TL;DR: Dai has a barefoot adventure
Being barefoot brings burden. You have to set your own rules. Some are die-hard – never a shoe in sight of sole. Never compromise. But that’s not my way. I wear my naked feet when I feel it’s okay. By default my choice is to be shoeless. But some things require footwear: football, cricket, tennis, uniforms. It would be misrepresentative not to expose my wrestle with pushing to be footloose everywhere I go. But there are expectations to meet. I am not the type to live beyond the influence of social expectation.
– i was drinking when i wrote this –
I am writing this in the last of today’s sunshine in Crete, 34C at 19:00. With a long cold beer to wash away my pain. Yesterday I walked the descent of the Samaria Gorge in my bare feet. It was a big deal. No one had done it before and the guides and guards argued against it or looked at me like the foreign fool who will suffer and learn the way of the mountains. A fellow rambler hawked the phrase ‘one direction freak’ from his anonymous distance – I processed it as compliment – who are 1D anyway FFS? I hid behind the language barrier and maintained my course with skin on ground. The route was 13 km starting at 1280m above sea level. The Gorge is a national park and very dramatic and beautiful. As you descend you fill your bottle with spring water every 1700m or so. There were lots of tourists doing the same shod in hiking boots and trainers and action-sandals, with an array of backpacks, camel-packs, walking poles and provisions to see them through the day. Estimated at a five hour walk into a bay where a swim in the Mediterranean awaited.
– top of the gorge –
I do not really know why I did this. It just happened. Armed with two bananas, an empty plastic bottle and my xero running sandals in my brown leather man-bag satchel, I set off, having caused a bit of a commotion. The first steps revealed the terrain I had to negotiate. My calf muscles juddered as I picked my footing down the manufactured steps covered in stones of varying sizes. These steps lasted a kilometre or two. Talking to a Gorge-walking veteran, I learned that the path provided is not smooth. Each year the winter weather changes the layout of the designated route. Stones, rocks and boulders come and go, accompanied by pebbles of all shapes and sizes and the corresponding geological detritus that accompanies such activity. I persevered having promised my guide that I would put my shoes on if I needed to, and assuring my punctuality at the agreed meeting point to catch the boat out of the bay. I hadn’t shown her my shoes for fear of more disapproval. The trail would get easier. This is a tourist-bait national park not a wild mountain.
– not a wild mountain –
What follows is a long and difficult journey. The people thinned out and I was alone for a lot of it. This was welcome because I had to concentrate. Every step was a selection of which black-to-grey-to-white stones to tread on. The answer was rarely obvious. In fact, there was no right answer – only a selection of wrongs on offer. Every time I chose the most wrong wrongs I cursed. The pain in my feet was incredible. Sharp electric shocks of acute messages to brain that this was not a good choice. Our feet contain one quarter of our bones, with nerves and muscles to match. They are complex and designed to feed information to protect us from the ground we walk on. They respond with such speed and accuracy. As the plateaus of your feet contact the ground they send information to the brain and adjust the spread of your weight. The pressure applied to specific areas is lessened and sent elsewhere within the sole. Assuming there is an elsewhere within the reaches of your sole. But often the elsewhere held more sharp or pointy edges, or an abrasive material that triggered alarm responses. Many times I was catapulted by my own sensory reflexes, stumbling quickly to the next step. The downhill momentum often left me tumbling into unvalidated footsteps on ground that my eyes and brain had not deconstructed or even glimpsed. This generated a sense of fear and panic. I talked to these responses a lot that day.
– the sand was aflame –
Talking won. I made it. En route I experienced crazy things. A twenty metre stretch of flat sand was a deceptive ally. A few blessed steps without calculation. But it was over 30 degrees celsius and the sand was aflame. My feet told me so. This is actually what I believed would bring my downfall. I was prepared for cuts and bruises but once skin is burnt it is unusable. Useless. I would don my sandals if I felt I could not prevent my soles from melting. The flaming sands saw me running. Hopping from foot to foot targeting the nearest shaded area, even if only a few inches square. I learned that the white rocks provided respite from the fire. They were hot, but nothing like the sand. Mostly. Sometimes the promised bearability of the white rock did not deliver. From flaming sand to flaming rock to flaming sand. In panic and fear of melting skin. Argh! Ow! No! No! No!
There were plenty of rest stops on the way. All with mountain water springs and some with toilets and smoking areas. I rested often but for short periods. A bite of banana. Smoking every other stop or less. Sweat poured from me. Shirt and hat drenched. My shorts started chafing my inner thighs – erm… ow – I wasn’t expecting that. Even at the ancient village of Samaria itself I paused only to stretch my feet, sit for five minutes and fill my water-bottle. Whilst sitting I jiggled my calf muscles to keep them from switching off. I didn’t care for the local history. Occasionally I looked up to witness the breath-taking scenery but mostly my eyes were fixed on the prize of a well chosen footstep. That was okay. I was here to reckon with the descent unshod. A few mental snapshots would document the tourist attraction.
– respite from the fire –
Samaria, the now wild goat inhabited ancient village, marked seven kilometres in. I didn’t think I would make it this far without relenting to the obvious. I started to make acquaintance with folk on the way. Passing them. Them passing me. Our rest stop times didn’t align. Most were supportive and helped bolster my resolve to leave my sandals in the bag. But after Samaria things changed. There were no more established rest stops. You were to fill your bottle from the stream/river running the path of least resistance. No toilets. No cigarette breaks. And, as a guard pointed out, no dipping your feet in the water. I did not know this in advance. In this stretch I hobbled into the unknown. Of pain. Of mental resolve. A sort of hallucinatory resignation.
