Chapter 4: Aix-en-Provence, Part II
With the start of my 1000-mile journey only weeks out, the pressure to solve the boot problem takes on urgency.
We both know it the second I answer. We can hear it in the accelerating progression of our sentences.
I tear out the Sure Feet and remove the original insoles. Suddenly, it all makes sense. There is too much movement in the heel with the layered up “two-ply” insoles. They are sponging the foot up and down with every step, a movement that is abrading my heels.
It is so simple! Stupidly simple! My heels are bouncing up and down against the back of the shoe as if they are on springs. My heels are being sanded down with every step. That’s why they feel comfortable in the shoe but are still causing such a problem. It all makes sense.
We get to the kids’ school to pick them up, and I remove the originals and walk around the car park with only the Sure Feet insoles, and sure enough without the second layer of insoles the boots even feel different. “They’re amazingly different,” I tell Melanie.
Oh, the relief of a solved problem!
I can finally start taking real walks of serious length and train like I need to. At this point my boots are starting to come up in conversations with people who couldn’t care less about whatever kind of religious walk I am going on, and even less about my boot problems. I can hear myself answering polite questions about the walk and then immediately launching into my cobbling woes. I’m becoming a bore. But now my boot problem is solved! I can stop doing that.
We are in the parking lot at the children’s school, and I share my discovery of the boot solution to some of the same people I have bored earlier with my problem, letting them know, almost by way of apology, that there is a coda to the boot story, that the overflow of anxiety around my boots has been managed.
I hint that, mercifully, I won’t be talking about it anymore, about this pilgrimage and the boots and what it all means, and why I am doing the whole thing, and whether it is religious or spiritual or some kind of Dances With Wolves life quest – all of that can go back into my private world. My life and worries won’t keep spilling over into conversations with strangers.
That weekend, and we’re edging towards October now, I go for a long walk with Melanie and the children.
This time I make it a couple of hours before the blistering begins. Much better, though, a hundred percent improvement: two hours not one hour, I note bitterly. Something must truly be fixed, because I’ve doubled my hiking time.
I’m completely disheartened. My heels are trashed by the time we get home. In desperation, I decide the problem now is just break-in time. I start wrapping my heels in duct-tape until everything settles in, and my heels have a chance to get back to normal and callused up a bit.
Taped up, I am now able to walk for three or four hours this way without crazy pain, but I still return from each hike with blisters, and after every hike I sit on the bathroom floor piercing my blisters with nail clippers and juicing out the blisters into Kleenex. The accumulated blister damage is starting to layer my heel skin so that they look like puff pastry. But I’m getting used to walking this way and looking at them. At this point, my theory is that I have soft feet and need to build up calluses of layered blisters. It has nothing to do with the boots. It’s me.
So, I suck it up. I wrap my feet in duct tape, and let things toughen up. But when my kids look at my feet, they wrinkle their faces in concern, in disgust even, and I start to wonder what will happen to my feet if they are wrapped in duct tape for ten weeks. I also see that duct tape on top of blisters tears big strips of blistered skin off when removed. That can cause tearing into the good skin and possibly infection.
During one of the children’s school vacations, we leave for Greece for a couple of weeks, and my feet and my mind get a rest. Then one morning we are on a beach in Santorini, and I peel off layer after layer of heel skin from both feet. I can’t believe how much heel is coming off – big pieces that you can roll into soft tubes of dead skin.
After the trip, with my feet finally healed up, I go for a walk in the shoes and within an hour I have to remove the boots because of the blistering and the pain. I’m up in the middle of the night thinking about it now, thinking about whether I’m going to be able to make the trip if I don’t get this sorted. The clock is running out for training properly. We’re in November. This is the first point when I consider the preposterous idea of returning to Seattle to go my boot guy.
What really gets me is that I don’t understand. I want to understand, and that’s probably why I start bringing it up with everybody again. I just don’t get it. And I don’t know what the problem is, and everybody I talk to has a different theory. I am confused. I could just buy new shoes, but I don’t understand what kind to buy. I don’t know whether they are too tight or too loose. I don’t know what I’d do differently. I don’t know if it is an arch problem, a shape of heel problem, an angle of insole problem, a lacing problem, a sock problem, a boot shape problem, a break-in problem, a toughness of foot problem.
I don’t know whether the insole is sitting inside the boot incorrectly and I have to angle it differently somehow. I don’t know who to ask. I can’t get over the fact that the boots are comfortable when I first put them on. At first, they never seem to pinch or do anything wrong, so just buying new boots isn’t going to do anything. It’s just another Hail Mary pass. And they aren’t cheap, these boots. I paid almost three hundred dollars for this pair I explain, practically arguing at Melanie. But it is not really a money issue. I don’t understand the problem, and that’s the problem. I have big problems with my feet and my mind now.
My whole life is this shit. It’s exactly what I was trying to get away from moving here and walking this fucking thing.
In early December, a close friend visits from the States. He is older and wiser and twice the adventurer that I am, and he suggests in his quiet, subtle, matter-of-fact way that I need to give up on those boots and try a different pair. And maybe “ASAP.” I think fuck, and I say it out loud, but he’s right. After another brutal two-hour hike with a final modest incremental change that doesn’t pan out into relief, this final Hail Mary relating to the thickness of socks, I give up. I have exhausted reason.
