020 I decided to hike the JMT and on a whim to try it barefoot, although I knew little about the terrain. On that trip I discovered sandy trails that felt soft and silky underfoot, but these were located mainly in the valleys, while in the mountain passes the trails passed over gravel, raw granite, and piles of smashed rock. I was able to complete roughly 70% of the JMT barefoot, but needed shoes in a several places to keep on schedule.
In 2021, I tried again and this time finished about 80% of the trail without shoes. An inconvenient resupply point (several miles off trail) was part of the problem.
I am a stubborn man. On August 1, 2022, I stepped barefoot onto the JMT for the third time. To increase the odds of success I’d built in a couple of extra days into the schedule and arranged a better option for that resupply (it would be brought to me by a local pack train).
The first 65 miles went splendidly. The terrain seemed so much easier. Although it rained incessantly (they call this “monsoon” conditions) and one night I got flooded out of my campsite two times in a row. I met some interesting people — a Viet Nam vet at age 77 still grateful to be out in the mountains. He explained that military duty had taught him “to do hard things.” Speaking of which, I ran into a friend who was determined to hike the JMT twice in a row. He finished in a remarkable time (walking up to 30 miles a day). Despite not having any resupplies at all. He did take one short break to clear up a case of rhabdomyolsis (a condition that occurs when too much exertion stresses the kidneys) but was back on the trail as soon as he was rehydrated.
After the first 65 miles, I took a short break to catch up on work, then returned to the trail feeling very confident (a positive mindset is so important on these kinds of treks). But something changed. I remember breaking for lunch and taking a nap, and as I slept I felt a premonition. When I woke up it seemed that the world had shifted (maybe it was only the tree shadows rotating ever so slightly) — but from this point on, the trail was so much worse than I remembered. Steep. Rocky. Baking in the sun. Or maybe I’d simply forgotten the intensity of what I’d done the year before.
But for that extra day or two built into the schedule, I would’ve quit.
Instead I pressed on — linked up finally with the horses — limped on toward Mt. Whitney with cracks along my heels and a scratch across the instep, rationing little bits of athletic tape for protection (having brought only 1/4 roll of the stuff, since a full roll weighs 5 ounces). On the final day, my watch went off at midnight. I gathered up and packed my gear and started up Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the Continental U.S. (14,500 feet). Stepped gingerly along the rocky trail and splashed through icy streams. Moved upwards along great sweeping switchbacks, in pitch blackness. In a great void of darkness. Until through a gap in the mountain wall I caught sight of the lights of Lone Pine — 20 miles away and 10,000 feet below. When the sun finally breached the horizon, I was sitting on the summit, witnessing the eastern sky transformed into a celestial range of light, emblematic of the unbounded opportunity that (I hope) still exists for my grandson and the rest of the next generation.
With the JMT now complete 100% barefoot, I finally put on shoes for the long descent back into civilization. Even with a quarter-inch of rubber protection, it was a slow and painful process. It takes 100 switchbacks to get off the mountain’s crest. Then you drop into a barren alpine valley. After which there are still several thousand feet to descend. I limped in to the trailhead. Got a ride down into Lone Pine. Found an empty hotel room without air conditioning, but didn’t sleep well, my feet hurt so much.
The next morning, I was sitting outdoors in the cool dry desert air, working on an early breakfast, as the sun crested the Inyo Range bordering Death Valley, when I realized that the world had become perfectly still. Time had slowed down during my trek and now, for a moment, it paused. The quiet was as deep as anything I can remember in my life.
And then a day or two later the world came rushing back.
Barefoot as Reminder that Natural is Still Viable
Why the preoccupation with barefoot? Partly because it’s a reminder that natural options still work. That technology should be adopted mindfully, after careful scrutiny of the costs.
And partly because natural is fun. When barefoot, I prowl through the forests attentive to the texture of the ground, whereas shoes limit the experience (the contrast disappears between gravel and moss). When barefoot, running is an exercise in light-footedness. In shoes it’s more like pounding. Although to be fair, shoes help enormously if you need to move quickly over rough terrain or through snow and ice.
There’s a common belief that technology makes life “better.” No question, technology improves our productivity, but is this all there is to life? The other day while visiting the neighborhood I grew up in, I recalled how as kids we used to play “cops and robbers.” Once the game started, I would run so hard I was gasping for air — all the way around the block — to get behind the other team and surprise them! Today, kids mostly play computer games. Like Call of Duty, in which the shoot-outs are simulated in highly realistic, extraordinary detail.
