Spring is in full swing here in Oregon; the front yard grass is two feet tall awaiting the return of the mower from the shop, and a blackberry cut down one day will be four inches above the ground the next. The heavy wet Willamette Hazelinear Clay Loam sticks to everything it touches and “take your shoes off at the door!” is said a thousand times a day in this house and many others up and down the valley. The heat is off so wet boots won’t dry and sun isn’t shining so no use leaving them on the porch to dry either.
I am a large man with large and oddly shaped feet so shoes are always a problem. I don’t engage in certain sports because they simply don’t make the required footwear for me; downhill skiing and road cycle shoes are for the narrow-footed apparently. My cross-country ski boots blister my feet but are still dear to me because they are the largest I have ever found, at a discount rack at a used gear store no less.And even shoes that are the “right” size can be painful. For years I wore work-mandated steel toes that left me limping every day. So when I find a shoe that fits I stick with it.
For decades Teva sandals have been my reprieve from ill-fitting foot wear; durable, easy to clean they come out in March here in Oregon and stay on my feet until Thanksgiving. They aren’t much good for chainsawing, motorcycling, weed whacking (though it has happened) but for walking gardening and bicycling they are my 3-season go to shoes. And at fifty bucks a pair they aren’t hard on the wallet either. If I am awake most likely I am wearing Tevas or light hiking boots depending on the task and season.
A few years back I discovered that the hiking boots I wear came in a “safety-toe”, which is the actual name for steel-toed shoes as few are made from metal anymore. Fiberglass keeps you warmer, is less conductive and much lighter. There are certainly days when high-sided, heavy, insulated boots are needed (for concrete placement for instance) but ninety-five percent of my work is now done in lightweight safety shoes. While still awkward and the toes too-wide for gear shifting the scooter they do make the walk-and-talk at work less taxing. If there is anything worth investing in, comfortable work shoes is top on my list.
Lately my new favorites have been my slip-barn boots. They are ugly like a goose foot but they are waterproof like one too. Ever since returning to rural life in often-sodden Oregon the challenge has been to find dry shoes every other day. The rain boots are great but “Xtratuf” boots are meant to fit tight and who wants to spend five minutes putting in shoes to shut the chicken door? They are also insulated which is great in winter but not so much in our warm soggy spring. The slip-ons are light and comfortable enough and dry out overnight, saving that dreaded boot experience of putting a warm, dry foot in a cold, wet shoe.
For twenty years I had three pairs of shoes; one heavy boots, one light boots and sandals. This being back before the internet I had shops that I new would carry my size and a regular rotation; the light boots replaced every spring and the heavy ones lasted two. The sandals varied between the two. Now of course we have the internet and most stores only carry the most common sizes because… well they know about the internet too. On one level I really enjoy being able to find sneakers my size, on the other I miss the relationships I had to build to find shoes before. The Portland REI shoe manager and I were on a first-name basis back in the day.
Buying shoes online is not fool-proof; a pair of sneakers I bought had a tread pattern that was apparently perfect for collecting large amounts of chicken poop and impossible to clean off without a scrub brush, meaning they were useless on the property. I can be miserly so I wore them out but I have never been so happy to put a pair of shoes in the trash.
Change is rarely entirely bad or good but rather a mix of things gained and things lost. Back in the late 90’s I remember my watch died while working in twenty miles up the Wynoochie River from the small town of Montasano Washington. The watch was essential for work so I fired up the VW bus that was my home and transportation and headed down the miles of unpaved road to the nearest store. In that town of a few thousand there was not one place that sold watches of any kind. Finally I asked someone and they suggested the WalMart in Aberdeen twenty miles further west. Fortunately this road was paved but I ended up driving nearly a hundred miles for a ten dollar watch.
Driving those miles in the long, cool Northwest Coast summer evening, windows open and the can-of-change rattle of the pancake motor jangling I thought about what this meant when the supply of goods was consolidated; Montasano had a gun shop but no hardware store so every can of paint and box of nails meant a forty minute drive. I had no idea of the changes ahead.
Twenty-two years and two hundred miles further south I live in another small town, and we have a hardware store that sells the essentials. It is more expensive then the big store in Eugene, and they don’t carry certain things that I need, but I try and use them regularly because I don’t want to have to drive an hour to get a paint brush some day. I am resolved to get my shoes mailed to me but if still do my best to get my daily needs filled in town when I can. Because those places make the town what it is; the small bookstore and the art-supply place that also sells guitar strings because the owner plays, the small bike store that has a dog wandering around. Without them Cottage Grove would be another off ramp and gas station along I-5.
Returning home in the middle of the social isolation these places were among the ones I missed the most; the restaurant that serves burgers and tofu, the used book store with it narrow stairs and smell of old paper. While I can still avail myself of the bike paths and covered bridges, the wet earth and smell of ceders, it still feels as though I am not entirely returned yet in some way. Cruising the three blocks of our downtown and looking at the silent storefronts was somber; how many of them will survive this? While airlines and hotel chains get billion dollar bail-outs will their be help for the places that make this town a town at all? I do not know and am doubtful as they have no lobbyists to grease elbows far away. But we can support our friends and neighbors and I for one am eager for the chance to do so.