I go to the mountaineering store to buy a new pair of boots, because maybe it really is the shoes. Maybe the shoes feel right, but they’re just not. It is foolish, but I had a vision of getting to Finisterre in this exact pair of shoes, and now that won’t happen. The initial vision has shifted, and I resist. I had forsaken all other shoes, and now I have to forsake these ones, too. As troubled as our relationship is, they are my shoes and we were going to get there together.
I am not joking. This may seem patently foolish to you, but I am rigid in this way, overly focused on one specific thing, and just bumping up against it over and over. And I am confused by the prospect of a different pair of shoes, and this one just sitting in the closet waiting to be returned to REI. I hate that. I want to solve the problem with this pair. My pair. I want to solve the problem. I don’t want to be confused.
At the mountaineering store my friend and I spend a half hour talking across the language divide about the problem. The salesperson insists I need extremely light-weight shoes, almost like hiking sneakers. That’s what people walk the Camino in these days he explains, a bit too forcefully for somebody who hasn’t done it himself. He is an Iron Man kind of guy, a cross country runner, and that’s not the same thing at all, I think. He has a different set of problems.
What he’s saying doesn’t jive with what I know about protecting your ankle wearing a backpack or protecting the bottoms of your feet from the extreme bruising over the course of the trip. You might get away with those shoes for a week or two, but long-term you are going to pay for not protecting your feet. The people he’s talking about might do the route over years and years in smaller increments, Mediterranean style, two weeks at a time and then go home and start again the next summer. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m going to be walking out there for two and a half months straight, the days rowed up like a gauntlet. I can’t do that in sneakers. The guy’s also telling me the Camino is all flat and that isn’t right either. I’m crossing over the Pyrenees in northeastern Spain.
Just like it is hard to let go of walking in my REI boots, now he’s urging me to abandon the type of shoes I’d selected altogether. There is a blurry line in my mind between what is my idiosyncratic foolishness over how I thought it was going to be and my stubborn stick-to-it versus what may be really bad advice by somebody who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m not sure what voices to listen to. More confusion.
I hope it isn’t a thousand miles of this. If I had wanted to wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety racing down my arms, I would have just stayed home and run my business. But I chose this journey and this year off because I wanted a great big mindless road away from all of that. Everything is planned exactly how it is going to be. So, I need to be successful. I need to get there. I need to do it a certain way, the way I’ve planned.
But in my imagination, everything heads to the same endpoint, an ugly scenario that is becoming more probable by the day. And, if I’m honest, it may not have been all that unlikely in the first place. I now imagine Melanie and the kids meeting me two weeks into the walk. They’ve gotten a you-need-to-come-get-me call from some place not even that far from the house.
The I can’t make it call.
The cry for help.
I see them driving me home in silence, my pack thrown into the back of the car, the miserable boots off, my feet screaming and probably injured, the children quiet. I hate failure. I’m not interested in failure. You only have to fail one time in life to understand it completely and forever.
I want to get to the end of the world and walk 1000 miles from a single step because some people actually do, and I want to be one of them, and because this may be the one chance in my life where I have the time, the resources, and the focus to get away from all of this.
And, no, the second pair of boots don’t work either.
Two days before Christmas, I decide to try a final boot purchase.
I go to Decathlon, a mega sporting goods store in Aix-en-Provence. I try on every single make and size hiking boot they have on display. I am there for almost two hours. I try on the size I think is right and the size above. I try a smaller one to feel the differences. I try them back and forth, alternating, comparing, contrasting, sticking my index finger behind my heels. I try to listen to every nuance with my feet. I walk on their modest little incline boot-test walkway. I try everything multiple times as much to be sure and to check as to make sure that I’m not being rash in my selection and cursing the karma of the thing. I do this because now I’m up to superstitious thinking.
Too often in life I buy jeans and clothing without really trying them on carefully, and then I get home and find out they don’t fit correctly, and then I’m too lazy to return them. I won’t allow that to happen. I won’t be sloppy. If I fail, I will fail thoughtfully and carefully. While I’m trying on all of these shoes, I notice, with grim, ironic amusement, that I have some serious blisters on the back of my pinkies from pulling so hard on so many laces on so many different pairs of shoes.
It eventually comes down to two pairs, both of which seem about the same, a pair of Solomon’s that are heavy and rugged, probably too rugged for the long hike, but feel good and a pair of Meindl’s that are some German brand I’ve never heard of. They also feel pretty good.
But I don’t know. I truly don’t know.
I spend forty-five minutes walking around in them, this pair and then that pair, waiting for the inevitable pain to reveal itself. This is my last chance for a pair of boots. If these don’t work out, I’m wasting my time and I will have to try to get to Finisterre in sneakers. Or maybe with a little Indian mat I roll out in front of myself so that I can crawl there on my hands and knees.
I don’t believe in God anymore, certainly not a personal God in a vast universe who helps this set of tiny beings but not that set of tiny beings. I don’t think Anyone’s out there listening to my nano-problems, certainly not my boot problems or my I’m failing a week into the pilgrimage and, sob, it will be a personal disaster. Oh, tears in heaven! It’s absurd on the face of it. What God would take that call?
When friends on Facebook announce their father or sister or somebody they love is gravely ill or is suddenly in the hospital, and they ask everybody to pray, I don’t. It’s like I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Something hard tightens. Something inside gets stubborn and hollow.
But I confess that as I am standing there in the hiking boot aisle of the Aix-en-Provence mega sporting goods complex, very quickly, and in a way that nobody watching me would ever notice, I close my eyes for a fraction of a second and say a small prayer as I make my last boot selection.
I am on the Camino.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.