Brutal barefootin' in the Blue Hills

  One of the principals of the Eastern Massachusetts barefoot hiking Meetup group called an outing for a Saturday in mid May and then had to cancel it, having perhaps overdone it a bit at an event the previous weekend.  So I decided to get my ass out of the house and go do the hike anyway, especially since I'd also poked some of the local Friends park support organization and invited/encouraged them to join us -- shod or not as they chose.  All concerned were amply warned that it was an "advanced" level hike, with lots of rough terrain and elevation change (well, on the Boston-metro scale, which isn't saying that much).  Even if nobody else was going to go after the cancellation, *I* wanted the challenge, and figured I could just shortcut the proposed loop via any number of alternate routes if I needed to wimp out early.

I arrived at the parking lot before the proposed meeting time, hung out for maybe half an hour until a healthy margin past 9am, and after it was clear that nobody else was about to show up, simply set off up the hill on Red Dot.

[Images here are linked to larger copies.]
Overall route taken, including some confusion All told it was probably about four miles, but not easy ones!  Not only did I do the whole proposed hike, I *blitzed* it.  [There are directional arrows in the pink; use the big pic to see.]  Even after getting a little confused east of the observation tower which added a little more length, I went around the blue-blazed loop with a very brief stop by the Headquarters, and was back at the tower only two hours after leaving the Trailside Museum parking lot.  Every group I came up behind, I eventually blew past and barreled off ahead of them.  With no companions I could go at my own pace, which with my advantage of such better surefootedness and stability without shoes, winds up being refreshingly brisk.
On the main blue-trail stretch eastward I briefly stayed with a largish group who were all co-workers at the same place, and were out to do an end-to-end Skyline run.  I've done that in the past, albeit shod at the time -- the DCR used to organize such hikes, even led by park rangers who would describe points of interest along the way, but they stopped doing that a while back.  Something about funding and understaffing, I think.  Unless one is hardcore enough to do a full "yo-yo" on Skyline, a full-length trip from 138 to Shea Rink or vice-versa also involves a bunch of vehicle logistics to get people back to their rides afterward.

My loop would be shorter than their one-way but still went over some of the more rugged and up-and-down topography in the park.  That stretch east of the tower that I wound up traversing twice is like Boston's biggest butt-blaster -- giant steps up squarish rocks on a healthy pitch for quite a ways, and certainly not the only such section.  I hung with that group [and its two very energetic dogs, which certainly weren't wearing shoes] for a short time and chatted about random stuff and of course the merits of barefooting, with the usual caveats that one should start slow on easy surfaces at first if new at it -- while being their living example of what one could achieve after getting more used to it.  Eventually I pulled ahead of them and didn't see them again.

View vaguely to the east from Hancock Hill I didn't even think to take any pictures until after the Headquarters, but a view off the east of Hancock Hill prompted me to pull out the camera and do a little more documentation.  Mid May, and the trees all still had that rich yellow-green of just-budded leaves.  That color looks especially luminescent under overcast skies.

Typical mixed angular gravel found many places In some of the flatter areas and more popular trails, this is often what's underfoot -- sharp, angular gravel of mixes sizes, sometimes laid down by park maintenance but sometimes just naturally occurring.  This is probably the worst surface to deal with, in fact, especially where the gravel gets sparse and feet come down on isolated sharp bits.  But well-conditioned soles are highly resistant to such things, and pointed objects tend to push the thick skin up over a larger area than *anyone* expects and not really hurt at all.  The hiker still feels every detail and knows what's down there, but usually not in any painful way.

Rocky climb ahead Here's a typical hillside on Skyline, one of several steepish climbs I faced along the way.  The best, most natural way for a barefooter to navigate this is "rock-hopping" over the larger and flatter ones, when the option presents itself.

[One advantage of the more popular trails like this is that they are relatively barren of plant life within reach of passing hikers, lessening the likelihood of picking up ticks.  But there are plenty of narrower trail sections with overgrowth alongside, so preventive measures and thorough checks afterward are still warranted.]

