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Barefoot hiking, and just . . . hiking

June 23, 2017

It’s been hot, folks.

I just drove back from Grand Canyon country a few days ago; when the afternoon traffic slowed down on I-15 through Las Vegas (please note the speedometer: only 10 mph), I snuck a shot of my trusty little VW’s air temperature gauge: 120 F.


What’s a barefoot hiker to do?

Not this!

(The above link is to an article my daughter sent me about a lady who–somehow?!–“lost” her shoes while hiking in Death Valley recently and ended up in the hospital with third degree burns on the soles of her feet.)

During my three (count ’em: 3) recent hiking adventures in/near Grand Canyon, I capitulated to common sense and did a most repugnant-but-necessary thing: I wore $#!+ on the bottom of my feet so I wouldn’t end up on the Darwin Awards web page.

While this offends most every fiber of my barefoot being, I like to imagine that some wisdom is accompanying my transition to this new era during which Taco Bell counter workers in Page, AZ (WITHOUT EVEN ASKING FOR MY I.D.!) tell me, “With the Senior Discount, your order comes to $7.32.)

(And anyway, to add insult to injury, after I read the article about the Death Valley barefoot hiking genius, I decided to google the phrase “barefoot hiking” . . . I appear nowhere in the first several pages of results, leading me to believe that I have no street cred to damage, anyway.)

While the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails at Grand Canyon are so well-groomed and well-traveled that they are most delightful to hike barefoot, when it’s chilly in the morning, a nice thin pair of wool socks, coupled with my faithful Merrells, makes for a warm, fashion-forward experience:


Here I am at the South Kaibab trailhead last month as our GCAFI group began its three-day mule-assisted geology-wonderfilled trip (offered by the Grand Canyon Association Field Institute; I served as assistant to the “rock star” geologist Brian Gootee on this trek). Fortunately, after about an hour it warmed up enough to remove the ridiculous wool long johns as well as the sandals.

Next May 2017 adventure: a couple of hikes near Lee’s Ferry followed by five days of meandering down the Paria River . . . another GCAFI adventure; this time I was assisting that extremely knowledgeable mountain-goat-in-flip-flops, Christa Sadler. Our first little Lee’s Ferry day hike: a precipitous jaunt up the historic Spencer Trail, during which we ascended 1500 feet in two miles over sinuous, slippery, hand-rail-lacking rocks ‘n stuff.

But the view from the top! (Navaho Mountain and the rock formations of southern Lake Powell)


For a little more grip, less slip, I went with my Sockwas (plus the requisite wooly socks). 

The next day, the real fun began: five days of sloshing down the Paria River until, 38 miles later, we would end up back at Lee’s Ferry.

What to wear, what to wear . . .


I started out the first day in an old pair of my husband’s New Balance zero-drop Minimus running shoes (with the insole removed for less padding). They were OK for sloshing through the ankle-high water, but when I put them on the next day: ouch. The back of my heels barked, “We want our sandals back!”

Never one to ignore my dogs . . .


. . . I spent the next four days in my lovely, featherweight, barely there Merrells (which of course, like all good things of the past, are obsolete and impossible to obtain any more).

When bits of grit from the pebbly stream bed got sucked up between my foot and the inner sole, I could usually solve the problem at walking speed by just swishing my foot against the current. Once or twice a day that did not dislodge the offending tiny chunk of Navajo sandstone, so I would have to pause and un-velcro and swish until all was smooth underfoot (under-sock?) again.

Last week I returned to Grand Canyon’s North Rim for my third-annual “Writing on the Edge” creative writing workshop (another wonderful GCAFI program, if I do say so myself). It was now HEAT ALERT time on the Colorado Plateau; trail surfaces, even at 8600+ feet in elevation, were enough to toast my tootsies during all our Kaibab Plateau forest wandering, so once again I strapped on my (deteriorating, but not degenerate) Merrells–with one difference: no socks this time. Other than some messy-looking dust-stripes at the end of the day, this worked good enough while I was busy being responsible and leading the day’s hiking fun.

Side note tangentially related to this barefoot-or-not blog post: I got to the North Rim a day early, without a camping reservation for my first night.

What to do?

Head for the NPS Backcountry Office and see what was available on a hike-in basis, of course. My first choice, Cape Final, was booked; not surprising since there is a total of one overnight site available at the end of that lovely two-mile trek through Kaibab Plateau forest. There was always Widforss Point, another stunner of a hike that undulates through the Ponderosa, aspen, fir, and spruce trees. But that was five miles one way, and I’d just driven 500, and thus was not eager to finish my hike in the dark.

“What about the Uncle Jim trail?” Ranger Steve asked.

“What? I can stay out at Uncle Jim Point?! Sign me up!” The Uncle Jim loop is five miles total, and I knew I could get out to the point just in time for sunset over Grand Canyon.

So I paid the minimal fee ($18 or so) for a permit, drove to the North Kaibab trailhead (which is also adjacent to the Uncle Jim/Ken Patrick trails’ start), stuffed the bare necessities for an overnight in my pack, and took off . . .

BAREFOOT all the way, baby. Ahhh . . .


No shoes, but I did bring a screen tent. Just because.


The morning view from Uncle Jim Point; note the plume of smoke from a fire burning in the Flagstaff area. 

Wildflowers light up the forest and canyon rim: on the left is heat-seeking cliffrose, on the right is a shade-loving species of Maianthemum. 


Not impressed by my friendly toe-overtures (toe-vertures?) is a well-camouflaged greater (mountain) short-horned lizard.


The lovely trails were full of deer prints (above) as well as a few actual deer (below).


When the workshop participants showed up, it was fun to lead them back through the the Uncle Jim trail for some delightful forest writing time.


Here’s our best “three wise monkeys” imitation:


One of the most surprising sights from Uncle Jim Point: this unsettling perspective (below) of the upper North Kaibab Trail. I love this trail, and I’ve hiked this two-mile segment above the Supai Tunnel many times, but when I looked at it from a distance, it felt . . . alien. It looked way too steep and switchback-y and difficult, while my body remembers it as challenging-but-fun: tree-lined, puffed with soft, colorful barefoot-friendly dust (pulverized by mule hooves during the daily tourist rides), stinky with mule-poop, inhabited by clouds of mule-poo-loving flies, the gateway drug for rim-to-rim addicts . . . it’s a whole different trail when you’re on it.


After the writing workshop, I headed for Lake Powell, where the damned Colorado River festers behind the concrete scab known as Glen Canyon Dam. (Hmm . . . it appears I have been irrevocably influenced by whiling away the miles listening to David Gessner’s book-on-tape: All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. )


I spent a couple of days helping folks peel juniper logs for a traditional Navajo hogan, admiring the sunsets and sunrises from our work area just outside Page, AZ.

Then it was time to head home, wake up early, greet the sunrise from my local trails, enjoy some barefoot miles, and continue doing what I can to keep “my” trails balloon-free. (?! WTF: “the tassel was worth the hassle”?! I guess the folks who believe this have no problem buying 12 helium balloons and letting them fly off into the local wildlands . . . sheesh . . . )IMG_3005.JPG

OK. Deep breath. Smell the datura. Ahhh . . . .


Happy (loco) Trails . . . stay cool out there . . .


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