So, with respect to shooting games, did technology make life “better?”
Personally, I find the computer version to be interesting, but I would so much rather get outdoors and run.
(If you’re not into shooting games, try the same thought experiment with real baseball played on a field vs. the computer simulation.)
I mentioned this theory to my son the other day, after we’d finished a Turkey Trot 5-miler. He noticed runners wearing those new expensive shoes with special carbon-plate technology (it’s like having springs), which has been shown to improve times by up to 4%. He understood that elite runners must wear these shoes to have a shot at winning, but he wondered, for everyone else — why bother?
“Humans cannot live without illusion,” writes British philosopher John Gray. “For the men and women of today, an irrational faith in progress may be the only antidote to nihilism. Without the hope that the future will be better than the past, they could not go on.” Hence technology as the new religion — the embodiment of miracle and authority — the hope that the most ancient human fantasies (freedom from sickness, poverty, death) will finally be realized — and the childish enthusiasm that the next gadget will make life a little bit “better.” Instead of having us cling to this collective illusion, Gray would point us back toward Taoism, where the good life means living effortlessly, according to nature.
Barefoot as a Form of Resistance
During the last 1,000 miles of barefoot walking, hiking, and running, I’ve discovered a group of people on social media who practice barefoot as a lifestyle. They go barefoot everywhere — to stores and restaurants, to the doctors’ office, in airports and hotels — to the extent possible, anyhow, sometimes suffering the indignity of being turned away.
So here’s a new frontier.
The other day, after running at the track, I swung by the grocery store to do some shopping and thought to myself — why bother? The clean, smooth floors felt cool underfoot, and no-one seemed to mind. Ditto after hiking or running, I’ve hung out in coffee shops in New York, New Hampshire, and Texas, without shoes or problems (except for that one instance in Chicago). It feels perfectly natural to go around without shoes, and I like the idea of reminding people that in our tech-frenzied world, natural options are still viable. That conventional wisdom isn’t always right.
Now to be sure, to get along with peers, we must follow many conventions, some of which are arbitrary or restrictive. For example, the laws require us to drive on the right side of the road and wear seatbelts.
But the reasons we follow those laws are self-evident. Whereas there is no obvious reason why someone should have to wear shoes when shopping. By the way, the Society for Barefoot living has done its research, and there are virtually no health laws against going barefoot. Including in the State of Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The challenge for each of us, especially in America with our tradition of individual freedom and rights, is to decide where conventional wisdom make sense and where it doesn’t. If we want to be truly free, we may need to push back against our peers when conventional thinking becomes conformist and intolerant.
Which is why Edward Abbey, the famous author, conservationist, and advocate of “monkey-wrenching,” borrowed a line from a poem by Walt Whitman to use as his mantra — “Obey little, resist much.”
So barefoot as a natural practice involves, by necessity, some gentle resistance to the status quo. Of course, if you’re going to be different and push back, you need to anticipate people’s reactions and be prepared to manage them
Barefoot Autism Challenge
Somewhere I came across the Barefoot Autism Challenge. According to Tyler Leech, who originated the challenge, people with autism may feel feel more connected with their environment when they walk barefoot.
People with autism may experience different sensory experiences or have trouble with proprioception. They may have a limited ability to connect with themselves because they cannot connect with the world around them when they are shod. For many people with autism, walking barefoot helps calm down their nerves and lessens their stress while the varying textures awaken their world. Those with autism appear to be more alert and in tune with their surroundings while they are barefoot.
— Tyler Leech
While his comments were specific to autistic people, to me the ideas seemed relevant to a much wider audience.
So I decided to give the Barefoot Autism Challenge a try at an art museum in Ft. Worth, Texas, which I’d seen when running the Cowtown Marathon, but never had a chance to visit.
In order to make a nice impression, I dressed up in an expensive fitted shirt and a pair of fashion jeans. Conscious of local attitudes, I traded my Yankees cap for one emblazoned with the logo of the Dallas Cowboys. Then I rehearsed a short speech describing the Barefoot Autism Challenge and answers to questions and objections I expected to encounter. On a beautiful sunny mild Saturday morning, I stepped into the lobby of the art museum and was immediately confronted by a security guard and escorted out. Wearing shoes in art museums — “it’s the law,” they explained.
I guess I’ll have to refine my strategy….
In any case, it’s nice to have a new challenge.
Onwards to 11,000 miles!