Toes wrapping around sharp rocks Sometimes we wind up bouncing off smaller stuff, but the foot can sort of grip any of the surfaces -- even sharp, angular ones -- to absorb the load and keep overall control.  Sometimes a step gets less-loaded in transit to the next more solid one; this is the natural adaptation our bodies and brains do in response to all that rich dynamic sensory input coming from below. 

Steep descent ahead What goes up, must again come down.  I paused at the top of this descent to try and capture the scale and slope of the scree I was about to head down, somewhere coming off Wolcott Hill.  I waited until the ascending hikers were decently visible but still near the bottom; the flatter area below is where the carpet of brown leaves heads away under the green.

I joked with several people that day, in response to comments like "whoa!  Barefoot??" that I had the most stable hiking shoes you can't buy, and that you'd basically *never* roll an ankle while walking this way especially on downslopes where that tends to happen more often.  They seemed to understand that, and it clearly made a few of them think.

  After getting back to the tower and taking the obligatory gaze around the vista from the top, I detoured over to the weather station to see the radar progress of the oncoming unseasonably "anomalous" nor-easter that was headed our way that day.  It was a slow front, still roiling along somewhere in Connecticut, and despite the overcast the air here was still dry enough to afford a very clear view to the horizon.  I think one of the station's staffers recognized me from a prior visit with a friend a few months back and said hello; they've got no problem with feet over there and had even expressed some fairly earnest curiosity about our choice of hiking footwear.
Plenty of glass near the tower The question is so often asked, "aren't you worried about glass?"  Answer: no.  Not even in this stuff around the base of the tower, where plenty of human detritus lands and numerous bottles have been broken.  Toughened soles are largely immune to glass as it usually occurs in such settings, or on parking lots, roadsides, and city sidewalks ... small ground-up chunks like this, often mixed in with all the other rocks or crunched into crevices in asphalt.  It's basically reduced back to sand and small pebbles, where glass comes from in the first place.  Pieces large enough to be a real threat are visually obvious enough to be avoided, or better yet picked up and disposed of properly.  Little shreds of metal, wood, plastic, etc -- likewise.  The "rusty nails" everyone's so terrified of, if present at all, lie on their *sides* and are normally not any particular threat either.
  *So* many people just don't innately understand this, because the blind paranoia from what they've been told since childhood prevents them from actually thinking about it logically.  Part of handling the rough stuff is to never *scuff along* in any of it, but come straight down on it and let the body respond naturally by shifting weight off any points that are starting to take undue load.  This process happens instantaneously in a normal foot driven by a normal brain, generally long before a puncture would actually occur, and our society has chosen to forget how amazing that reflexive process is for us.

Of course no foot, human or animal, is proof against everything.  A few scrapes along the sides or thinner-skinned arches can be a minor annoyance once in a while, but aren't going to ruin the day.  Intentionally-injurious organics such as thorns still present a problem, and in my pack was the backup pair of china-flats to use as a tool to handle such things if I needed it.  I've had my obligatory run-ins with prickly pear and other Western succulents; it's not fun.  But most circumstances of hiking don't require any particular level of insensitive stomping to navigate competently, especially on these trails, and for me the agility benefits and total sensory experience far outweigh the perceived risks.

None of the comments/questions I got that day were derogatory -- the fact that I was out there mixin' it up in the woods with everyone else and hauling ass in the process seemed to garner little other than admiration and respect, even if with a slight hint of "he's a crazy-man!" attached.  The word "brave" was heard quite a few times that morning.  I clearly impressed a few people who seemed likely to be the type to begin experimenting on their own, which is about all I'd hope for in terms of external influence.

All in a day's work. 

And I didn't have to wrinkle my nose taking off stinky shoes and socks after getting back to the car; I just rinsed the DEET off when I got home.

  This was also great pre-training.  Two weeks after this, a small group of us went and did Monadnock up in New Hampshire, which was a much bigger deal, and confidently shoeless the entire way.  It was really awesome.  
  _H*   170514

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