Sunday, June 7, 2009

Going Barefoot

On a recent flight out of town, I read an article, in the Southwest airline magazine Spirit, about going barefoot. The author is Kimberly Garza, an assistant editor of the magazine. (The 2009 article used to be linked here: ) On the same theme, I also like John Updike’s essay “Going Barefoot” in his collection Hugging the Shore (Knopf, 1983), in which he delights in remembered walks to the post office, the stores, and the parks in Martha's Vineyard.
Garza lightheartedly calls herself a “foot nudist.” She notes that many people consider bare feet “icky” and impolite. Yet our feet are more sensitive to touch and textures than our fingers, so we’ve all kinds of possibilities of tactile memories through our feet, such as the fur of our pets, the nap of a carpet, the cool and smooth floor, a concrete sidewalk, the rough curb on which you try to balance, and summer grass. Flip flops, the acceptable (and even formal) minimum of footwear, still can’t quite substitute for shoelessness if a person wants to enjoy a variety of nice-weather sensations.

Garza talked about folks who didn't "get it" when she kicked her shoes off---why a person gets such a feeling of peace and satisfaction---but others did. I think that going barefoot is a little like inserting "Holy Grail" or "Big Lebowski" references into your conversation. If they're likeminded, folks will enthusiastically respond, but instead of saying "Hey, nice marmot," or "Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses," they'll say, "Oh, I LOVE going barefoot!" or "I'm barefoot all the time!" or (as a high school friend says), "There's NOTHING like going barefoot!" So the following, very lighthearted thoughts about this odd topic are for those folks.

Bare feet used to be, not a fad exactly, but a kind of late-hippy-era accessory, not common but enough so to be acceptable in many places and a pleasant option on warm days. During the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, you’d sometimes see folks padding shoeless into, for instance, the local market. One time I chuckled to see a hometown acquaintance, in jeans and top and purse in hand, strolling barefooted into the local supermarket; she needed to run an errand and decided that bare feet were sufficient. In another town, I noticed a fellow who arrived barefoot to a shoe store with his family. You don’t see many folks in shoe stores starting from scratch, as it were.

Some of my friends say they have to get their toes in the beach sand, at least once a year, in order to have a regular sense of well-being. Because of the fad, I feel the same way, only with me it's being out and about without my shoes on, at least a few times every summer. Like Garza, I recall textures that I would’ve otherwise missed: the cool linoleum as I navigated my squeaky cart through grocery aisles on a hot day; the smooth floor of a shop where I bought LP records and 45s; the warm concrete outside the ice cream place as I tapped my toes and waited for the line to move; the smooth sidewalks enjoyed during a leisurely walk and a chat with neighbors; the breeze on my feet as I rode my bike.

I love talking walks generally but sometimes proceed down the way without shoes. The motions of stepping--the descent and pushing-off of the toes, their emphatic landing, the way the soles make a quick appearance behind you as you move forward---feel so airy and light. And how pleasantly mischievous that these light movements were made in a place like a store or someplace else away from your home. For a while I lived near a small market, and in the spring through autumn months I often stayed barefoot for walks to the store. I'd enjoy the various surfaces like sidewalks, grassy spaces, warm asphalt, and finally the cool smoothness of the floor as I browsed for my items.

The store owner was a joy to chat with, and it was such a cheerful feeling, standing at the check-out counter for a while, as barefooted as if I were working in the kitchen. She praised me for my unprotected feet and once scolded me for wearing sandals; I'd unintentionally given her no excuse to kick off her own shoes. “I’m glad you go barefoot! I would, too, but customers give me dirty looks. But my feet are never anywhere close to the food, so what’s the problem?”

You might think, "That's gross, dusty feet," and actually I agree completely. After I've taken a neighborhood stroll, or otherwise been out shoeless, I can't wait to get home and get clean. But from another perspective: it's pleasant to enjoy the day as you gain peaceful tactile memories through your soles and interact with other folks in this humble way. The humorous, necessary result, so reminiscent of childhood, is a temporary footprint upon your own feet----something you can laugh at yourself about and quickly wash away.

During my student days, I sometimes carried my sandals in my book bag when doing homework at the library. Once there, I felt motivated to get much done as I walked around the stacks, checked the card catalog, located books, tiptoed to the photocopier, and generally was extremely productive! A friend used to say, “I can’t think unless my feet are comfortable.” Perhaps shoelessness should be a habit of very effective people!

Forgoing shoes completely (in contrast to having your sandals handy in your car or your bag) can be adventurous. If plans change, you’ve committed yourself. I remember seeing two laughing friends in our savings and loan place. One had business to conduct but kept being sent to other offices. The friend, whose bare feet made hasty, gentle thuds upon the tile floors, was along for company but hadn’t expected the errand to be so complicated.

That kind of thing happened to me a few times. One day I stopped by a local farmers' market, an old service station with an indoor room and a canopy. As I looked over the selection, I kept shifting my feet because the sidewalk was quite warm, even though it was shady under the canopy. I was glad to go into the room with my purchases so my feet could cool before I tiptoed back to the car.

Visiting friends in their community, I left my sandals in their apartment as we drove off for "the fifty cent tour." But they decided to introduce me to folks they knew, especially at their church. So as I met the staff and walked with my friends around the classrooms and various ministries, I enjoyed the same cheerful quirkiness as I experienced at the neighborhood market: conversing and functioning in public barefooted.

During vacation months I liked to stay shoe-free some days (or had sandals off but nearby) when I escorted my young daughter around to her playmates’ homes and garage sales and to shuttle her to camps. I remember a few "happy accidents," as artist Bob Ross used to say, like the time I left my shoes behind and, with other parents in the shade, waited for her to finish zoo camp. But she wanted to visit the zoo gift shop, so I enjoyed the store's cool carpeting beneath my toes as we browsed the displays among all the other kids and parents. Somehow I missed the humor of being barefoot in a jungle-themed place... How nice when someone called out to us, as we walked during a weekday adventure, “The world would be a better place if more dads spent time with their daughters!”

