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Guest writer: Hillary Wessel on her first barefoot hike

February 7, 2011

At the end of last semester I “encouraged” my  creative nonfiction class to hike barefoot with me to the top of the hill near campus–and then, of course, write about it.

Many (most?) of them were highly skeptical of this idea, but they were good sports, and Hillary’s resulting essay nicely depicts her inward and outward journey, including much apprehension about her nature-obsessed professor’s latest nutty idea…

That’s Hillary on the left–note the red toenails–you’ll meet them again in her essay.

Barefoot Bravery

By Hillary Wessel

“At that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot.” (Isaiah 20:2)

Now I don’t know what Isaiah was feeling when the Lord told him to walk naked and barefoot, but I do know what it feels like to have your professor say, “Take off your shoes and start hiking.”

I have been on many hikes in my 21 years spent on this earth, but never have I hiked barefoot. I always thought my teacher Prof. Gavin was crazy for hiking without shoes, so I when I heard we were going to do it, I thought, “Okay, now she has really lost it.” I began fearing the snakes and tarantulas that would be crawling on my feet. I loved hiking, but the thought of doing it barefoot made me quiver with fright.

We arrived at French Hill and I looked at what I was about to conquer. I had never hiked that hill and today I was going to hike it barefoot. Oh gosh this is going to be so fun, I just can’t wait! (yes, that was sarcastic) Gavin commented on my feet saying, “Oh how nice, Hillary has beautiful red toenails.” Yeah and they better not get ruined.

Although apprehensive to take the first step, I warmed up to the idea with each footprint I made. By the time I had sunk my feet in the wet, cold, and mushy mud I had come to fully embrace the idea of hiking barefoot (at least for today anyways). Pedicure ruined or not, I was going to give this hike my all.

Pants rolled up and shoes removed, I hiked up the hill, avoiding rocks and watching for creatures I didn’t want on my feet. In the background I could hear faint cries of “ooh ahh ouch” coming from the few other souls who were brave enough to remove their shoes. In the distance I could see the non-risk-takers and their shoes. My feet got dirtier and dirtier as I walked up the steep hill. The mud oozed between my toes as water splashed up on my pants.

Gavin would point out a plant and we would touch it with our feet. We were “getting acquainted” with the different textures of nature. My hands that were so used to feeling things were left unused as I touched with my feet. Bushes, bristles, and beer bottle glass—everything was being felt with my feet.

My feet gripped the ground as I made my way down the steep north side of the hill. I thought it would be easier to walk downhill barefoot than with shoes on.

I was wrong.

Before I knew it I was slipping. “Oh no!” I heard Gavin yell as I caught myself with my hand. Thankfully my hand caught me before my butt could touch the muddy trail. I got up with nothing but a dirty hand to show for the fall, and within a few minutes I was at the bottom of the hill proceeding back to my dorm.

The walk back to my dorm was filled with thoughts of the hike. I stared at my feet, trying to decide if I liked the hike or not. Did I enjoy it? What were the positives and negatives? Would I do it again?

Overall I enjoyed hiking barefoot. It was a new experience and something I can now tell people I did. I loved that my feet could feel the ground and that I was not inhibited by shoes. I loved that my feet got dirty and I didn’t have to worry about washing my shoes. I disliked feeling the rocks beneath my feet and having to look out for glass. I disliked the fear of snakes and tarantulas attacking my feet. But even with the negatives, if given the experience to hike barefoot again, I would most likely do it.

Isaiah walked naked and barefoot when commanded by the Lord. I walked barefoot when asked by Gavin. Going barefoot was a big deal for me and something completely out of the ordinary. I don’t know if this will become a hobby I do continually or a one-time experience. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to hike naked. No probably not. As of now it would have to be the Lord commanding me, and it would have to be a very loud command indeed.

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