Appropriate Footwear for Hiking Mountains: the Agent L Guide

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We here at Agent L headquarters have been rather ambivalent about hiking, camping and other outdoor sports for years, which in retrospect is kind of funny, as we grew up next to Patapsco State Park and spent our adolescence combing the hills off trail, exploring all the creeks and ravines and spending aimless hours by the river, dangling scratched and tanned legs from fallen trees hanging over crevices. One of our most magical memories is setting off in a direction we never had before, crossing a ravine we didn’t remember ever having come across, and finding, literally miles from anything, even any old stone foundations that one sometimes comes across, a midden on a hillside. We picked through it- all oyster shells and delicate bones, and miscellaneous china doll limbs and old broken bottles. We never could find that hill again, though we tried.

As an adult, though, I’ve hiked perhaps half a dozen times.

So when James asked if I wanted to climb Dude Mountain with him, I hesitated for a moment before going, “Yeah, okay.” Then I got excited. I imagined scaling the mountain side with limited difficulty, stopping to take pictures of the vales and views. I was basing this on 20 year old memories of skimming over the gently rolling hills of Maryland. I wasn’t totally delusional. I recognized that I was an out of shape smoker, and imagined there’d be some huffing and puffing, but nothing, I imagined, I couldn’t handle with grace and good humor. So James got in his car to come get me and I got ready to go.

I wore a tunic for the hike, and packed a cardigan and jacket in my computer bag because I own nothing like a backpack, and slipped into my shoes.

A note about that: I have famously worn ballet flats all summer. I wore them to work in inclement weather. I wore them ziplining. I wore them boating. The only shoes I owned all summer were two pairs of nearly identical black flats, which is probably why I was routinely mistaken for a tourist. The footwear of choice here is X-tra Tuffs, a sturdy rubber boot which might be practical in a temperate rainforest, but are awful expensive for being so ugly.

xtra tuffs

So when I say I put on my shoes to go hiking, I mean I put on a pair of black ballet flats.

Dude Mountain, on a side note, is lesser known than Ketchikan’s most famous hiking trail, Deer Mountain. At half the length though, it’s less of an investment in time and effort. James and I did it in a little over three hours, including a good amount of time at the top. Brown Mountain Road takes you about half-way up, I’d say, along a beautiful road that drops off on the side to display mountain after mountain stretching off into the distance. Those who find themselves in Ketchikan looking for a great drive, Brown Mountain Road can’t be beat for views.

We parked where the road ended, and started into the woods along a dirt and gravel path. I was winded after a few minutes, but not terribly, and we took our first water break at a break in the trees about ten minutes in. Perhaps ten minutes later the stairs started. Roughly 2/3rds of the trail is made up of high steps made of wood planks, broken up by wood plank bridges over creeks and streams and runoff rivulets. I handled the first five minutes of climbing up relentless and uneven stairs with good humor. Then my humor began to fade.

We stopped for water at a platform put in for people to pitch tents on. Just when my lungs had stopped burning, James urged us on. That was one of the last breaks I got- I fell further and further behind, and James would periodically wait for me, enjoying the view and his water, and as soon as I caught up he’d cheerfully press on. The stairs went up relentlessly… step after horrible step, corner after dreadful corner. Because they were so uneven and because some boards were loose, I had little opportunity to look around- a glance at a group of wild flowers here, a particularly nice bush admired peripherally there- but had to keep my eyes mostly glued on the source of my torment.

“Nothing is worth this,” I came to repeat to myself like a very negative mantra. “No view could possibly be worth this. I am never doing this again. I wish I’d said no.”

The stairs ended at a steep path of gravel, which I hauled myself along with little difficulty. (Though steeper, it was so much better than the stairs.) The gravel dried up though, and the path turned to dirt and leveled became, if anything, steeper. It was fun, though, pulling myself up by tree roots and saplings, until my flats, now slick on the inside with mud and sweat, started to slip off. After I’d stopped three times to retrieve a shoe that’d fallen behind and James was peering concernedly down at me from above, I gave up, shucked them off, and put them into my computer bag.

The path leveled off into a narrow ridge that James said is bordered by riots of wildflowers in the summer. The soil here was nice beneath my feet- drier and loamy, sandy and curiously cool. Best of all, the next hill over was dotted with snowy white mountain goats- a dozen or so of them. We were admiring them when two hikers coming down met us. They both looked at my feet.

“Um, I brought the wrong shoes, so now they’re in my bag,” I said, feeling stupid.

“Right on.”

We chatted, they let us look at the mountain goats through their binoculars, and we went on our way. There was a final push and then we were in grass- on the top! And all of my crankiness faded away. We dumped our things by a rock and went exploring, and stared, just stared at the views.

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The grass felt wonderful on my battered feet.

On the way down, on the steep bits I went down sliding on my bottom, much to James’s amusement.

“It’s more sensible,” I said. “You can’t fall if you’re already down.”

“I almost bit it here, last time,” he admitted at a particularly tricky turn a bit later.

“You weren’t going down on your bottom,” I said smugly.

At the bottom of the first big dirt push, we found, sitting on a fallen branch, one of my shoes. I looked in my bag. Sure enough, there was only one of my shoes there.

“Holy Hannah!”

“That was really nice of those hikers,” James said.

I agreed.

It took three full showers to scrub the dirt out of my feet.

NB!!!! At the top, stay together. Sound does NOT travel well and it’s very easy to get disconcerted and lost.

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4 Responses to Appropriate Footwear for Hiking Mountains: the Agent L Guide

  1. Alan says:

    Ahhh! Such views . . . and, let’s face it, shoes of any description are a relatively recent affectation!

  2. Deri says:

    Beautiful pictures, except for the one showing your feet. Three years ago I went with some friends on an old fishing boat (with old fisherman) to explore a Byzantine castle. He leaped ashore barefoot on the snowy white beach he took us to. So I did too. And followed him along goat trails and up rocky paths. When we returned I wondered at the blood on his deck, then saw it dripping from my feet. His feet had more natural leather than most shoes, mine did not. The soles of my feet had been ribboned by the clamshell beach. I felt nothing (nerves destroyed by diabetes). It took 3 months of constant bandaging before the skin grew back. I don’t recommend it.

  3. pdb says:

    This was worth the wait. Allow me to say again that you’re a wonderful writer.

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