It was love at first sight. He walked into the room wearing a well-worn sport coat (patches on the elbows), flannel button down, faded jeans and hiking boots. I watched and listened as he leaned against the desk and reviewed the syllabus for the upcoming semester, my eyes intently focused during the entirety of his discourse.
I caught up with him in the hallway after class and did my best to try to keep from staring while we talked and made our way across the Drill Field toward his office in Lee Hall. He was a writer and my creative writing professor and, more importantly, he had some really cool, well-worn Vasque Sundowner hiking boots.
This was the first time that I had ever seen a pair of Sundowners, and I immediately determined that I had to have a pair. The problem was that I happened to be a poor college student, and my budget was unfortunately much more of the ramen noodle and Schaefer’s Light beer ilk than the corduroy jacket and Italian made hiking boot variety. I never forgot those Sundowners, however.
I dreamed about them from time to time over the years, and on occasion I would see a well-worn pair on the feet of some passing uber-hiker as I perused the shelves at Square Books or biked the trails at Oak Mountain. “One day,” I thought to myself.
Finally, that day came. A year in advance of my first Appalachian Trail hike, a weeklong trek with my son just after his high school graduation, I purchased my long-awaited pair of Sundowners. It had only taken around 25 years, and I could think of no better voyage of discovery to christen them than a peregrination along “America’s Footpath.”
I immediately set about the process of properly breaking in my new boots. In all my training hikes, the boots felt comfortable and performed well, keeping my feet dry no matter how wet and muddy it was on the trails of Bonita. They offered great support with my weighted pack, and as a bonus, they looked dang good with a pair of jeans.
All I needed was a corduroy sport coat with elbow patches and an open mic poetry night at the local brew pub. Actually, I needed a local brew pub back then as well. However, with my trusty new Sundowners broken in, I was ready to hit the AT — or so I thought.
Midway through our first day on the trail, the heavens unleashed a deluge. Fortunately, my boots were waterproof. Unfortunately, I was soon to discover the downside to that attribute.
On our approach to Springer Mountain, the drenching rains quickly turned the well-worn trail into a shin-deep, fast-flowing stream, and my “waterproof” boots were soon filled with water. When we arrived at the shelter at day’s end, my feet were a shriveled, blistered mess.
I limped (literally) through the remainder of our hike, and Moleskin and KT Tape became my salvation. Each morning, I dreaded putting on my boots. However, at the end of the hike, I attributed my discomfort to the fact that the boots had been transformed into leather aquariums on the first day, and soon enough, my love for the Sundowners returned.
That love dissipated quickly on my second AT hike the following year, and I had to face the fact that while the boots were comfortable and made me fit the uber-hiker mold while knocking around town in a flannel shirt and Patagonia vest, they were not the right boots for me while doing any serious hiking.
When G and I started planning the third AT hike, I knew that it was time for a change. I needed comfortable boots. If they looked good in the process, great, but even if they looked like clown shoes and were comfortable while slogging up and down those Appalachian mountains, then so be it.
I explained my footwear woes to the backpacking professionals at Buffalo Peak Outfitters in Jackson and, with their help, I found what I hoped would be the perfect boots for our upcoming AT expedition — a pair of Gore-Tex lined Salomon X Ultras.
These boots had a much more “high tech” look than my “retro” Sundowners, and while they probably wouldn’t pair as well with jeans and a sport coat at the next poetry reading, they were certainly comfortable. Oh well, something had to give.
As it turns out, the boots were perfect, and I finished our hike blister-free. I also learned something: In the words of that famous thru-hiker Adele, “I like looking nice, but I always put comfort over fashion.”
I wonder if the new Threefoot Brewing Company plans to host an open mic poetry night? If so, I may channel my inner Beat poet, throw on my sport coat and Sundowners and head down. If not, look for me out on the trails. I’ll be the guy wearing the comfortable hiking boots. Until then, I look forward to seeing you out there in our great outdoors.
Email outdoors columnist Brad Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.