Wherever we have been, we will always be
It was a day in early May but it felt far more like one in March—the ever-present wind, the seasons unmistakably battling for recognition. By this time in spring, you would hope that this struggle would have ended, won by the gentler of the two seasons, but this in the Midwest, and here spring is but a moment, a season that forever looks over its shoulder uncertain if winter is truly gone. In this reality, one dresses accordingly. Despite recent days of temperatures in the 80s, it was now in the 50s, requiring long pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a light jacket, and my desert chukka boots.
My walk was to the small downtown of our village, a chance to shake off some early-day blues. As I approached the park at about the halfway mark, one of the boots’ laces become undone. I leaned against a park bench to re-tie it, and for whatever reason—the morning light, the quiet hour, my insular mood—I was seeing my boots for the very first time.
The suede had seen better days. The toes had become discolored, stained from weather and earth, the heel of one had been scuffed enough to pill. The light-colored crepe soles had turned nearly black from hundreds of walks in tall grass, mud, forest trails, and grimy city streets. My boots were overdue for a little love—a good wiping down and brushing. But in that moment, I wanted only to see them as they had become—the boots of my soul, the boots of all I had been.
These boots were of many place—along the streets of Old Havana at 2 a.m. after a long day of mojitos and cigars and visiting room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, in and out of the dark pubs in Dublin and St. Andrews, along the trail at the Cliffs of Moher to watch the pounding sea. They had been on my feet on a night walk in London, lost and desperate to find the Piccadilly Circus underground train station, praying not to miss the last train to Danbury and Wroxton Abbey where I had been staying to write. They had helped me climb a dusty red trail in Moab, navigate a coastal walk high above the sea on an island in the Pacific Northwest. The boots had carried me along a steep hike in Maine with my infant son strapped to my chest, the lobster traps visible in the churning bay below. They had navigated me through City Lights and North Beach, and to the home of Kerouac in Orlando, to the steps of Notre Dame and then in the midnight hour to an outdoor table at Cafe de la Paix where I ordered a bottle of red wine and smoked a Dunhill cigarette, watching young lovers swear their loyalty on the steps of the Palais Garnier. These boots had carried me to the great bull ring in Seville and through the labyrinths of the Alhambra. And they had been on my feet on ordinary neighborhood walks like this, only a mile from home on a chilly spring day with no destination or obligation. Every stain and scuff had become a souvenir—a piece of a journey, travels both large and small, bold and delicate. Where these boots had been, I had been.
I tightened the lace and brushed away a wet leaf that had clung to the sole. I looked at one boot and the other, and back again for many minutes.
The story of the desert boot varies by the teller. It is said that the original modern-day chukka was worn by polo players. The desert chukka, however, was the footwear of British soldiers in the campaign in Northern Africa during World War II, inspired by men who wore similar boots at the bazaars in Cairo and the Dutch South African “vellie,” a field shoe worn in the 1700s. In the years after the war, the desert boot become popular footwear in the U.K., and eventually emerged as the boot of the counterculture. As the story goes, they were worn by Parisian students during the demonstrations against capitalism and consumerism in May of 1968. The city’s students sparked a social revolution that encouraged millions of factory workers to go on strike for two weeks until then-President Charles de Gaulle called for new parliamentary elections.
I took the walkway near the elementary school and the church, across the tracks and into town, ordered a black coffee at a shop at the crossroads, sat on the stone seats under a trellis in the middle of the village, and considered great walkers who had done what I was now doing, marching off to feed the soul—William Wordsworth, Dickens, Thoreau, Kierkegaard. And the great travel writers, too—Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Robert Macfarlane, Bruce Chatwin, Hunter S. Thompson. What shoes did they wear? What boots got them where they were going?
A few nights before, my wife and I had attended a special Vincent van Gogh exhibit in Chicago., the one making the rounds around the world, an immersive experience created with nearly a million projected digital pixels across the walls and floor, transporting the viewer inside the artists’ works. With that night still reverberating, and my mind on my old boots, one of van Gogh’s less-celebrated paintings came to mind.
Vincent van Gogh painted several still lives of shoes and boots during his Paris period. But A Pair of Shoes is the most recognized. It’s believed he bought the workman's boots at a flea market to use as the focal point of a considered work, but after finding them in better condition than he had hoped, he wore them on long walks in the rain, breaking down the stiff leather to something soft, pliable, and fully weathered. Only then were they worthy of painting.
My desert boots—with so many years on them, with the suede blotched and scraped, with the soiled soles—had become worthy, too. They had captured thousands of steps in a life, holding my feet secure to the ground, helping to propel me to something new and linking me to the familiar. These boots have been on my feet longer than any other pair of shoes I have owned, been mine longer than any article of clothing in my closet, with me longer than some of the people I love. These boots are my story. These boots are me.
On the way home, with the sound of morning birds in the branches above and the rap of a distant woodpecker, a light rain began to fall. Not enough to force me to rush or to take shelter, but for a moment, I worried. If it began to rain harder, it would not be best for my boots. I quickly dismissed the thought and whispered to myself, “Go ahead. Let it rain.”