I Learned to Walk Barefoot Today

[reposted from my original, with one fact corrected]

I Learned to Walk Barefoot Today.

A few days before Christmas, the heavens dropped seven inches of rain on us within 24 hours, most of it overnight.  This is normally our dry season in Florida, the beginning of drought conditions.  The dry season offsets the summer monsoon rains. The trails and the kettles dry up so that we can move about freely in the back country. Not so this week.  The trails were more flooded than I had ever seen them, and the only way to get around them was to wade through the saw palmetto.  Not a smart thing to do, clothed or naked.  The last time I did it, I learned why these 1400 year old “trees” are called “saw.”  The fronds are ok, but the stalks have tiny little teeth their whole length.  The only thing that saved me was I did remember to carry a walking stick that day, and used that to push aside the fronds so that I could pass more or less freely.

So today, I said to myself, I will wear sandals instead of shoes and socks, and if the sandals get wet, not to worry.  I’ll just wade through the water, and squish through the rest of the trail.

When I got to the first flooded portion of the trail, I said the short version of the Serenity Prayer, took off my sandals and my shorts, and trudged on through barefoot, now totally naked.  Why is it that we are afraid of water here in the subtropics?   No streams or rivers nearby for alligators, the black racers (harmless snakes) are usually seen in my backyard where they catch unwanted critters, but not here on the trail. The rattlesnakes are holed up sunning themselves on a sand outcrop somewhere. The surface underneath my feet is either grass or sand.  What is wrong with my mindset?

If it were not for my backpack, I would have been totally nude.  My footsteps were far more silent than if I had walked with shoes or sandals.  I watched very closely where I put my feet and so I traded a cardio workout for a slower look at what nature had to offer.  I did have to continually remind myself to bring my eyes off the ground to see what my surroundings had to offer.  Ospreys and bald eagles soaring in the air, several different species of epiphytes blown off the trees by the wind and just by chance noticed some wildlife so rare in these parts of Florida that I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that I saw.  I really need to invest in a trail camera one of these days.

Our area is infested with feral hogs, said to be a leftover from DeSoto’s Florida expeditions.  Don Juan Ponce de Leon had some pigs with him on his last voyage a bit south of us.  However, he never got to exercise his agricultural skills nor enslave the Calusa as he planned.  Ponce received an arrow in his thigh for his efforts, and died of the wound in Havana, Cuba several days later. No loss there.  Anyway, the pigs are nasty, making a mess of the trails and are otherwise unfriendly.  The local trappers can’t keep them in check, so I do carry a weapon for protection.  But generally, I expect them to leave me alone, and vice versa.

As for the gators, I don’t mess with them.  My wading, barefoot or otherwise, is limited to the trails.  The little kettle pond in the second photo is connected to the river that has some world class gators.  The trail around the pond was flooded, leaving no safe passage.  I have seen enough photos of gators jumping out of the water to catch a bird, so my default is to stay five to ten feet away from the water’s edge.

In all my years of hiking, first in the Adirondacks, then the Catskills and the Appalachian Trail, I never walked barefoot.  Steel shanked boots were the norm, and definitely wanted if you are carrying a pack of any size or weight.  Not only that, but two pair of socks to keep the blisters at bay.

Today was different.  Walking barefoot was like skinny dipping for feet.  Off trail, I had to pay particular care where I placed each foot.  To walk silently means to avoid pain from stepping on sharp objects.  If it’s a noisy object, it may well be an uncomfortable object.  One does not blunder blindly through the woods when walking barefoot. Slower is better but with experience I was able to walk faster.

Consider for a moment that the Calusa, primarily fisherfolk who lived in the Florida uplands along the coast, walked naked and barefoot through the saw palmetto like we would around our house.  How did they do that, I wonder, and can I learn somehow to do what they did?

4 thoughts on “I Learned to Walk Barefoot Today”

  1. I’ve hiked barefoot(all over) around the of the parks in my area and loved it. Over the past year the parks have become more used and I have to be very careful of the textiles and the broken glass and dog droppings they leave behind.

    Mud and grass and hiking through brooks and creeks is the best!

    • If you never go barefoot, it can feel very alien, and your feet will be very sensitive. I found mud a challenging sensation to begin with. Stones in particular will hurt. If you are interested, which I suspect you are not, just spend more time on the grass, and make little forays onto other surfaces, gradually getting used to other surfaces.

      It took a considerable time before I was able to walk on stony surfaces and some can still be difficult. The brain has to be re-programmed to interpret all that nerve information to help proprioception and interpretation of the ground surface, rather than understanding it all as pain. You would also need to develop a much thicker pad on the sole, which again takes practice.

      Not generally recommeded for anyone with diabetes/neuropathy.

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