Monday, January 16, 2012

The Perfect Shoes

I've had many different styles of shoes that I can recall in the past couple of decades. I really started caring in middle school and dove in full-tilt with L.A. Gear high-tops, using the two sets of six-foot-long laces per shoe they provided (in lieu of a photo of my shoes, this one is a good example of their version for girls). Then I moved on to Nike Air, retaining my preference for fluorescent colors with successive generations of the Agassi (at left), named for the tennis star.
But pretty soon, and before I finished high-school (though I'd have to consult my yearly photos), I moved on to Adidas Sambas. I'm not sure why, since they are about as far as I could get from my previous choices and still be in the mass-produced mainstream sportish shoe market (they're number two in this blog's list of "Four Essential Pairs of Shoes and Casual Trainers"). But I think I was growing into myself more, wanting less attention and more simplicity. These shoes have been made in the same style since the 50's - they're just black and white, have a half-inch or so of sole, are relatively cheap, and last for a good while. I would milk them for two years before they would be worn through, then I'd buy another pair. I had at least three, maybe four pairs.

Once I got a pair of Adidas' Campus shoes, which were similar in design but were suede. They tore through the toe within a month, but the store wouldn't take them back. So after I wore them long enough to feel like I'd got my money's worth I went back to the Sambas. Ironically, the defective Campus pair got a much longer second life as garden shoes after I cut the toe and heel off - as seen in EA's harvesting and threshing video at a little past the five-minute mark - nice!

During our first year at EA I got frustrated with the idea that, once my shoes were really shot, they would have to go into the trash. I decided that, from then on, I was going to buy shoes that were made of natural materials (as much as possible), looking specifically for hemp or leather. We went out to the town of Mendocino and visited a store called Mendo Twist where they specialized in "natural" things, and I settled on a pair of La Fuma shoes with hemp uppers and natural rubber soles (at right, threshing). They were on discount. While I believe in the relative strength of hemp, these shoes were not a great example. They wore through, unraveled, and shredded within a year, so I took them back and traded them in for a pair of leather Patagonias. The soles were synthetic, but Patagonia is well known for good sourcing and good treatment of their workers and the environment so I went with them anyway.

They were also more expensive, but in the years since college I have realized that cheap in the short-run can easily be pricey in the long-run. If I pay $35 for a pair of shoes, that seems great. But if they only last one year through my hard labor, I am better off buying the $80 shoes (which is what the Patagonias cost) if they are going to last 4-5 years, which they did. Then they end up costing $16-20 a year, and I save $60 or more over their life by investing up front. But like all things, they do eventually wear out, and these particular shoes were not made to be re-soled. So this fall, after stepping in puddles only to wick water through the holes in the bottom of the shoes into my socks, I started looking again.

Now I was ready to make a bigger step, beyond generally simple, natural, and environmentally thoughtful. I wanted to find something endlessly repairable and completely natural. Repairable, so the shoe doesn't need to be discarded when the sole finally wears through, and natural so that, if it ever does fall completely to pieces, it will break down and not need to be stored till the end of time in a landfill. If a shoe is natural and repairable, I came to believe that it must be leather. Achieving this conclusion, I realized I was going to need to look for the shoes they made "back in the day," when my current criteria were the only way it was done anyway.

I dug up two options. The first were modeled by a friend who does livestock on an 1880's-era working farm north of Dayton, the Carriage Hill Metropark. His shoes, he confessed, are actually the style of the 1860's, which are reproduced in large quantities for Civil War reenactment. They were Brogans, made of leather stitched together with wooden pegs to hold the soles on. Very cool looking, and very durable. He got his from C & D Jarnagin Company, if you want to see the goods.

The second were moccasins, in the general style of any native American culture. I ran into a friend who had gotten a simple pair from Minnetonka Moccasins, and she used them sock-less in all weather to great effect. The advantage of moccasin over brogans is that you can feel the ground underneath you. Alternatively, you can't do digging in them, because the shoulder of the shovel won't feel so good on your foot.

To make a long story - a few months of hemming and hawing, then another month of deciding where to get them - somewhat shorter, I decided on the moccasins. I have some old hiking boots I can use for digging. I went with the Arrow Moccasin Company and got a pair of lace boots with a double sole (at left on my feet, and at right on Alten's). They are expensive to me (having never "invested" in those $170 Nike Air Force 180 Pumps back in 1992) but they will last years before the sole wears through, and then the sole can be replaced.

Being leather, there is a little break-in time required. For the first 10 hours or so these were the most painful thing I have voluntarily done to my feet, short of removing splinters. Since then they have become the most comfortable shoes I've ever owned, and they are not even fully broken-in yet.

Of course, I intend to wear them while working, playing, and walking through mud, but like any new shoe I will be treating them very nicely till they get the first scratch. You will see them on my feet in many photos to come!



  1. Hi Dan and Margo,

    I am happy to find your blog, after enjoying your presentations on the Ecology Action video. We moved to West Virginia last year and I am very eager to begin implementing some of the things that I have learned from Grow Biointensive in my garden this year. So I will be following your blog to learn whatever I can!

    1. Hi Amy,
      Welcome to our blog! I hope you find some content that will be useful to you. We have some good ideas, some completely untried but possibly good ideas, and a long way to go till we can really consider ourselves good stewards of our land (and our child). If you have any questions feel free to ask. And count the Homeplace Earth blog as a great reference, too. Cindy has about 20 years on us, and some solid experience. Happy reading!

  2. Thanks for your post! I found your site after google searching for images of Arrow Mocs in the wild. I am looking for shoes with a thin sole that let me feel the ground, with no silly insoles or frills, and these seem to fit the bill. Since yours are double soled, you can get them resoled indefinitely!

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