I too have learned one thing—that if you’re interested in learning about barefoot walking, or the “barefoot lifestyle,” as it’s sometimes called, there are lots of people out there who are interested in teaching you. Websites like barefooters.org, the official site of the Society for Barefoot Living, will stridently explain that, for example, it is generally not illegal to drive barefoot, despite what you’ve heard. (This is true.) And that only a few state health departments forbid people from going barefoot in restaurants (also true), never mind all those signs that say no shirt, no shoes, no service, which are the handiwork of fascistic barefoot-haters.
Follow these enthusiasts too far, though, and you fall down a rabbit hole of eccentricity. While there are many legitimate and relatively non-cuckoo clubs for barefoot hiking across the country, my search for some walking–barefoot–in–New York City enthusiasts led me to barefoot .meetup.com, which led me to Keith (“I’m a 43-year-old man looking to meet new friends with my same interests”), which led me to “Dafizzle” (“I like dirty feet and want to meet others who love walking in the city with dirty feet”), which led me to Ricky (“I’m a 24-year-old male looking for females that like to have their feet played with”). Which led me to abandon my search for a barefoot-walking group in New York.
But any worries I have that Amy Matthews’s class will be consumed with flaky spirit quests or roving toe-fetishists are quickly dispelled as she pulls out a model of a skeletal foot. We spend the next hour learning about the 24 (or, for some people, 26) bones in the foot, from the calcaneus (heel bone) to the tips of our phalanges (toe bones). There’s so much information to absorb that, by the time we are back up and walking again, I’ve already more or less forgotten the distinction between the cuneiform and the cuboid. So it’s difficult for me to examine other people’s feet while they’re at a standstill, which is our next assignment. Which I figure is fine, given that, unlike the rest of these people, I consider myself a very accomplished walker. I mean, sure, I have occasional back pain, and okay, when I walk long distances, I feel a grinding pain in my hip that I never used to feel before. And, yes, when I visited Michael Bulger, a structural integrationist near Washington Park with an expertise in “Rolfing,” a kind of deep-tissue massage, and he Rolfed one of my feet, then had me walk around a bit for a before-and-after comparison, I felt, thanks to my un-Rolfed foot, like a pirate walking on a peg leg.
Still, I’m feeling pretty confident when it’s my turn to have my feet assessed. The other students examine. They confer. They seem concerned. Apparently, my ankle bones are stacked like a tower of Jenga blocks that’s about to topple.
Then Matthews sits splay-legged in front of me, puts her hand on my ankle, and asks me to move my talus bone. Weirdly, I’m able to do this. She explains that, when we don’t use our feet properly, our muscles have to strain to compensate—not just in our feet but in our whole body. She asks me to lift the front of my foot, which I also do. She then replants my foot and asks me to “trust my bones to hold me up.”
And I have to tell you, in that brief moment, it felt like I had never stood up properly on my own two feet before in my entire life.
After class, I put my chunky Blundstone boots back on, and I tried to replicate that feeling of “standing on my bones.” I couldn’t, mostly because in my shoes, my feet couldn’t even feel the ground. I spent the rest of the day clomping around the city feeling like a guy wearing concrete blocks, waiting to be thrown in the East River.
Life consists of what a man is thinking of all day,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and right now I’m thinking of my feet. I’m test-driving a pair of Galahad Clark’s Vivo Barefoot shoes, which makes it hard to think about anything else.
Barefoot running has been a subject of interest for serious runners for decades, at least since Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila ran the Olympic marathon in Rome in 1960 in bare feet—and won. But barefoot running is a difficult discipline that needs to be learned properly, and you certainly shouldn’t be getting advice about it from me, someone who gets winded running for a cab. The real question for New Yorkers is, What about barefoot walking? Is it possible we could be walking better? Well, if my first few minutes in the Vivo Barefoot is any indication, the answer is, Ouch. Yes. Ouch.