– deal with the world as it actually is –
This was easy, right? A tourist excursion. A pleasure ticket. No escape route. I should have put my sandals on but I knew my feet were so bruised and scratched and abraded that the sandals would only make me think a step was okay, when really the ground is not what it seems, and pain would jolt through my body. Better to remain barefoot and deal with the world as it actually is. This might seem stupid. But here’s a thing I discovered on my trek through the self-enforced iteration of my steps: your feet report pain to your brain, but if you find a flat and comfortable foothold your sensors tell you this is good. The pain sensors do not activate. The pain – the signals – must be endured for the time your foot is in contact with the objectionable object. After that has passed your foot recalibrates and evaluates the next footstep independently. It was amazing. Inspiring. I knew my feet were damaged. I knew each location upon each foot that was damaged. I had stubbed my right big toe four times. The fourth drew blood. That didn’t bother me but I was concerned about stubbing it again and making the wound worse. My left little toe had a nasty abrasion on it. I yelp when it happens. A passing walker expresses concern; “It’s fine,” I lie. The soles of my feet are a minefield. Each step an explosion. Often unexpected. I think I have made a good decision but I am wrong. I am experiencing pain in so many angles into my feet. I am battling to make good choices. Every bleeding step. When a seemingly smooth large stone presents itself I choose it. Nostalgically reminded of childhood holidays skillfully hopping rocks in Scarborough or the Seahouses. But the stone is not as round as I thought and it digs into my arch, which, in turn, screams at me. “Concentrate you stupid bastard! Read the ground!” Extrapolate this into thousands of footsteps with different angles of pain. Stupid stupid stupid. I knew my feet were injured and even so my mind responded with a pleasure message whenever I managed to locate an amicable footstep. This was my saviour. Find a good footstep.
– sun beating me down –
Here comes delirium. I descended into a gorge of not sure. Who am I? What am I doing? Proving what? Showing who? Being what? My mind became aware it was skipping beats. Missing information. Finding things that weren’t there. Making decisions when the variables were not all declared. The absence of formal rest points set me into a spiral of questioning my hydration – water-bottle empty with unknown distance until replenishment. Sun beating me down. The kilometre signs kept cropping up. Thankfully on the reverse of these signs it had the distance covered for the reverse route. It was not to be the sixteen advertised kilometres, but thirteen. Nine passed. Ten arrived. I was at the Iron Gates – cliffs four metres apart and five hundred metres high. Wow. Amazing. But please let it finish soon. My steps were small. Carefully allowing my feet to adjust to the surface they found meant my body resembled a dancing clown more than a hiker. Arms outstretched, waving to the will my feet determined to adjust to the pressure points that felt no pain. A tight-rope walker without a pole. Kate Bush wuthering her heights. Bonkers. Being bonkers. “Some people think I’m bonkers, but I just think I’m free,” sings Dizzee. Singing. When no one was in sight, I sang to distract me and allow my footstep choices to be absorbed into my peripheral functioning. Small moments of blessed relief delivered. But interrupted by bad choices. Pain-racked footsteps.
– breath-taking –
– wuthering heights –
Eleven kilometres revealed flat ground and a fully furnished rest point. I drank. I went to the loo. I smoked. I disposed of the remains of a now squashed half banana. I drenched a bandana and draped it round my neck. I soaked my hat in cool water. It was over. A kind footpath for the last 2k and world order would be restored… No. More of the same pain-inducing unpredictable surfaces. I was not happy. The sandals stopped being an option a long time ago. I had to see it through. To the end. To completion. To say whatever it was I was trying to say. To prove it all. To make it into something that did not need to be made. My choice was made 11 kilometres ago. There was much less shade. My feet were on fire. I kept going.
I had made it my problem. My thing. It had become a self-imposed measure of self. What a load of rubbish. But it was my rubbish and I had to find a bin to put it in. I endured and negotiated the last two kilometres. A bar at the end rewarded me with cold beer and freshly-squeezed orange juice but they did not notice my unshod feet. It was a big deal to no one but me. Another 2.5km lay between me and the beach. I put my sandals on because the road down was cobbled and I could not even entertain the idea of an uneven surface. In my 4mm sole sandals it was little better. The bruises kept crying out. After 800m there was a bus to the boat. I paid 2€ and sat in a chair or two until my destination was reached.
– the bar –
– the mountains that house the gorge –
The beach was black sand. Hot as hell. I resentfully traversed it to get to the salt water and bathe my feet. Bathe my feet – would they ever talk to me again? The crystal water was bliss. I lay back in the water and looked at the mountains. Collecting my boat ticket from the guide, she expressed some degree of being impressed by my achievement. Not enough to bring rational sense to what I had done, but some small acknowledgement of something. We discussed running. She said I should come and do the mountain marathon. I said no.
– my right foot and me –
Today has been about rest. Sleeping. Reading and falling asleep intermittently and without design. Repairing. Healing. My feet are complaining but they will be stronger for what they have been through. I will be stronger for having meditated/negotiated/forced my way through various pain barriers. Somehow having shed some mental weight.
As Dizzee says… “Some people think I’m bonkers. But I just think I’m free. Man, I’m just livin’ my life. There’s nothin’ crazy about me.”
Also published on Medium.