The First Shoe
I am at once a shoe junky and a shoe snob. So when I took up this challenge, I knew I was going to spend a lot of time trying on shoes, finding the “perfect” choice for a 26.3 mile trek through the Andes Mountains. At the same time, I haven’t been in a proper trail shoe since the Fall of 2018, and I know my foot is going to have a lot of work to do before we go hiking in the mountains.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably never given a moment’s thought to the work your feet have to do. Sure, you walk while they carry your weight. But the feet are remarkable structures. There are 19 intrinsic muscles in the feet and another ten that are solely (see what I did there) confined to your feet and your ankles. Combined, these 29 muscles control or contribute to endurance, shock absorption, speed, general agility, and balance. They’re workhorses, but they’re also hard to work.
Enter my feet. I have my grandmother’s feet, my grandmother who famously could stand barefooted on a hard floor and her toes wouldn’t touch the ground — the product of high arches and an even higher high instep. For this reason, she claimed, she was more comfortable in high heels than in flats. The veracity of heels-vs-flats aside, when I stand flat footed on a hard surface, my toes barely brush the ground floor. All the while, I’ve spent much of the last four years working a relatively sedentary desk job, and my feet may well be the most out-of-shape part of my anatomy.
Nevertheless, I must find a pair of hiking shoes that will enable me to safely traverse a few trails, including a couple of high-altitude treks I’m planning in Utah this spring. For the “right” shoe, I’ll need an expert. And by expert, I mean someone who’s been on a trail sometime in the last three years. Enter: REI, the popular outfitters’ co-op.
REI was founded in Seattle, Washington in 1938 as an importer of quality alpinist gear to feed the Pacific Northwest’s growing interest in rock climbing and mountaineering. The company grew fairly quickly into a popular brand as outdoor activities became one of the U.S.’s favorite pastimes. Today, it operates in 39 states and maintains more than 160 locations — one of which is in Brentwood, TN.
If you’ve never before been to an REI co-op, you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s just another high-end retail brand designed to help boring, if somewhat wealthy, folks feel a little more active than they are when they take Skippy for a run around the lake. And yes, they stock a good selection of The North Face down-alternative jackets and Patagonia hats. But any similarity to Jimmy’s House of Rugged Style stops about three feet inside, when you’re greeted by your first REI associate.
That’s because the employees at REI are avid outdoor enthusiasts, each and every one. It’s a requirement of the job that they enjoy sporting hobbies. This requirement carries many benefits beyond the obvious aesthetic. Outdoors folk look different than those who’re just dressing the part.
On this particular December morning, a cold, miserable drizzle hung in the Tennessee air. I shivered against the last burst of winter wind that followed me through the door and into the warm, retail embrace of a post-holiday sale. As soon as the doors close, I notice that familiar aroma of earth. In particular, dry dirt.
That’s because the people who shop here aren’t buying fashion. They’re purchasing gear — usually to replace the gear they’re still wearing. They’re tracking in acres of silt and clay, mountains of tiny pebbles, and more than their fair share of pine needles stuck to their clothes. REI smells like a trail running alongside a river in the mountains.
I make my way back to the shoe department, with a brief detour in their Garage Sale room, a cavernous space lined with folding tables and filled with outdoor gear that’s been gently used, roughly treated, or otherwise has just outlived its previous owner’s usefulness. I briefly consider a pair of trekking poles, but I move on. I’m here for shoes.
REI smells like a trail running alongside a river in the mountains.
I haven’t gone into this blind, mind you. I did pre-research the best trail runners and hiking boots of 2021. I’m interested in Merrill’s Moab 2, though preferring a lighter shoe, as I do, they’re a bit heavy and beefy for my taste. I’m also interested in a pair of Salomon trail runners. The third shoe on my list, and at the bottom of it, is the Saucony Peregrine trail runner.
Terminology Shock: Trail Runners are lightweight shoes designed for agility and speed on trails, usually well-developed and maintained though not always paved. Hiking Shoes and hiking boots are beefier, with thicker soles, deeper treads, and a heavier overall construction, designed for durability and stability on less-developed trails and cross-country trekking.
The first REI associate in shoes approaches me and smiles. “How can I help you?” he asks. He’s maybe twenty-five, five-eleven, and has the wiry build of a cross country runner. I tell him I’m looking for hiking shoes, and he immediately nods. “Got it. Let me get Steve. He’s our hiker.”
A few moments later, up walks Steve. He’s roughly my age, but a lot of Sundays under a beating summer sun has left a patina that makes it hard to decide if he’s in his thirties and looks older or if he’s enjoying youthful vigor into his forties.
“Mark says you need some good trail shoes?” he asks. I confirm this.
“Yes. I’m doing the Inca Trail in August,” I say. He looks me up and down, somewhat incredulously, and I laugh. “Not like this, I’m not. I used to be an avid hiker, but I had a fall a few years ago. I’m training starting this week.”
“Good for you! Time to get back out there,” he says. We chat about the kinds of hikes I’m planning on doing, and he arrives at the same selection as had I: the Moab 2s, the Salomon, and the Saucony. Almost immediately, the Moab 2s are a no-go. I’m prone to bouts of dyshidrotic eczema and a waterproof shoe won’t breathe well enough to keep my feet from turning into itching, red stumps. Up next, the Saucony, which they have in a size larger than I need and a size smaller. Also, I get a little sticker shock.
That leaves the Saucony Peregrine. They have them in my size, and I don’t find their gray and orange color scheme particularly offensive. Best of all, they’re lightweight, but they are a hybrid shoe, existing somewhere between a hiking shoe and trail runner. The uppers are well-vented, and the soles are flexible and durable. Best of all, Steve tells me, they have a nice, solid rock layer to protect the soles of your feet.
I try both on and walk for a minute in the store, flexing my toes against the edge of a chair, twisting and pivoting. They seem to work and work well. “Might as well start breaking them in,” I say, as I place my ON Cloudswifts in the box.
Pro Tip: Don’t wear trail runners to work out. Those rock boards? They’re great on a trail, but in the flex and twist of a gym workout, they’re going to make your feet hurt. And bad.