These Old Shoes

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Hawaii's Stairway to Heaven

I bought my new shoes in 2012 at Scheels in Mankato on the cusp of my first solo backpacking trip. Merrells, size 9.5. Walnut grey with black soles.

Mom didn’t believe I was actually going, until we walked out of the shop with my new hiking shoes. Then my new backpack, tent, and ultralight sleeping bag arrived in the mail.

Who knew paying tuition on a credit card could rack up so many travel miles? Who knew donating plasma twice a week could be so profitable? Away I flew atop my new shoes, to the islands of Puerto Rico.

My new shoes took me through the rainforests of El Yunque, then to the island paradises of Culebra and Vieques, where wild horses roamed.

Careful, they told me, for certain sections of the islands still have unexploded bombs from extensive testing in the mid 1900s. I better be careful in my new shoes.

My new shoes took me to an abandoned U.S. military tank, where I set up my new tent for the week. It didn’t take long for my new shoes to fill with sand.

Later, I was happy that I emptied the sand out of my new shoes, because I had to run away from the Tsunami Zone after experiencing an earthquake while watching the sunset on the beach. Maybe it’s time to leave the island, I thought.

A few months later, my new shoes took me to Central America where they explored jungles, beaches, and climbed their first mountain. They didn’t get to assist me while I learned Spanish at a school in Costa Rica. My school didn’t mind bare feet.

While sliding on a metal bottomed sled down a volcano in Nicaragua, my new shoes showed their first signs of aging. Indeed, they were sacrificed in order to slow me down once I hit 50 mph. The gravel-like volcanic rocks scratched and clawed at my poor new shoes.

Yet, down to Panama, through the legal loophole that got me into Cuba, over to Guatemala and up another mountain, they took me. Then around the Mayan ruins of Tikal and over to the beaches of Belize.

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Eventually, my shoes made it back to my closet, where they enjoyed mini-retirement. They became my official Adventure Shoes. After all, they couldn’t go back to an ordinary everyday lifestyle after what they’d walked through, up, down, and around!

In the springtime, my Adventure Shoes begged me to take them out for “just a hike or two,” so I did. Out to the Maples, where we picked sap to make into delicious maple syrup. Around the thickets, looking for antlers dropped by the whitetail deer in late winter. My Adventure Shoes got muddy, but they cleaned up well.

That summer, they wanted to pedal me on a bike 4,000 miles across the country, but I needed a sleeker pair for that. My bulky old Adventure Shoes wouldn’t quite fit on the trim, streamlined pedals of the tandem bike we rode. My Adventure Shoes didn’t understand why they couldn’t come on this big adventure, so I promised them “next time.”

But I wasn’t sure if there would be a next time. I began to question their durability. The padding of the soles was worn out, there were holes in the toes. My thoughts turned to using them for wet shoes – walking through rivers while tubing or canoeing – and for doing things I knew would wreck a new pair of shoes.

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Alas, they found their true calling in the summer of 2015 at Camp Voyageur. I thought this would be their last ride. But they held on for three straight summers. My wet shoes jumped at the chance to flex their toughness and versatility. They happily hopped into the water and carried me with a canoe on my back across countless rugged portages. They supported me as I slashed and burned thousands of invading balsam trees and planted red pines and birch trees in their place. They even dried out when I climbed up and down the hills of Isle Royale and the Superior Hiking Trail.

Though they looked twice their age, my old shoes never seemed to lose their grip and, as a result, I had the stability of a mountain goat. Yet, the soles were as thin as ever and my toes kept poking out of the tips. I thought that it may be time to move on. But I didn’t tell my shoes that.

Finally, in 2018, it was time for my old shoes to walk off into the sunset, into glorious retirement. They just couldn’t provide the comfort they used to – my feet ached if I wore my old worn out shoes too long. And so, I bought my shoes’ great grandson, the latest version of my Merrell size 9.5 walnut greys.

But first, I thought, I could squeeze one last trip out my old reliables. “Time to saddle up, cowboys,” I told my precious old shoes, “One last ride.” How fitting would it be to complete the legendary Grand Portage in these old shoes? One last shot at glory, retire at the top— their final trip along the Voyageur’s Highway would end with an 8.5-mile portage and a jump into frigid Lake Superior.

Every step of the way, I thought, could be my old shoes’ last. I told my old shoes that I believed in them, but the extra duct tape in my pack hinted otherwise. I shouldn’t have doubted my old shoes, after all we’d been through. My old shoes proved me wrong, yet again, and as we jumped into Lake Superior in wild jubilation, it was truly the end of an era.

Now and then, I’ll gingerly take these old shoes out for some fresh air while I’m hauling wood or going for a quick walk around the block. My wistful old shoes are full of memories – from my formidable first backpacking trip as a tender-footed traveler, to their final trip across the fabled Grand Portage as a seasoned Voyageur. They can rest assured, knowing that they will be a part of me forever. My old shoes never let me down.

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