Here’s a question for you: could hiking boots ever be… cool?
No, scratch that. Don’t like that wording—it’s begging for approval, and I’m not here for that.
Let’s try this again: Could you accept the reality that hiking boots as a fashion statement have been made cool? Is that something you could even fathom?
Because, as I’m pleased to inform you, hiking boots have been made cool. By me.
Hear me out:
Though I’m by no means the first to experience it, my hatred for the blatant ugliness of outdoor brands’ well-made, functional products is nearly unmatched. As a shameless granola masquerading as an ambassador for the decorative arts (my convoluted, frankly annoying way to say I love the great outdoors just as much as I love getting to play dress-up every morning), I find shopping for gear m i s e r a b l e.
A trip to REI is a turbulently emotional affair for me. I feel it all—hope, fear, shame, embarrassment, anger, disgust, sadness. Though I might discover an occasional pocket of joy on the off chance something doesn’t repulse me, that feeling deflates the moment I pull that Patagonia thermal from the wall and spot a heinously unnecessary zipper/draw-string/exterior mesh pocket/some traumatizing combination of the three. Typically, then, the most positive emotion I saunter out with is one of half-hearted acceptance.
In fact, it is that pressing distaste for the vast majority of outdoor products that shoos me away from those big outdoor stores the first place. Instead, I rely on the expanse of garbage my dad hoards in my parents’ unfinished basement.
For as long as I can remember, that basement has brimmed with the repulsive essentials I loathe. A wall of shelving units is devoted to backpacks, sleeping bags, and tents, while scattered plastic boxes overflow with freeze-dried meals, first-aid materials, bug sprays, sunscreens, and so on (and on and on and onnn). Enough nylon hiking clothes—oversized button-up shirts and zip-off pants with more pockets than should be possible—litter the space. Hooks dangle wound-up rope on the unfinished cement walls—yards and yards of it. Miles, probably. A free-standing closet organizer intended to hang belts buckles under the weight of a thousand carabiners, nuts, hexes, and grigris. In the back corner stands a coat rack displaying (to those resilient enough to brave the whirlwind of excess) Patagonia pullovers, Columbia windbreakers, and rain jackets from The North Face.
This mess is my father’s work, though he’d call it a masterpiece. Whether out of the anxiety of his increasing age or genuine curiosity I’m not sure, but every few years he picks up a new hobby, and before long that hobby sinks into obsession. He funnels every ounce of himself into his fascination until his passion exhausts, forcing him to scout something new. These hobbies reach far across the board, from long-boarding (as he would on the streets of California as a kid in the 60s and 70s) to fixing up his ancient Porche sitting gutted in the garage. With a few notable exceptions, however, these hobbies typically fall under the “outdoorsy” umbrella. I can trace this trend back to my childhood—I was six, maybe seven when he started taking my older brothers on backpacking trips in the canyons that make Salt Lake City famous. I was invited to these outings, of course, but, citing my fierce distaste for the great outdoors, I readily refused. (It is only now, years later, that I realize it wasn’t a fierce distaste for the great outdoors at all—I despised the great outdoor gear.)
Of course, I am my parents’ child, and as much as I hated to admit it, I loved nature. As I grew older, that love flourished, and by the time I reached adulthood, I lost the shame and eventually owned up to my adoration—to spending hours and days and weeks in the vast expanses of Utah’s wilderness. Tragically, my aversion to outdoor gear swelled at nearly the exact same rate.
This truth put me at odds, then, with what would otherwise be my favorite pastime: spending good old quality time with my main gal, Mother Nature. With one haphazard glance down at the terrible hand-me-down Merrell’s fastened to my feet, a perfect morning outdoors could be violently, immediately torn to shreds. Granted, a good hike offers plenty of other, far more beautiful things to look at—and by now I’m more or less desensitized to the disgusted shocks this gear typically elicits—but that doesn’t keep me from grinding my teeth and requiring an internal trailside pep-talk when I glimpse the monstrosities.