One time, on a morning errand, I regretted dashing into a pharmacy without shoes, because the store was undergoing remodeling, shelves were moved, and I didn't want to step on anything sharp. "Can I help you?" asked the manager, and I said I was looking for a certain product but couldn't find it. He was helpful, and as it turned out, he didn't know where the product was either! I followed him up and down aisles, with the incongruous slap of my footsteps upon the linoleum, and we finally located the item.  

Sometimes, on road trips and vacations, I've enjoyed shoeless moments that enhance travel memories. Years ago I visited a coastal town for a summer craft fair. My fisherman sandals lay on the floorboard, and I regretted not wearing a lighter pair. So I left them behind. With my touristy camera over my shoulder, I sighed with relief as I strolled the warm sidewalks. I spent a pleasant hour or so padding among the booths and shops, as barefooted as if I were collecting shells on the beach. A lighthearted thing to do, if a little risky, but what a nice summertime memory. I did see a few other folks shopping barefoot, affirming that I wasn't the only eccentric.

On a rainy road trip day through southern Indiana, I ventured down U.S. 231 to see the Lincoln boyhood historic site. I had my sandals kicked off in the car, but once I arrived at visitors' lot for the cabin and farm, I wondered if anyone would mind if I stayed barefoot? One way to find out. The warm rain on the path felt wonderful, as did the rough texture of the cabin floor. The interpreter at the cabin, in period costume, greeted me warmly and explained the site, and since I've studied his life, we chatted about Lincoln for a time as she walked me to other aspects of the farm, seemingly amused but perhaps glad for an informed visitor. I think I fit into the frontier mode (although rain hoodies aren't authentic to 1818....).

On an R&R trip, another year, I looked forward to visiting a community's artsy shopping district. I thought of that coastal craft fair, then a recent memory. In a nice shirt and old straight-legged jeans, I stepped from my car with a sigh, fed the meter, and made my way with bare, committed feet to my first destination, a bookstore. Then I padded among places for an unhurried time. They were good boutiques, offering crafts, art, jewelry, books, environment related items, and other merchandise.  And I had excellent luck. Again, I felt happy and quirky; there's a pleasing and mischievous incongruity between browsing shops, standing in check-out lines, and carrying with your shopping bags from store to store, and having no shoes on. The textures of cool floors alternating with the sidewalk---warm like a back porch---felt delightful, and I did see one other person enjoying the day the same way.

No one seemed to mind. A clerk in a rock shop gave me a perplexed glance. But I'm always amiable and purchased a necklace. Another clerk, outside a clothes and accessories store, saw me and my shopping bags and bare feet pause at the window, and invited me inside! Joining other shoppers there, I found the day’s last treasure, a purse for my wife.

At the daring of some people, you do grimace. In a DC suburb, on a 100-plus day, a fellow strolled barefoot across the mall parking lot with his girl friend. That asphalt must’ve been hideously hot, but he seemed unfazed. In Virginia, a student daily came to my history discussion section without shoes, well into autumn. The section met in a chemistry classroom with big signs to wash your hands and keep your shoes on because of the chemicals. The poor woman probably glows in the dark now, or has super powers. 

Perhaps I seemed daring, though, to other hikers whom I greeted on a couple of favorite nature trails as, on two or three occasions, I walked in my bare feet along the grassy and dirt paths. I'd taken the trails before in walking shoes, so I knew the terrain and felt okay about bringing no shoes or sandals. One of the trails alternated between pretty timber and open meadows, and included a few small hills to climb, plus the trail offered the comforting, nostalgic sight of an old barn as the path curved around and back into timber. A small bridge forded a stream that was sadly polluted, a shade of bright orange. But there was also a green pond where frogs croaked and turtles peaked above the surface. I watched my strolling toes, kept an eye out for stones on the trail, and on slopes I was aware of my toes digging into the soft earth for traction. On a stretch of damp soil I noticed behind me that my heels made small dents in the earth, a modest footprint on the land.   

I take medicine for tendonitis in both ankles, and my barefoot adventures each year are modest. But I still like to skip wearing shoes for some errands; visiting the ATM, the mail boxes outside the post office, or the pharmacy drive-through. Sometimes I’ll drive barefoot through the countryside or take a carefree stroll out in the grass or down the neighborhood sidewalk. Walking barefooted in the summer rain is delightful--you can splash in the puddles--and raking the lawn on Indian summer days is also a joy. If you’ve friendly neighbors, your outdoors chats may be shoe-optional; a neighbor and I used to visit in our yard on 40-degree days, both of us barefooted in jeans and sweaters, which actually felt very pleasant.

As Garza writes, going barefoot provides vivid memories thanks to the tactile sensitivity of the feet. I've also loved (and tried to communicate here) the sweetly mischievous feeling of being out and about without shoes. Children go barefoot as a matter of course; adults don’t. So being shoeless, even for an errand where you don’t leave the car, provides a pleasant sense of lighthearted audaciousness amid the day’s obligations.  For just a while, you regain the blessed forgetfulness, and the lack of pretense, of childhood. Years later, you can cherish pleasant, silly memories of wading through air.


  1. Yes, during the early 1970s especially, I used to see lots of young people going barefoot everywhere, mostly young women. Grocery stores, malls, any public place. It seemed to go out of style by the 1980s, and today's young people don't even know it ever happened. They are too glued to their dumb flip flops to even try to really feel the world around them. Too bad.

  2. Going barefoot is almost like being in Heaven !

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