WLVT: Barefoot on the Appalachian Trail
Maybe Cheryl Strayed had the right idea after all, tossing her hiking boot off a cliff on the Pacific Crest Trail, I think as the soles of my bare feet squish into the soothing coolness of the mud of the Appalachian Trail. I’m the last in our group of nine hikers, lingering to be more in the company of the trees.
After riding the gondola up Stratton Mountain, we paused in a small, grassy clearing along the Appalachian Trail (AT). Our naturalist guide Efan Hsieh instructed us to put our fingers in our ears and walk as if we were late for a meeting. My fellow hikers found this experience loud and jarring. Efan explained that in our society today, we tend to walk with our heads and thus our centers of gravity forward, and this jars our bones. That jarring sensation we felt was literally the impact of bones and cartilage against each other.
Efan tells us that foxwalking - the name of this hike we’ve come on - is not simply a synonym for barefoot. Foxwalking is walking with your center of gravity back, leading with your feet, and allowing the ball of your foot—not heel—to hit the ground first. You don’t even have to look at the ground, Efan says, your feet are your eyes. She demonstrates feeling the ground with her foot before placing it down.
Barefoot, I’m acutely aware of the transitions in the trail—from smooth dirt to rocky to wood planks to mud—and of how cold the mud is, still holding the chill of a 40-degree night. I’m also aware of how alive I am, connected to rather than separated from the earth. I breathe deeply and the scent of pine fills my lungs. I think of Cheryl Strayed and her boot. I sense my body syncing with the earth’s energy, an electrical charge our bodies are designed to absorb but which our rubber-soled shoes block.
We stop at a hemlock tree and taste the edible buds of new leaves. This spring’s growth has a sour, almost lemony flavor. We walk on, pausing to look at moose tracks. Moose place their right hind foot in the track of their left front foot and vice versa, so their tracks are in a straight line.
All my senses are engaged; my feet touch the bare earth, my mouth tastes the hemlock, my nose smells the pines, my eyes see the moose tracks, and my ears hear birds chirping. I wonder how much practice foxwalking it would take to be able to hike the whole AT barefoot. I usually do my long-distance, human-powered travel by bicycle but maybe one day I’ll hike the whole AT barefoot. Maybe. A seed has been planted.
~ Heather Andersen is the author of the award-winning memoir I Never Intended to Be Brave: A Woman’s Bicycle Journey Through Southern Africa. She’s bicycled on six continents and in all 50 U.S. states. A writer, bicycle tour leader, and certified yoga teacher, Heather believes in spending time outdoors every day, seizing the moment, and living a life of no regrets. For more info about Heather or her book, including a free sample chapter, see www.bicyclingheather.com. Follow Heather at www.facebook.com/INeverIntendedtobeBrave.