In the last year and a half or so, however, I’ve gained a certain awareness—a need to step out of my comfort zone to acquire my own collection of outdoor goods. As I grow older, the inherited clothes—things already falling apart when I picked them up years ago—have withered and decayed to near dust. There are holes in those awful, zip-at-the-knee nylon pants. My “breathable” hiking shirts—those impossibly, deceptively baggy ones—have thinned out and dinged beyond recognition. The peanut-shaped, ostensibly alien-themed hiking shoes passed down to me in high school (two sizes too big, mind you) have lost almost all tread and softened to the point where I nearly roll an ankle any time I traverse terrain rougher than asphalt. To top it all off, the laces are one knot shy of snapping and rendering themselves obsolete.
So I’ve been looking for new gear… to some success.
Procuring stylistically adequate hiking clothes was easier than I expected, I’ll admit. With a little patience and a lot of Diet Dr. Pepper, I managed to find almost everything on my list. After hours pursuing the perfect hiking pants, I settled on a simple pair by Prana (without the horrid zip-knee feature, thank god) in a shade the label described as ginger (which, serendipitously, is one of my FAVORITE root spices). I also dug through some of my dad’s older clothes and stumbled upon a weirdly stylish pair of canvas Patagonia climbing CAPRIS (!!!) that he bought a size too small thirty years ago at some clearance sale, thus unworn and fitting perfectly snug on my little hips. I opted for plain, old oversize denim and cotton shirts—usually from thrift stores and vintage shops—to account for my tops, preferring worn-in long sleeves to protect me from the sun. I rounded out my haul with a handful of colorful bandanas, a pair of Chacos inspired by Yosemite’s Half Dome, a few too many Hydro Flasks (I’m convinced it’s a cult, yet I keep buying more), and a cute-ass, wide-brimmed gardening hat to replace those awful nylon ballcaps with snap-off capes that, against better judgement, somehow exist.
After all of the searching and significant successes, however, I still couldn’t get my hands on a good pair of boots.
Unlike the cloth gear, the boots had to be new. Vintage hiking shoes from the 70s and 80s faced a similar problem with decay my ten-year-old Merrel’s encountered, only worse. Moreover, the thought of consciously shoving my feet in a pair of shoes so intimately involved with its previous owners… grosses me out. Hiking boots, by nature of being hiking boots, are never “gently used,” and I don’t want to begin to imagine what kind of nasty, sweaty bacteria is just chilling there in the padding.
For months I searched high and low, regularly checking the websites of some better-known outdoor companies. To no avail, I scoured the closest brick-and-mortar REI suspiciously often (so much that the workers grew so accustomed to me slinking in, saying nothing, avoiding eye contact, scanning the shoe section, and promptly leaving that the sight of me spurred them to reach for the phone with one finger on security’s speed-dial “just in case.”) Like those tattered pants I’d only barely replaced, my patience wore thin, and I eventually gave up on my pursuit, justifying that my success in just about every other category was enough to distract from those god-awful shoes. Plus, if I layered up on socks it provided almost enough support for me not to, you know, shatter my ankle.
Weeks passed, then months, and I eventually forgot all about shoes.
That all came to a screeching halt a couple of months ago, when my brother sent me a link to Vasque’s impeccably-retro-inspired-yet-somehow-completely-functional dream-boot, the Clarion ‘88s. I was finishing up an incline workout on the treadmill when the text came through. Naturally, when I tapped the link, my entire astonished self thwacked onto the machine’s rubber conveyor belt before my limp body slinked onto the concrete below (don’t ask why I couldn’t wait until I came to a safe, complete stop before jumping in… I have a short attention span, what can I say?). With its taupe suede, pop of vintage wagon-rust red, and old-school design, I very literally stumbled across the universe’s answer to all my prayers. A hiking boot that didn’t leave me even a little dead inside—I didn’t know it was possible!
