I have an excellent pair of hiking boots: supple, water tight, good Vibram soles, ankle support, and a good fit – ready for extended, rugged work. It has not always been so.
I remember my first “hiking” boots, late 1950s, 1960s vintage. We knew them as “construction” or “work” boots: stiff leather high tops, water proof only after generous applications of a water proofing agent (mink oil was popular), conventional soles (Vibram came later), indifferent fit. Red Wings. Available at Sears and Montgomery Ward. While ankle support was provided by their high tops – up to 10 inches above the soles – the leather rubbed against my ankles. Maybe more neatsfoot oil needed to soften the leather… Also, my Red Wings had to be broken in – a summer mowing lawns worked well. “Moleskin” was a vital part of my “first-aid kit.” There was an alternative: “paratrooper” boots! I need say no more.
I suppose there were European houses – and maybe L.L. Bean – producing actual hiking boots, and I suppose that with diligence I could have found them. However, their cost would have been beyond my means then. Furthermore, when I finally did get to them a little later, I found them very heavy and stiff. The latter could be mitigated by considerable wear, but the weight was always there. At least they had traction and, maybe, were water proof.
I think of those bygone days each year when I haul out my latest pair of “real” hiking boots: nylon uppers treated with “Gore-Tex” for waterproofing; lightweight, breathable; Vibram soles: an excellent fit, and comfortable all day long. Today, when you visit your local hiking emporium, you find a seemingly unlimited variety. Then the features: EVA midsole, with removable memory-foam foot bed; reinforced toe box and heel counter; trac (sic) rubber outsole features; advanced lacing system; of course, color patterned durable nylon laces; and maybe my favorite: eco-friendly 200 gram recycled “Prima Loft” polyester insulation. Well!
It’s easy to poke fun at these features (some of which I only vaguely understand). But truthfully I must admit: comfort, utility, flexibility – who can argue?
Now, when I pull out my carefully designed hiking boots the night before a long hike or back-packing trip, I occasionally think of those old Red Wing days. Smelling the oil, feeling the stiff leather get softer, tugging them onto your feet and tying up those tough raw leather laces, wearing them to the office for two weeks straight, hoping to break them in a little – well, the memories come flooding back. Oh, Red Wings are still available: their Web site shows that the model I remember is going for $84.50. After all, good construction boots have their place.