Los Angeles Daily News, March 21, 1996, Sports, p. 1
New shoeless joes are hitting dusty trails around San Francisco Bay and beyond.by Brett Pauly
CUPERTINO Paul Lucas is well-armed with one-liners when passersby on day-hiking trails around San Francisco Bay ask where are his shoes.
"Oh, you like them? My parents made them for me."
"These are God's Reeboks."
"Aliens took them."
Or he'll stare blankly and respond in Jay Leno-like voice, "What are shoes?"
Now Lucas doesn't mean to be crass or disrespectful. He just doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
"There will always be a percentage of people who will look and think you're weird," said the slim 28-year-old software engineer from Mountain View. "I think it's completely natural, what human feet were meant for. And it's very pleasurable."
Lucas is on the cutting edge of the increasing number of barefoot hikers from Oakland to Ontario, Canada. He leads the 25 members of the South Bay Barefoot Hikers, one of two such outfits on the Bay Area, the country's shoeless trekking mecca.
Curiously, Southern California hasn't caught onto the wave like its neighbor to the north. But if we know Los Angeles, loosen your bootlaces; it'll be here soon enough.
This latest outdoors trend is enjoyed by a wide range of participants. It's not just hippie holdouts who are "one with the trail" and pondering life's inner meaning, as one might expect though there is a fair share of those types. Bankers, retailers, computer experts, quilters, middle-age women and university students are throwing their wafflestompers to the wind, too.
"There are some who feel more connected with nature. Some people talk about that and others go, 'Huh?'" said Mike Berrow, a 40-year-old Concord bank employee who pilots the 35-member East Bay Barefoot Hikers twice a month. On a recent outing, 21 people attended the highest count yet.
"But there is another side to this that Nike doesn't want to hear about it," Berrow said. "There is a feeling of foot health, exercise. You come home after a reasonably long hike and your feet feel good and you have a tactile memory of that hike."
Much to the chagrin of podiatrists and hiking boot manufacturers, these rebels eschew shoes because it is more natural, cheaper, less confining, reminiscent of their footloose childhood, less erosive to the trail, better for getting close-up views of wildlife and, they claim, healthier for their feet.
That last assertion may be disputed by any tenderfoot, i.e., me, who hiked bootless five miles with Lucas for the first time in Rancho San Antonio park here and came away with a half dollar-size blister. Apparently it takes newcomers a little getting used to.
Indeed, more and more hikers are finding that unshod feet thicken, or callus, quickly while hoofing on natural surfaces; have reduced risks of spraining an ankle because they are planted directly on terra firma (there is no platform, no shoe sole to twist off of); don't get smelly inside sweaty, cramped boots; and, in the long run, are actually less likely to get blisters.
It would be unrealistic to assert that the activity is risk-free. Even the most grizzled shoeless joes realize they are more suseptible to broken glass, rusty nails, thorns, stubbed toes and other casualties of the trail.
Pacific Crest Trail guru and barefoot backpacking advocate Ray Jardine noted in his 1992 guide "The PCT hiker's Handbook" that it took his foot two years to recover after kicking a rock in Zion National Park while he was gazing at a box canyon's towering rim.
The precautions are simple: Look before you tread, step straight down and use common sense. And the rewards justify the gamble.
"The notion of having your feet completely protected is beyond me," Lucas said. "People don't wear gloves all the time, do they?"
Armed with leg warmers, a wide-brimmed hat and his trusty walking stick, Lucas looked awkward in his broad, "easy on the knees" stance as he descended a muddy hill on a recent overcast Saturday.
"Tread lightly on the heel and put more pressure on the balls of your feet. It's the wider part, meant to bear more weight. The heel is a stabilizer," said Lucas, who enjoys squishy moss but is partial to pine needles and soft, powdery soil.
"I can hear you thumping too much heel," he called to his first-timer guest as they neared a grove of bay trees. "I can get much closer to deer than most people.
"It's not for everybody, you know. There are the chronically shod who would only dream of stepping out of their shoes in the shower or in bed. Then others stare in envy and haven't gotten over the psychological hurdle of going unshod."
An Adidas-clad runner dashed past Lucas and muttered, "Wow." The sprinter will be sharing trails with bootless hikers more frequently, according to Richard Frazine, a Thomaston, Conn., card and gift shop retailer whose 1993 book, "The Barefoot Hiker," is credited with spawning the movement.
"I would expect that by the end of the century we will be heard of and represented just about everywhere, with groups in every state," said Frazine, 48, who leads a 70-member club of barefooters, as they are dubbed, in his hometown. "I don't think barefoot hiking will be the dominant form of outdoors activity, but it will be looked at as one alternative among many."
The statement doesn't seem so grandiose when one considers that barefoot hiking clubs are found in five states (with Kansas set to join the pack) and a Canadian province, which are all linked by the Dirty Sole Society, an Internet discussion group spearheaded by Lucas.
"It's not a fantasy. We are growing each year. There's enough interest that close to 100 people communicate daily across the nation on the computer network and more on a local level," said Frazine, who has trekked sans boots for more than two decades and led his first organized barefoot hike in 1989.
Kathy Derby, 47, a Sonoma bank systems integrator, enjoys a nostalgic impulse when she rambles without her sneakers.
"It takes me back and reinforces the pleasures of my youth and being free," she said.
As a child, she was a tomboyish Navy brat who frolicked shoeless through the forests of Washington and California, where dirt, sod and pine needles massaged her toes. As an adult, she lost the chance to think about what her feet were sensing.
"In my profession, in heels and stockings and business attire, I don't get to feel the earth or the ground. You don't feel connected to the planet that you are on," said Derby, whose initial fears about rekindling her desire to hike unshod cold feet, bruising rocks, germs and snakebites were partially alleviated by Frazine's book.
Then she decided to take the barefoot plunge at the behest of co-worker Berrow, and hasn't looked back.
"I have never has my feet injured on the dozen or so hikes I've been on," said Derby, whose sister, Barbara Stockton, leads a Sonoma Valley bootless club. "And I love the mud."
Frazine admitted that footwear makers shouldn't be shaking in their boots quite yet. "We will probably be as well represented on the trail as any one of the manufacturers, but certainly, together, they will far outnumber us," he said. "We don't have any product to sell; that's our disadvantage. If we did, perhaps the slogan would be 'Join us and save the $150 and the blisters.'"
Club hikes are free, there are no membership dues and the foot gear is skin. Tyros get kickstarted by taking shoeless jaunts around their house, back yard and neighborhood before hitting the trail.
Frazine is hosting a national gathering in Connecticut in early May but doesn't want to be viewed as some barefooted messiah (though he once was a candidate for priesthood). He simply enjoys sharing an experience that has been largely covered up over the ages.
"We don't feel that we have really been someplace unless we have felt it underfoot," he said. "It takes a little recalibration of the senses, but I can walk on gravel and know there is grass growing between the rocks, even with my eyes closed.
"It is as important as seeing or hearing or smelling. I don't mean that to sound New Age or something. The foot is a specialized organ that was made to touch. We have reclaimed it for ourselves."
Many ancient peoples Celts, Egyptians and Greeks among them preferred to stride unshod regardless of the social class, and the tradition is carried on to a certain degree today by Amish, Asian, Hindu and other societies, Frazine pointed out.
"I think we have presented an alternative that has been overlooked or, at times, campaigned against. There is a certain social pressure that did not exist 100 years ago, not even 50 years ago," he said. "The door was closing in the face of those who naturally preferred not to wear shoes.
"We are just trying to preserve a freedom for our children and grandchildren that was cherished freely by our parents and grandparents."
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