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Issue 234
January/February 2006
Earth, Wealth and Wellbeing

Feature Articles

BAREFOOT HIKING
by
Illustration: Axel Scheffler

Illustration: Axel Scheffler

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BAREFOOT HIKING

Feel more grounded without shoes.

THE 'SLOW' MOVEMENT has been preaching the benefits of slowing down, for personal, health, social, and ecological benefits. My problem is slowing down in my current lifestyle - a fast-paced urban American one. The kids, the kids' school, the job, the bills…everybody has things to do and nobody has the time to take a breath. When we take time to talk, to connect, there is guilt on all sides as the sacrifice of time is clearly visible.

I have accepted that i will not accomplish many of my goals; emails will go unread and unanswered, my family will often be disappointed, my circle of friends may diminish. That has not slowed me down; it has only allowed me to remain sane in a speedy world. Constantly trying to slow down, i am severely disappointed in my own abilities to calm down, do one thing at a time and pause in between activities. But at last i have found one way to slow down during a favourite pastime, which has provided very pleasant and surprising results - barefoot hiking.

Two years ago my family camped amidst the California redwoods. During a hike, my younger son decided to take his nap. Kicking off my shoes i got comfortable under a redwood and let my son nap in my lap while my wife and elder son went on ahead. Upon their return we had lunch and headed back to our campsite. On a whim i decided not to put my shoes back on and walked back barefoot.

The trail felt soft and cool; the cover of pine needles cushioned my footsteps. Normally, the return trip of a hike ends up being faster but in this case i was slowed down for two reasons. Since my feet were not hardened to the outdoors i had to look down and deliberate every step to avoid stepping on potentially painful objects such as sharp rocks (maybe this gets me to 'deliberating every step' - a long-term goal which is another topic). In addition, every time i wanted to see a tree, a cloud, or a hill, i had to stop. Normally with hiking boots i can walk while looking all around but in this case i could not do both at the same time. I had to separate the two activities of hiking and of admiring the surroundings.

A few side-effects made me very happy with my decision. Since i was focused on looking down, i noticed many more things on the forest floor. Banana slugs, beetles, caterpillars, ants, leaves and cones, among others. Since my footprint was much smaller, softer, and flexible, and i was focused on where my next step was landing, i believe i was more nonviolent - a personal aspiration. Since my son and i fell way behind, we saw different things. We saw a coyote. We noticed and took a side trail going down a rocky cliff that took me a good extra half-hour to traverse. But it was at the pace my son loved. And, of course, we saw many questioning smiles from passing hikers who doubtlessly had a good discussion later about a barefoot hiker carrying his boots.

Since then i have tried to hike barefoot as often as i can, through as many terrains as possible (and i must admit that it has not been injury free - i have to live with cuts and bruises). I enjoy the ability to walk through water or sit with my feet dangling in cold streams. I appreciate the sensations that my feet send to me - cold, heat, pain, pleasure. I feel more grounded and allow my feet to explore the different materials that they encounter. Just as my fingers are happy playing with sand, holding a piece of bark, or touching a petal, my toes enjoy wiggling in a puddle, scraping against a textured rock, pressing on a bed of pine needles, or rolling over a cone.

Last but not least, i found that hiking slowly opens up more possibilities. Once, hiking with a large group, i fell behind. Suddenly the park rangers closed the park to cut down an ailing giant redwood. People inside could not leave until this was complete. My friends waited outside in the parking lot while i saw a rare sight, a giant redwood crashing down causing a small cascade of falling trees. An earth-shattering, deafening, beautiful, and sad event that i was lucky to experience only because i decided to hike barefoot and slow down. o

Rajesh Shah lives in Oakland, California. He may capitalise his 'I' after the 'y' in 'you' is capitalised.

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