NEW BOOTS are a pain in the foot.
Buying boots has always been a challenge, an existential battle I often lose. I dream of acquiring boots that are an extension of my corporeal and metaphysical self, boots that are a comfortable, protective sheath for my feet, that allow me to hike miles and miles over rough terrain with a deer’s sprightly tread. The nightmare boots I usually get cinch my foot in the chiropodist’s version of the iron maiden, clumsy hobnails that encumber each elephantine step, trip on every obstacle, and mock my aching soles and arches at the end of a day’s hunt.
At its core, this is a struggle between the knobs, depressions, and protrusions of my oddly shaped feet against the one-size-fits-all production techniques of the modern footwear industry. Work boots, hiking boots, hunting boots – in any of a dozen different styles – are apparently designed and manufactured for the foot of “average” shape and conformation. My feet are in no way average. Neither are yours, probably. We all have our podiatric peculiarities.
To be fair, even a custom bootmaker would find it daunting to create a pair of boots that properly fit my feet. For one thing, they are different sizes. My left foot is an 8 (nominally), my right foot is an 8.5. Both my feet are EE width, sort of, but the right foot has a bunion that usually demands EEE, especially if a lace eyelet of the boot is positioned directly atop the bunion’s bulge.
The best I can do is choose boots marked “Size 8.5 – Wide,” because the graduated width sizes of AAA, AA, A, B, C, D, E, EE, EEE no longer exist. Boot widths are “Narrow,” “Medium,” and “Wide.” In truth, all size designations are slipshod, if not downright deceptive. A pair of Keene brand boots marked 9, for example, are the same size as a pair of Irish Setter brand boots labeled 8.5. Danner brand boots marked “Wide” are “Medium.” Never buy boots without trying them on and walking a hundred yards, wearing heavy wool socks.
These pitfalls of boot sizing are exacerbated by the podiatric peculiarities of my feet. Long ago, the medial arch bone of the right foot was broken and the Achilles tendon of the left ankle was ruptured in separate mishaps (the neglected athletic injuries of youth punish us the rest of our lives). As a result, the right arch is now topped by a lumpy spur, and the left foot has a slight list to starboard. Do your feet also need boots with a higher (or lower) vamp or instep, a thinner (or thicker or variable) insole? Well, forget about it. One size fits all; chose your preferred discomfort, too tight or too loose.
For me, boots that are too loose are a much better choice than boots that are too tight, especially for a day of bird hunting when I may walk between five and 10 miles across rough ground and through heavy cover. Pinched and cramped feet are much worse than scuffed and chafed feet. I could avoid all those calamities if boots were sold in mismatched sizes (a size 8 EE for my left foot, and a size 8.5 EEE for my right).But they do not (one size fits all), and I am not wealthy enough to buy two pair, and mix-and-match them, so I have to settle for a pair of extra-wide 8.5’s and get used to loose fit on the left foot. This is seldom a major problem, although balancing sloppily left-booted on a log spanning a North Country coldwater stream has made me wonder if custom-made boots might indeed be worth their exorbitant cost.
And that is another annoyance: the price of hunting boots these days. Once was the time I could buy for $50 a good pair of eight-inch, insulated hunting boots that didn’t fit. Now I pay $250 for a good pair of eight-inch, insulated hunting boots that do not fit.
For a bird hunter, field boots wear out in two seasons, three at most. So, I had to engage in the battle of the boots again this summer as I prepare for a few out-of-state hunts in September and October. Never set forth on a hunt wearing boots you have not broken in with at least 20 miles of hiking. In this one-size-fits-all era, “broken in” does not mean the boots have stretched and shrunk and otherwise conformed to the shape of your feet, it means that your feet have developed calluses in the places where the boots rub and you have learned which lacing hooks and eyelets to skip or double-lace so the boot shafts do not pinch, wobble or slide.
I bought a pair of uninsulated, ankle-high, Keene brand hiking boots for the fast-approaching sharptail grouse hunt in the Nebraska Sandhills. I do not really recommend buying boots online unless you have plenty of time and resources to ship back boots that do not fit, but the North County’s local footwear stores do not stock sizes smaller than 9.5 so I have little choice. Lo and behold! They are comfortable and fit pretty well. Yes, the left boot is a bit loose, but although I can’t afford boots of mismatched sizes and I afford socks of mismatched thicknesses, and that helps.
Now for the 20 miles of boot-break-in hiking, a few miles each morning with my bird dog Abbey coaxing me to go faster, faster! But I’m keeping a slow and steady pace. I’ll put up with sore feet for a few weeks, but at the end of each hike I want is to come home without blisters or a sprained ankle.
More essays and stories about bird dogs, bird hunting, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page