Not talking wife-beaters (men’s white tank tops), egg beaters, nor well-used cars. We are talking shoes.
When I met nephew Sam last month in Bangkok he was fresh off the plane starting an open-ended backpacking trip around the world. Meaning, the dude was planning on some serious walking. And not just walking, but hiking — the kind that most of us would do as a one-day feat he would be doing every day. With any sort of elevation in sight, a hill, or especially a mountain, he starts salivating and making plans to ascend. I was therefore keen to know what he would be wearing on his feet.
If there is an item of clothing that has caused me constant consternation over the years, it’s been footwear. Don’t know if it was the bad case of athlete’s foot fungus I had in early grade school or that my feet perspire more than normal, but finding shoes that are tolerable all day, and especially into the evening, has always been a challenge. And when I do find them, wearing them on consecutive days is not happening. My feet just don’t do footwear continuity well.
One of life’s (many) tiny pleasures has always been coming home after a long day and taking off the shoes that served me that day, not for a clean home habit, although that’s an admirable reason, but for the shear joy of feet freedom. Wherever I’ve worked I kept spare footwear, sandals mostly, in my office to treat the feet to the occasional breather. Most of the time, especially in large cities in cooler weather, leather shoes with room to move have been the preferred choice.
One year I made a week-trip through Mexico with a shoe buyer who took me to several factories and explained the in’s and out’s of shoe construction. Talking my language, he extolled the virtue of keeping footwear fresh, allowing them ample time to breathe, which is at least 24 hours. He said he never traveled with only carry-on luggage, because, being in the same frame of mind, or foot, as I, he changed his footwear frequently. Shoes are the culprit, most times, for pushing my travel case from an overhead to a checked bag.
So when I saw Sam that afternoon as he was strolling up Sukhumvit’s Soi 11 after getting off the BTS in Bangkok, I waved and smiled, then took a quick glance to his feet. What? I thought, how can he be wearing shoes that looked, well, so beat up. Moreover, how could he go on a serious trek wearing those? I was hoping that my baffled composure was well hidden, but after we got caught up I couldn’t help but ask.
“Those are my beaters,” he said, “my traveling shoe of preference.” I was ardently dumbfounded. He said he tried hiking shoes and sneakers, but with the beaters, a kind of walking shoe with the heal pushed in, he didn’t need to worry about them getting wet (they dry quicker), they were easy off and on, and they worked well in almost any terrain. Most important, they were comfortable. He further explained that to get them into beater category required a break-in period, by literally breaking the spine, or heal portion, so that they stay comfortably flat. They become slip-ons. And as beaters, if there are shoe laces, as Sam’s had, they stay permanently tied, an added benefit.
In Koh Samui one day, we hiked from sea level to 1,300 feet up a moderately rocky forrest path. Another day Sam scaled a nearly vertical rocky wall alongside a waterfall, which I elected to forgo. Both times he had on his beaters. In fact, his feet were rarely without them. I was sold.
During the week we happened across a store selling colorful karate shoes at an irresistible price so we each bought a pair. The largest size they had were a tad too snug as a normal shoe and I otherwise would not have bought them, but with the beater concept they worked fine. Being spineless the break-in was immediate. They are now one of my favorites.
Wow,’I thought, evidently, I had not been thinking outside the box.’ I was delighted by the beater concept. During the trip I became enthused by the idea of expanding my footwear possibilities and started envisioning which pairs back home were good beater candidates. I’ve since broken the spines of several pairs, cobbling together a new footwear family.
Post point — If a pair of shoes with a somewhat breakable spine doesn’t evoke tangible pleasure, step on them, turn them into beaters, and they may serve you well for miles to come.