Okay, so I've got a footwear fetish. There. I said it. Go ahead, laugh and call me Imelda. But don't expect me to reform anytime soon. This is not a plea for intervention. It's a warning to others.
I was lacing up a pair of rock-climbing shoes a few weeks ago when someone noted my creeping accumulation of sports shoes. The realization stopped me cold: As my recreational interests have broadened, I've developed a significant case of footwear buildup. Moreover, my rate of acquisition has been accelerating. In the last three months alone, I've purchased four more pairs.
This was not always the case. Back when distance running was my sole sport, I might have owned two pairs of Nikes at any given time. Waffle Trainers at first, then that model's successors. Once one pair was well-worn, I'd buy replacements and promote the old pair to mud duty.
Perhaps it was inevitable that running shoes would lead to the harder stuff.
First, it was Nordic skis and boots. It should be noted that, after something like a quarter century, I have purchased only one set of cross-country skis and boots. This ought to disarm any notions that I've been a lifelong slut for sports footwear. It's an adult-onset condition.
Another decade would pass before I added a pair of old-fashioned Ojibwe-style snowshoes, built from a kit. Like the Nordic skis, they're still the only snowshoes I've ever used. But the beauty of snowshoes is that they're a license to indulge in a pair of pac boots.
Then came weight-training. This called for the versatility and stability of first-generation cross-trainers. Over the years, those cross-trainers bore the weight of thousands of tons. After the outer sole wore through, they got promoted to heavy household duties, such as resealing the driveway. Today, they are semi-retired loafers.
This reflects my predisposition to use the whole shoe. Once a pair of sports shoes have fulfilled their original function, they can still walk you down to the neighborhood grocer's, hold your desk accessories or serve as doorstops.
Next came the advent of in-line skates. There was a short flirtation with tennis that justified a pair of actual tennis shoes. The invention of clipless pedals mandated clipless biking shoes.
That may have been the point at which my slippery slope of shoe obsessions steepened and grew slicker. Or perhaps it was my first proper pair of hiking boots. "Where did you get those?!?!?" a friend and hiking enthusiast exclaimed a couple years back. "Fontana, I think, or maybe REI, about seven years ago," I replied.
His face fell and his shoulders slumped. "Those are my all-time favorite hiking boots," he explained. "Mine too," I agreed. He had worn out his pair, he said, and his quest for replacements had met with frustration. In commiseration, I told him I'd felt the same disappointment when Nike discontinued its original waffle trainers.
But there is always the next pair of sports shoes. In the same way that engineers are always tweaking bikes, kayaks, skis and other hardware to improve performance, footwear manufacturers are in a perpetual state of functional reiteration. And if form does, indeed, follow function, then part of what drives my fascination is the empirical fact that so much sporting footwear is flat-out cool.
Take the contemporary snowshoe, with its aluminum frame, spring-loaded suspension, stainless-steel traction and synthetic deck. I've been resisting them for years. My old-fashioned ash-frame Ojibwes function fine on the trails at Blue Mound and the snow-drifted flats of Lake Monona.
But an end-of-season deal on a pair of modern snowshoes was so good that it would have been stupid to pass up - even though I have no intention of promoting my traditional snowshoes to permanent display. This is not an either-or situation. It's either-and.
That's the same rationalization that led to a second pair of paddling boots as a complement to seven-year-old Teva sandals.
The cool factor maxed out this spring when I spied Vibram's fivefingers. These are the slippers that look like gloves for your feet, with grippy soles and a separate pocket for each toe. I tried them on, resisted the impulse to purchase, spent five weeks visualizing how they might be good for improving foot strength and biomechanics, then took the plunge. Hey, the flesh is weak.
In addition to being mighty cool, they're even better than going barefoot: You can walk around without having to worry about stepping on pebbles, sticks and other assaults on your tender dogs.
The last straw was that pair of rock-climbing shoes that led someone to note my growing footwear collection. For years, I'd been using a borrowed pair that I came to refer to as the cruel shoes. Climbing shoes are supposed to be tight, but these were like iron maidens for the feet. A more forgiving pair afforded blessed relief.
Along with a pair of walking shoes and the obligatory Crocs, a collection like that ought to last for a while. Or so I thought, until I picked up Outside magazine's annual Gear Guide and turned to the spread on trail-running shoes.