I barreled through the online checkout, entering my address, credit card info, et al. into the teeny fields with a swiftness and ferocity that surprised even me, the online checkout queen. Then, a week and a half waiting for them in the mail, and… BOOM.
And you know what?
I love them.
I love them, I love them, I LOVE THEM.
I love enough to employ one of the worst cliches in the book: I love them with the firing passion of 1000 suns.
I love them so much, I’ve even resorted to wearing them in public, for non-hiking related activities. I wear them to the grocery store, to work, out to dinner, to da clerb (hah!), to concerts, to baby showers. You name a public gathering space, and I’ll probably wear these puppies to it.
It’s liberating, openly sporting something that had, up until only recently, caused so much unflinching grief in my life. However, as I bask in the relief of finally nailing my hiking wardrobe down, I can’t help but feel a little… uncomfortable. With the acquisition of these boots, I confront a level of sartorial satisfaction I’ve never really come across. I don’t know what to do with myself. Now that I don’t have to spend the first 15 minutes of a hike huffing about my outfit, I have so much time and headspace, and frankly, it’s a little disquieting. I know I should be excited, and I am (I’ll be so centered, so connected to nature!), but part of me will miss complaining about my getup, and there’s just no way around that.
By tying these loose ends, I opened myself to a frontier of new possibility, and now I’m struggling to come to terms with it. I graciously followed through on a goal and have a kick-ass hiking outfit rotation. Why am I so unsettled?
Here’s what I’ve got: I find comfort in potential. That is to say, I feel safe knowing there’s room for improvement and at peace understanding my capability of settling into that space.
Before you stomp off, rolling your eyes and sighing in exasperation “they’re shoes goddamnit, you think too much” let me come out and admit something: I may be projecting a little here. It I didn’t intend for this post to veer in this direction (in fact, this aside was intended as a joke), but in scanning over this lament it has become clear these lighthearted qualms reflect a larger trend in my life. Rather than just brushing that off, I’m diving in, because I might need this (though I’ll keep this epiphany brief, because this li’l piece is already almost 2000 words and y’all didn’t come here to hear me rant.)
The short of it is this: I have a tendency to retreat into the comfort of my potential rather than acting on it. It’s so much easier for me to look at my future and say with confidence “I’m capable of ________” than it is to actually put forth the effort and set myself in motion toward reaching that potential. This keeps me on a track and gives me a destination, but it also allows me to dick around instead of applying myself and reaching those goals. By now, I’m more-or-less familiar with the idea of change, and so I know well that things don’t last. It’s that inevitable next step that scares me, that nebulous, murky space that lies just beyond where decisions are made—decisions that themselves have potential to alter my life drastically.
This trend pops up in every little realm of my life—school, work, relationships, etc.—and the outcome is always the same: I settle for less, mistaking the joy I find just being aware of my potential as the satisfaction of reaching that potential itself. In this mindset, I don’t need to accomplish anything, because that knowledge is accomplishment enough. This is what kept me from applying to better schools in my senior year of high school. It’s what justified my settling for a degree in Communications when I knew I was capable of that double major in business and English with a minor in art history that I initially set off on all those years ago. It’s what kept me hanging on—for too goddamn long—to loves lost when I was already abundantly aware that the love within me could last me a hundred lifetimes if I dug a little deeper. And lastly, it’s what keeps me employed as a sad, tired office worker with no room for advancement when I could be following my intuition and making a living off of my words and creativity.
So when I lament outdoor gear, I’m apparently lamenting all of this shit too.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it? For myriad reasons, the last year and a half of my life was spent in an incubator. Not literally, obviously, though it may as well have been. What I mean is, after my life sort of fell apart in Portland and I moved home, rather than ignoring my internal dumpster fire, insisting things were fine, and leaping into my life’s next chapter, I chose a deliberate path of reflection, meditation, self-love, and self-improvement. This meant six jobless months bumming off my parents, choosing to stay in and focus on myself. My departure from Portland put me face-to-face with my most glaring anxieties concerning the future. It was the end of many chapters: a relationship, a career path, an away-from-home experience. With those endings, the great unknown plopped square into my purview. No longer able to ignore it, I instead had to come to terms with those harsh realities, prompting me to make significant changes to counteract, prevent future instances of, and fix what had gone down.
