“That’s the best thing about walking, the journey itself. It doesn’t matter much whether you get where you’re going or not.” -Edward Abbey
I dropped the car off at the dealership this morning for a routine check-up. It’s a small place run by one of my wife’s five hundred and seventy three cousins. Carlos (the cousin) and Antonio (the mechanic) both came out to say hello. New Year’s greetings were exchanged and I handed over the keys. They said I could pick the car up the following afternoon. We hardly ever use the car except on weekend trips to the countryside so this wasn’t a problem. Carlos offered to drive me home. I declined and rubbed my belly.
“Voy andando. Tengo que perder un par de kilos navideños.” (“I’m gonna walk. I need to lose these Christmas kilos.”)
Carlos rubbed his belly in solidarity.
“Te entiendo perfectamente.” (“I understand completely.”)
It’s only a fifteen minute walk back into town from the industrial park. I was wearing an insanely comfortable pair of Merrells and I started thinking about shoes. More specifically, I started thinking about my shoes. I started thinking about all the shoes I had worn over the years and all the things I had done in them. All the playing, all the travelling, all the jobs… all the drinking… In high school I only had three pairs of shoes at any given time. I always had two pairs of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars: one pair for skateboarding which was held together with duct tape (and loads of super glue plugging the holes in the soles) and a second fairly respectable looking pair for school. The third pair was a pair of black low top Doc Marten’s for the occasional wedding or funeral.
By the time I reached college I had stopped skateboarding to prevent any more broken bones. Playing the drums had become more important to me than performing daredevil adrenaline-fueled stunts. It was also around this time that I discovered the pleasures of comfortable footwear.
Enter the sweet potatoes.
I remember this one particular pair of shoes I owned. They were made by K-Swiss and they were an ugly dark red/burgundy sort of color. They looked huge, like clown shoes. I’m a size 12 or 13 (depending on the brand of shoe) but they looked a helluva lot bigger. And they were built to last. They were so damn comfortable… I must have worn them nearly every day for close to three years before they finally disintegrated. I wore them on my first trip to Europe in the summer of 1996. They were a cross between casual shoes and sneakers. They kind of looked like something American football players like Knute Rockne would have worn back in the 1920s or ´30s.
Knute sportin’ some fine sweet potatoes
On the rare occasion I went out wearing something other than my K-Swiss my friend Mar would ask, “Dude, where the hell are the sweet potatoes?” They really did look like a couple of enormous sweet potatoes.
Now at 39 years of age I have eleven pairs of shoes. I don’t know how this happened. It is completely unnecessary for anybody to have that many pairs of shoes. My wife, of course, would wholeheartedly disagree. Here’s the run-down on the footwear currently occupying my half of the Chinese dollar store shoe storage furniture which resides in the little vestibule of our apartment:
-one pair of paint spattered Nike flip flops: My father left them here seven or eight years ago. I use them in summer when we go to the in-law’s place in the country to swim. I wear them to paint the pool every other year, hence the spattered paint.
-one pair of navy blue Crocs: Crocs are the ugliest shoes on the planet. I’ve hated them ever since I saw that pale, pudgy, pony-tailed chef (the one who did that ridiculous show in Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow) wearing orange ones on TV. Then, on my last visit to the states two years ago I found a pair for eight bucks in a thrift store in Bucks County, PA. They were my size so I tried them on. They are comfortable as hell. I wear them around the house. Never in public.
-one pair of white Inesis leather sneakers: This is the only pair of shoes I have purchased in Spain during the ten years I’ve lived here. I bought them in a sporting goods store in Madrid because in Plasencia there is not a single shoe store that carries anything bigger than a size 11 (which is size 45 in Europe). So when I saw they had a shelf of size 48s (which is size 13 in the states) I got all hot and bothered and bought a pair of basketball shoes. When I got home I took them out of the box, looked at them, and thought, These are ugly as sin… why the hell did I buy these things? They look like sneakers somebody would have worn to a Quiet Riot concert in 1983. I left them in the box for a few years and then I started wearing them to paint houses.
I was wearing these sneakers while painting the run-down old farm house my sister-in-law and her husband bought two summers ago. I was sitting in the shade one day eating a sandwich and drinking a beer, their dog Bert – a great big mastiff – sitting at my feet waiting for scraps, when I felt something crack as I chewed. I stuck a paint spattered finger in my mouth and pulled out half a tooth. Fecking Spanish bread… hard as a rock two hours after you buy it…
The house was still devoid of furniture and there wasn’t a single mirror in the entire place. I walked over to my car, dropping the rest of my sandwich for Bert along the way. (It was his lucky day.) I looked at myself in the driver’s side mirror and was not at all pleased with what I saw. I smiled at my reflection. I looked like an escaped mental patient with my peeling, sunburned nose, a two week beard flecked with paint, my work glasses held together with electrical tape, and now a tooth broken clean in half, front row center. I gargled with beer and spat out blood. I felt no pain since that tooth had been dead for ages – an old BMX accident from my teen years. Fortunately I was working alone that day. It was just me and dumb old Bert who – when I returned to reality after having drifted off wondering how much this was going to cost me in dental bills – was standing next to me licking beer and blood off of those ugly white leather sneakers.
-one pair of dark brown leather Adidas: These used to be my river walking shoes. (There is a fourteen kilometer trail along the Jerte River which starts just down the hill behind our apartment building.) I also wore these on a three day hike up the Jerte valley a few years back. That’s when I found out they leak badly on rainy days. I’ve tried squirting super glue into various holes, but to no avail. They have recently been downgraded to a second pair of house painting shoes.
-one pair of Bellota steel toe work boots: I spent four months in late 2012/early 2013 working in a forest up in the hills near the town of Hervás in the northeastern tip of Extremadura. Our job was to clean up and thin out 21 hectares (roughly 52 acres) of protected chestnut forest with chainsaws, axes and strimmers. These weren’t the typical strimmers with a nylon cord that one uses for tidying up the edges of a small home garden; these strimmers have blades that take down small trees with a five or six inch diameter just by slightly grazing up against them. Fortunately, we were supplied with helmets and face masks for the job. More than a few times I got nailed in the side of the head by flying debris that went airborne after being hit by one of the strimmers. The boots were supplied by the company. Of course, they had to be special ordered since the local shop which carries safety equipment for these sorts of jobs didn’t have any 48s in stock.
In four months I pretty much completely destroyed these boots. The stuffing is hanging out of the sides, the soles are partially melted and part of the steel toe is showing through on one of them. We worked god knows how many eight hour days soaked to the bone in the pissing rain. We even worked a handful of days in the snow. It’s absolutely beautiful standing in the middle of a forest up on the side of a mountain as the sun comes up over the horizon and snowflakes silently fall all around you… for about five minutes… then it’s just another bad day at work. You’re frozen. You’re wet. Your sandwich is cold and soggy. The best days were when I was on bonfire duty.
There were usually about six of us working together and there were three jobs that had to be done: strimming, chainsawing, and burning. Burning, or bonfire duty, was the best because you spent the whole day gathering up branches (that had been chainsawed) and brush (that had been strimmed) and made various bonfires throughout the forest. Of course, it was your responsibility to make sure the fires were all out before you went home at the end of the day. (Hence the melted soles of my boots.)
We saw enormous, menacing-looking toads and strange, fluorescent lizards scurrying across the forest floor and watchful eagles and massive vultures soaring overhead. We stumbled upon little nooks where, much to our dismay, wild boar had recently spent the night. The local forest ranger checked in on us every couple of days. He was an old timer with a white beard and a massive belly. We nicknamed him Papá Noel (Santa Claus in Spanish). He always arrived with his hand-carved walking stick, a bottle of homemade vino de pitarra, and some homemade smoked venison or wild boar sausage which he’d slice up and pass around as we each took turns sipping from his bottle.
