Barefoot in the Park

Barefoot hiking might sound hard on the feet. But people who like to trek without shoes insist that it's good for your mind, body and sole.

A couple of days ago, the New York Times ran a feature article on people who like to hike barefoot. Among other things, the article noted that barefoot hikes appeal to those who like the "sense of communion with the earth and for the sheer pleasure of feeling more of the world with their feet."

It reminded about a barefoot hike that I did several years ago. The trail (if you could call it that) snaked through miles of sand dunes at White Sands National Monument. My friends and I quickly shucked off our boots, because it was a lot easier to go shoeless for a long trek through fine, gypsum sand.

I do remember that it felt strange — and strangely good — to walk for miles without shoes. But sand is easy on the feet, and the trail was completely free of rocks, debris, plants, snakes and all the other hazards that make thick, cushioned soles sound so welcome. Another unexpected perk was that the sand turned out to be a great exfoliant for my feet. They felt raw for a few days, but they looked great for weeks afterwards.

Apparently, barefoot hikers are willing to take on much rockier terrain. There are a handful of barefoot hiking groups around the country, and these folks have no fear of pebbles, tree-roots and whatever critters might be scampering underfoot. Barefoot hiking clubs — along with tips, facts and just about everything you'd want to know about living sans shoes — can be found on a website from the Society for Barefoot Living.

Those who are tremendously dedicated to baring their feet in the woods talk about the charms of feeling cold mud squoosh between their toes. They say that they never suffer from blisters, corns and other ailments. Their goal is to have soles thick enough to handle glass shards and scorching asphalt.

That sounds too extreme to me. In fact, on real trails, you'll find me in serious hiking boots, rather than Teva- or Chaco- type sandals, which always leave my toes feeling a bit exposed and vulnerable. Besides, hiking in sandals destroys a good pedicure.

Still, I look forward to a moment when a path seems foot-friendly and the risks seems minimial even for a wuss with soft, thin-skinned feet. And who knows, once you liberate your toes in the wild, maybe you can never go back.

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