The months building up to my breakdown reeked with my life’s most conspicuous recurring theme, of sorts: coasting—coasting on a dead-end retail job I was deceptively unfit for; coasting in a relationship that needed ending for months; coasting in a city that, despite existing in the perfect geographical location for my lush, moody personality, didn’t do for me what I needed it to. I was vaguely aware of my unhappiness, my being unfit for the situation I burrowed into, but I was comfortable. More than that, I knew I was more than capable of making things better. However, taking the initiative to extract myself meant putting that capability to the test, and part of me, deep down, was still convinced I couldn’t.
So I’d stall. I’m fine, I’d insist, things are fine, life is fine, it’ll all work itself out, just be patient. Petrified by that plunge into the unknown, of pushing myself into the territory where *gasp* I’d have to take ownership of my situation and make real decisions, I settled into a weird, removed void where I could exist on autopilot.
Of course, things came crashing down. When they did, I had no choice but to be decisive. I couldn’t let myself slip back into blind comfort, not again. Stripping me from the less-familiar city to spend a year and a half back at home—a place oozing with the exact comfort I needed to stay far away from—proved to be a bit of a challenge, but I managed. It turns out, a controlled dose of that comfort is exactly what I needed. The fiscal freedom moving home provided allowed me to take some time off and tackle the problems I’d put off for so long (i.e., anxiety, lack of independence, self-esteem issues). The details of this restorative year at home already clutter this website, so I won’t go into detail, but in short: my year of self-love was a hit.
Now, let’s reel it in: what about the hiking boots? Where do those fit into all of this? Why the dramatic detour?
Well, the hiking boot story mirrors my dependence-to-comfort story in an interesting, folktale-esque way. Let me highlight some similarities: me=me (duh); mild aversion to hideous outdoor gear=general dissatisfaction with the course of my life; my putting up with that aversion for years on-end=my living under the disguise of ‘comfort’ instead of taking initiative and making change; nature clothes finally falling apart=my emotional state reaching a low-point; my recent determination to accrue my own collection of outdoor clothing=my year of self-care; my hang up on locating the right hiking boot=hesitation before breaking free from my cocoon of self-love. It’s not a perfect metaphor, no, and the literary-level analysis of my own circumstance might seem silly and narcissistic to some (and it is!), but it’s telling nevertheless.
Following that train of thought, it makes sense that the conclusion of my pursuit of adequate hiking clothes has left me a feeling a bit jittery—it is, in some ways, a reflection of my fear of the unknown that is waiting just around the corner. Resting at the end of my incubator-year, I hesitate to leap because I don’t know what will come next.
And, you guys? I’m terrified.
Before we all get crushed by the weight of the future, let me pose you this final comparison: hiking boots are meant for hiking. I’m correct in that assumption, yes? If so, it’s only natural that I take them out and use them for that purpose. Once I put them on—it doesn’t matter where I’m going—the action that follows is apparent: put one foot in front of the other. The destination isn’t quite that important—what matters most is that I keep that momentum going, allow myself to traverse through the wilderness, be present with myself and with mother nature, and let myself take in all that beauty. Eventually, I’ll find my rhythm, and when I do, I can genuinely, finally immerse into the glory of the outdoors.
Now, if my hiking boots=tied up loose ends from my healing year, it’s painfully, almost embarrassingly obvious what my next move is: I gotta summon up alllllllll of that growth—those lessons learned, the spiritual uplift, and that bolstered sense of identity lingering in my aura—I have to summon all of that, pack it (neatly) into a Camelbak or some shit, and march on out into the great unknown.
Because I’m not going to get anywhere if I don’t move, now will I?
* * *
Anyway, the boots: