Chapter 3: Aix-en-Provence, Part I
So, it turns out the journey of a thousand miles begins at the boot store. Finding hiking boots that don't injure my feet grows from a nagging worry to a full-on spiritual crisis.
Everything written about the Camino talks about your feet.
Well, ok, your mind and your feet. You walk for six to eight hours a day straight for weeks on end, fifteen to thirty miles a day, and your feet take a beating no matter how good your shoes are. Shoes that don’t fit end the hike early and abruptly. If you’re coming all the way from Aix-en-Provence, your boots need to get you over a thousand miles, up and over the Pyrenees, not to mention across the width of France and Spain, two pretty wide countries even generally stacked on top of each other.
The books all say you don’t need heavy boots like you need in mountaineering. You’re not going to be scrambling up the face of rocky ledges, not unless you get terribly lost anyway. You don’t want the weight of the shoes to become a drag on your knees and back, and you don’t want your feet to sweat a lot, because they’ll blister and that’s not good either. Sweat and moisture on your feet are such a big deal that you’re supposed to take your shoes and socks off and dry everything in the midday sun. For Camino pilgrims, blisters on the feet are as ominous as low-orbit vultures.
But going too light with the shoes is also not great. Your boots need to provide ankle protection and tough, thick soles to protect your feet, because they will start to get bruised and tender out there after a month or so, and that’s under the best of circumstances. One pilgrimage author wrote that by the eighth week he could feel every pebble on the road for the first hour of the day until his feet went numb. So, the advice from the street is to buy the best middle-weight pair you can and to break them in well in advance, to live in them, to forsake all other shoes. They are kind of like your home out there, and just like a home they should be a little more expensive than you think you can afford.
I go to REI in Seattle the weekend of their annual sale, and it is so busy that I can barely find a place to lace up my boots to try them on. By the time I get back from a trial walkabout, somebody else is on my bench. But I find a helpful sales associate and explain what I am trying to accomplish, and she points me towards a few different possibilities and away from some others. I march up and down the hiker’s shoe-test playground structure, waiting for, or stepping past, or over, unattended children. I lean towards a pair of Asolo’s, a high-end boot manufacturer, picking one of the more expensive pairs they sold. They are the same company whose boots got me up Mt. Rainier two years earlier.
They feel good, but I really don’t know. They feel comfortable. The salesperson thinks I might want a pair of orange Sure Feet insoles even to try the boots on with, so I add those. It is a hiking boot best practice that you swap the original boot insoles for better ones. The boots feel comfortable when I step into them, and the toes don’t press forward which I know is a key consideration. I also can’t feel up-and-down movement in the heel which is good. You need the heel stable in the shoe. By the time I decide on the Asolo’s, the sales associate is busy with a small crowd of people. I can’t even catch her eye to thank her.
I buy a new sleeping bag that day as well, a lighter one than I have already. Just in case I get stuck in the mountain crossing and need emergency shelter, I add a lightweight bivy sack which is a kind of miniature one-person tent, a sleeping bag liner, sweat-wicking socks of varying technologies and weight to try out, and a number of other miscellaneous items from my pilgrimage equipment checklists.
I already have a lot of the equipment I need from the Rainier climb: a high-end backpack, lightweight telescoping walking poles, camping cutlery and bowls, a medical kit in a waterproof pouch, high-tech long johns, layered nylon clothing that can be dried on a cord over my bunk in a single evening, a balaclava, a good North Face hat that actually muffles sound, warm gloves, a heart monitor for training beforehand, hard core rain gear.
There are also a number of minor things I know to bring, like the duct-tape wrapped around my two-liter water bottles and the large size GLAD trash bags to protect the backpack contents from the elements. It is a climber’s trick that duct-tape can be wrapped around sensitive skin in areas prone to blistering. If you don’t take the time to pick it off, it leaves grey glue on your skin for days, but it is far more effective than moleskin or second skin or any other pre-blister or post-blister bandaging materials.
Our house is in an uproar with preparations for the move to France and getting our Bainbridge Island home ready for our renters, but in one corner of our bedroom I take a moment to assemble my pile of pilgrimage gear and books. I lay everything out so that I see each individual item. I do it with a touch of storefront artistry, putting the red backpack in the center, the extendable hiking poles standing tall next to it, the old socks in balls, the new socks still in their store-peg holders, flat and layered on each other, the shirts laid out with their arms crossed, my hiking boots with the Gore-Tex tags attached.
Before the move to France we are extremely busy working through our pre-move to-do lists, so I do not try out the boots before we leave.
The first hint of trouble is a month later in the Cévennes National Park in France. The boots are still brand new. I cut the tags off them in the little rental kitchen where we are staying. I need to start to break them in, so Daniel and I walk down an old dirt road and towards a nearby town, probably not more than a couple miles each way, but we turn back before we get there because I can feel hotspots forming on both of my heels.
By the time we get back to the rental apartment I am limping, and there are blisters on the back edge of each heel the size of nickels. I assume it is because I’ve rushed it, that the boots weren’t broken in, but it sure is a lot of damage for a one hour walk with no pack. I am a little shocked at the size of the blisters. I’ve never blistered that quickly before. Maybe it was just too long without hiking and my feet were soft.
I let the blisters heal, and a few weeks later in August, after wearing the boots for a few nights around the rental we’re in, I take a short walk with Melanie. We are in the small Alsatian town of Hunspach near the French-German border. Within half an hour, I can feel blisters forming again. That just doesn’t seem right, and I feel my first small anxiety around the shoes. These are good shoes. Expensive shoes. They fit. They are comfortable when I first put them on. They are hiking boots not mountaineering boots. They shouldn’t require that much break-in.
I look at my heels wondering if their natural shape is the problem. They seem kind of knobbly, but I’ve never had heel blister problems with shoes in the past. Still, the more you stare at a body part, the stranger it becomes, and I start to think that it is the shape of my heels that is causing the problem, or my feet are too skinny and moving around in some unexpected way. It is all a bit unnerving. I feel the shoes are kind of stiff and tough, but they need to be for the long hike, right? Maybe I am just breaking them in too quickly.
It is more time and patience I need. I rush everything. I know that.
So, I slow down the break-in even further, and in September, when we get to our home for the year in Rognes – when I need to start training in earnest – I go through the same break-in process again, but even more slowly and deliberately.
Again, the same results.
I let the blisters heal, and then try lacing the shoes differently and working modest incremental theories on what could be going wrong, but each experiment ends in failure. I walk back down from the hills near our home in the sneakers I carry along and always have to change into midway.
On the Rainier climb I had also had foot problems with my shoes. It was a different problem, though, one that had nothing to do with my heels. That time, I was wearing a pair of mountaineering boots, which are almost as inflexible as ski boots, and after an hour of walking I would get a stabbing pain above the round ankle bone on my left foot. A member of the climbing team gave me the name of Jim Mates, a guy famous in Seattle skiing and outdoor adventure circles. He had a specialty business he ran out of his basement modifying shoes. So, I went to him with my ankle problem.
He made me walk back and forth across his floor. He observed how I stood and how I leaned. He watched me with the concentrated, expressionless focus of a doctor. He remarked on the subtle difference in the lengths of my two legs without my telling him. He made me hop and jump and watched how my anatomy cooperated or did not cooperate with the mountaineering shoes. He marked my bare feet with lipstick and had me step carefully into the boots to see where the pressure points were inside. Then he took my boots and wriggled them onto what looked like the round steel ball hitch of a tow truck. He pressed down on the boot with a jerry-rigged clamp, shaping the boot to the idiosyncracies of my feet in various places, clearing spaces for bony outcroppings. Those mountaineering boots never hurt again after that. Not a peep out of my feet.
It was a small miracle, and like most small miracles I soon forgot about the mountaineering abyss from which he had rescued me.
So, now I need to find a boot guy in France. I discover a mountaineering shop right in Aix-en-Provence, which is the nearest city of any size to us, and they refer me to a cordonnier a few blocks from their shop. The door sign at the front mentions mountain and rock climbing, and that seems encouraging. The guy at the desk listens to my problem in my broken French, and he explains, insofar as I understand what he is saying, that he will stretch the heel only, the length in other words, and not the width of the shoe.
He will do it in rounds, petit à petit, for eight Euros. This is either for each round or maybe once for all rounds or maybe it is eight Euros for each foot. I’m not sure, but I understand the multiple visits idea and the number eight. This could get expensive fast, but I don’t truly care as long as he fixes the problem.
But there are no preliminary tests beforehand like there were at the Seattle boot guy, and I ask him if he wants me to wear them in the shop so he can see, but he doesn’t need to do that. He just needs the shoes handed over the counter, and he’ll have them done by Friday. I try to ask if blisters are forming on my heels because the shoes are too loose or too tight. He doesn’t understand what I am asking. I am disappointed by the lack of diagnostic foreplay, because I’m really hoping to understand why the blisters are forming, a puzzle that is becoming increasingly frustrating. What if stretching is the opposite of what I need? Nevertheless, I am relieved to be delegating the problem and taking some action, even if it has an element of flailing.
There is an exciting epiphany the day Melanie and I pick up the boots from the cordonnier.
I put the boots on right after I get them, and I’m walking around Aix with Melanie. The boots feel basically the same and, of course, it takes an hour anyway for my blister problems to show up, but suddenly, and I don’t remember why, Melanie asks me about the insoles. She asks me what I did with the original insoles, suggesting maybe I should try them instead of the orange Sure Feet. She is concerned that maybe I left the original insoles in the States. I say that no I didn’t leave them in the States. They are underneath the Sure Feet insoles. Directly beneath them. The Sure Feet are on top. The original ones are on bottom.
Ohmygod, we had it…
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.