One day when I was on chainsaw duty Papá Noel pointed out two gnarled old oaks that had grown into each other. He tapped one of them with his walking stick and said, “Fuera!” meaning that one had to go. He walked off to talk to one of my co-workers. I grabbed the chainsaw and started cutting through the deformed trunk. A mere ten seconds later and it was done. I stepped back to look at my handiwork and that’s when I realized I had cut down the wrong tree. A few minutes later Papá Noel returned and when he saw what I had done he threw his walking stick to the ground and really laid into me. It was a rookie mistake. The two trunks were all twisted around each other and when I walked around to the other side to get a better angle for the chainsaw I mistook one trunk for the other. My co-workers’ biggest concern was that an angry Papá Noel wouldn’t return with his bottle and sausages anymore. But come the following Monday morning he was there strolling through the forest with a bottle in one hand and a couple of sausages tucked under the other as if nothing at all had happened between us.
-one pair of tan suede Adidas: Kind of a cross between a sneaker and a casual shoe, these are my current river walking shoes. I’ve been wearing them pretty much every day for close to two years. I was wearing these about a month ago when I saw a nutria (otter!) in the Jerte River. People have been talking about seeing a family of otters in the area and I finally caught a glimpse. I saw the otter. The otter saw me. Then it went under and disappeared. It all happened in about four seconds, but it was a nice change of scenery. I walk that path three or four times a week and I see a lot of cormorants, egrets, herons, kingfishers and ducks, but never any wingless animals (other than the horses the gypsies leave grazing illegally along the river bank). These shoes will most likely be demoted to a third pair of house painting shoes by the end of summer. They are starting to reek.
-one pair of brown Merrell casual shoes: The shoes that inspired this zine. I was wearing them in Lisbon a few months back when I found a 1930 hardcover copy of George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain: or the Journey, Adventures, and Imprisonment of an Englishman in an Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula for only €4(!). Every time I slip on the Merrells my feet have a tiny orgasm.
-one pair of black leather Campers (aka: my wedding shoes): I wore these at my weddings. I married the same lady twice: the first time in 2003 in a small informal ceremony in my parents’ backyard in PA and the second time in the 16th century cathedral here in Plasencia the following year. I’ve worn them to every wedding (at least half a dozen) that I’ve attended since then. And unfortunately they’ve been with me on a couple of trips to the local cemetery recently.
-one pair of dark brown Cabela’s Gore-Tex hiking boots: These suckers weigh a ton. I use them less and less frequently every year. I did all of my most ambitious hikes long before I bought these. I climbed Scotland’s Ben Nevis in a pair of raggedy old sneakers. I climbed Slovenia’s Mt. Triglav in my sweet potatoes. I climbed Ireland’s Carrauntoohil in a pair of Wellies. These Cabela’s boots are for a serious climber which I am not. I wear them when I go off exploring and I know that I’m going to have to trek through mud or cross a stream. I made the mistake of wearing these on a 225 km/8 day hike across Extremadura following la cañada real (royal drove road) about five years ago. They are way too heavy for that sort of cross country rambling. But they are the only truly water proof shoes I own.
-one pair of grey suede Campers: I bought these in the states about seven or eight years ago. They are still in the box. I think 2014 is going to be the year of the grey Campers. Maybe 2015 as well.
-one pair of high top Timberland Earth-keepers: We were in the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino airport a couple of years ago and I was killing time. I walked into a Timberland store and in a moment of weakness I purchased these. They were the most expensive footwear purchase of my life, but they are also the most comfortable shoes – even more comfy than the sweet potatoes or the Merrells – I have ever worn. I’ve only left the house in them twice so far. Everybody commented on them. This is because they are too classy for me. People don’t expect to see my raggedy ass wearing such fancy looking footwear. I may put them back in the box and wait until the grey Campers disintegrate before putting them into full circulation which may be around… 2016? 2017? I’ll keep you posted.
On a side note: While writing this I could not for the life of me remember the brand name of the sweet potatoes. It was a long shot, but I sent my old friend Mar an email asking if she remembered. I figured there was no way she would possibly remember a pair of shoes that I owned twenty years ago… 30 seconds later she responded:
Mar: K Swiss?
Me: Holy shit! You’re right!
Mar: I remember the stupidest shit.
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” -Mark Twain