Walk #17: Shoeless

He says nothing, but I know what he’s thinking.

What’s with that guy? What a weirdo.

If there had been a conversation, it might have gone something like this:

Excuse me. Do you need help?

No. Why?

You’re barefoot.

Okay?

Do you need shoes?

No. I have plenty of pairs at home.

Then you’re not homeless?

No. Not homeless.

Doesn’t it hurt?

Not really.

Hmmm. Okay then. Sure you don’t need help?

No thanks. All good.

Then he would go home and tell his wife, and maybe his boss at work, and all this friends at the next outdoor patio party about the strange guy walking around the neighborhood with his dog wearing nothing on his feet. Barefoot naked.

This didn’t happen this way, but it could have. You can talk to yourself, blare the radio, text while driving, carry a gun in a holster on your hip and apparently none of this is as crazy as walking barefoot down the street.

But Sam and I do it anyway.

We step out before the weather turns hot. It is supposed to be a steamy day. I had read a recent news article online about the beauties of walking barefoot and thought, why not. And wanted to give it a try before the pavement heated up. The author wrote about how natural it is. How barefooting promotes good sleep, helps with immune system activity, reduces stress. Medical studies even suggest walking barefoot prevents disease. And although that’s not what most of us do, Sam does it all the time.

I leave my shoes at the door, hook up the leash, and the two of us, naked from the ankles down, head out to touch skin to earth.

Sam jumps the last step of the stoop as she usually does, move of anxious anticipation. Her paws land on the concrete walk without a wince or reaction of any kind. My feet, on the other hand, feel rather cool against the cement. Not a surprise. It’s not that I haven’t walked outside without shoes before. I’ve stepped out for the mail and the newspaper at the end of the driveway, walked barefoot around the house to water the gardens, but this morning, I am more conscious of the sensation. When the two of us hit the sidewalk, however, there’s a slight sting, as the concrete here is less smooth, grainier somehow. I pull Sam to my side and try walking on the grassy parkway where the morning dampness tickles the balls of my feet. Whether on concrete or grass, I walk slower than I have on other walks, something Sam is not fond of. For her, this is a snail’s pace. I’m tentative. She’s not. And Sam looks at me as if to ask, are you okay?

“Give me some time,” I ask.

I continue on the parkway as we move around the corner, but the ground becomes uneven and I return to the sidewalk. After a few steps, my brain seems to adjust, tones down the volume of the sensory signals and any tenderness there had been goes away. I quickly get used to the feeling.

Sam, on the other hand, needs no time to adapt, of course. Her feet are made for this. Her pads give her cushioning to protect the bones and joints from the shock of walking and running on any surface, and they are insulation against the weather, damp grass, and even the rough cement of the sidewalk. She pulls me forward, trying to pick up the pace. But I pull her back. With naked feet, going slow is better for me. And I’m okay, doing well, until I catch a small rock on the heel.

“Damn,” I grumble.

Sam turns her head to me.

“It’s nothing, Sam. Just human frailty.”

This will not be a long walk for my feet are unprepared for a lengthy trek. Certainly, like many, I have walked barefoot on the beach, through the house, on the patio, out to the garage and thought little of it. It is not as if going without shoes is some strange endeavor. But do it out in the open, around the block in front of your neighbors’ houses, and there might be some talk. It is undoubtedly out of the norm. I feel exposed and a bit self-conscious even though the only person I’m certain to have seen us is the man who was leaving his home for work.

But barefoot walking is not as unusual as one might think. In fact, barefooting is even historic.

In the late 1800s, mailmen walked barefoot along a stretch of the Florida coast between Lake Worth and Key Biscayne Bay to deliver postage. At the time there were few roads even though settlers had claimed land in the area. Soon there were enough people to warrant the U.S. Postal Service to extend mail delivery. But the only way to do it was to employee mailmen who would walk the sixty miles along the sandy beaches. The barefoot mailmen became legendary.

Sam Snead, the great golfer, learned to play the game barefoot in the backcountry of West Virginia. He was too poor to afford shoes. Snead said if there were tournaments where you had to play barefoot, he would have won them all. And at the Olympics in Rome in 1960, African runner Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia ran with the marathon over the hot streets in his bare feet. He took the gold medal in a world-record 2:15:16.2.

About halfway through the walk, Sam stops to pee. While she does her business, I check the bottoms of my feet. There is dirt and a few minor grass stains. The callous on my left big toe is inflamed, but only slightly. I brush away tiny pellets of debris that have collected on the outside of my right heel. It feels good, walking this way. Better than I expected. There’s oneness with the ground, offering a sensation I did not anticipate.

“Sit, girl,” I tell Sam.

Sam lowers her butt to the grass then hesitates half way into the movement as if wondering what I’m up to.

“Go ahead.”

She does.

“Paw.”

Sam offers the left front.

“Good girl.”

I twist her leg to see the pads. They are black and scuffed in spots. They feel rough like medium gauge sandpaper.

“See mine,” I say, lifting the bottom of my foot to Sam’s eye level.

Sam looks at me, then my foot, and then licks my heel.

“Why, thank you, Sam,” I say.

Her sandpaper tongue moves to the ball of my foot and then my toes.

Vets have told me that dogs lick because it’s pleasurable. A salty taste is nice, and a lick or two releases endorphins. But dogs lick for other reasons, too, more instinctive reasons. Mothers lick their puppies to clean them and pack members will lick to communicate. It’s a way for a dog to welcome another as a member of the tribe. The dog being licked does not reciprocate, instead stands tall and takes it, accepting the invitation to be part of the pack.

Would it be too much to believe that Sam’s licks mean she is welcoming my attempts at a barefoot walk; that she accepts me as part of the tribe of creatures that walks without shoes? Are her licks a kind of knighting, like a queen resting a sword on a shoulder?

“Thank you, Sam,” I say again as she turns to my arch.

We have just under a block to go before reaching home. The sensitivity on my skin is far less now, and as we turn south at the corner, I see now the man who will wish us a good morning but yet secretly judge. What he doesn’t know is that I may look like I’m a little off my rocker, wiggling my toes in every crack of the neighborhood‘s concrete sidewalks, but my dog Sam understands what’s going on here. She knows that I’m now a rookie member of the society of barefoot beasts who is beginning to believe in the naturalness of what a walk can be, a member initiated by licks, encouraged by a wagging tail, and worthy of stepping out again sometime with not one thing on my feet.

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