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Column: The comfort of an old pair of boots

MARQUETTE — For me, getting rid of an old pair of cowboy boots is like getting rid of an old pickup truck, it’s a hard thing to do.

I’ve got an old pair of western boots now that I’ve been slowly inching toward the trash can for a few months. Even though I bought a replacement pair, I can’t seem to let go of the old ones, despite holes torn in the leather on the shafts.

These are an attractive pair: black shafts with decorative stitching, good pull straps and brown leather covering the vamp, toe and sides. They are so comfortable, and I’ve had them so long, I can’t remember when I bought them.

I do know I ordered them out of a western wear catalog.

A silver heel rand across the back of the right boot, just above the heel and south of the counter, fell off a few times. I always tacked it back in place with a hammer and a boot nail, until the day it fell off somewhere.

I have worn the boots for the past year or so with only one heel rand.

These boots have been re-soled a few times.

These are not by any means my first pair of boots, nor my only pair of boots, but that doesn’t make dumping them in the garbage any easier. I guess the tears in the leather made me realize it was finally time for them to go.

Growing up, I never wore cowboy boots. Not even as a young kid, not that I can recall anyway. The change from never to always for me came when I was living in Texas about 35 years ago.

I was wearing regular running shoes one afternoon and walking through the tall green grass at the edge of a field. I was talking while walking, looking back over my shoulder.

I turned back and happened to look down on the ground just as I was about to put my foot on top of a big, thick snake coiled up, resting. Even though it wasn’t a rattlesnake, it certainly could have been.

It wasn’t long afterward I bought my first pair of cowboy boots. I had always heard they were clunky, awkward and would hurt my feet to walk in them. I found out these were myths bigger than Texas.

Once you break a pair in, they are as comfortable as wearing socks, especially when you spend enough money to get a pair worth wearing.

I don’t tend toward the exotic boot materials like ostrich, caiman and sharkskin. I just want an understated good pair of leather or suede boots, with a pointed toe.

After that first pair I owned, I bought a pair of rough-out boots that I wore like skin on my feet. I rarely took them off. I finally had to throw that pair away after about 20 years.

That was tough too.

Those boots had taken me through the rocks and sand of the Mojave Desert, the beautiful canyons and mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, through scorching heat and the biting cold, past sidewinders and diamondbacks, up to the snow-capped cliffs and down to the cool, green shady banks of rippling streams.

I wore them to see Rick and Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Stevie Ray Vaughan and so many more. I’ve walked them over crossties and beaches, through mud, water, rocks and gravel.

They also carried me to work and back everyday for years, and they brought me home from the western skies to the Michigan two-tracks, the woods and the water.

My boots have become close true friends to me.

I feel like they are a part of me.

Though my pair of rough-out boots are gone, I still have a half-dozen or so other pairs to help me broaden the range of options available for various occasions – dress to drab.

The more I see my boots with mud and sand on them, the better. That usually means I’ve been somewhere away from blacktop and concrete – the places where nature reveals herself in all her mystic beauty.

Over the past few days my boots have taken me to the rushing waters of Tahquamenon Falls, the Lake Superior shore along Keweenaw Bay, a muddy and thimble-berried path beside the Yellow Dog River and under the big blue skies of northwestern Wisconsin.

These days, my boots don’t get much time to not be walking.

I wear them while cutting the grass, grocery shopping, having my teeth cleaned and going to get the mail. When I do pull them off, it feels good to go barefoot.

So, for me, letting go of a good pair of boots for the last time calls for a special occasion. In the case of this pair I now have lying on the kitchen floor, I wore them last on my walk down the trail along the Yellow Dog River.

The hike was in tribute to Carlo Estupigan, the young photographer and Northern Michigan University biology student who lost his life while trying to reach one of the waterfalls he had hoped to photograph at the river last January.

Lost in the arms and teeth of a winter’s storm, the last photos Carlo took showed the cloud-obscured moon above. These images were followed by shots he took to use the camera’s flash for light, trying to find a way out – all they showed was snow.

Family and friends gathered at the river and walked to the waterfalls, where relatives of Carlo used his camera to take pictures of the tumbling cascades – completing his intended journey.

I was humbled to be invited by his family.

The fact that so many people who cared about Carlo came out to these woods along the river to see, hear and otherwise experience one of the places he loved the best, was the greatest tribute to him I can think of.

Clearly, he was deeply loved and appreciated.

On my way home, I stopped the truck a couple of times – to look at the river, see if the blueberries were still ripe and to pick up a few rocks for our front yard.

The circumstances of the morning had left me feeling a little tattered.

I came in the door and headed for the kitchen. When I got there, I used the toe of one boot against the heel of the other to slip it off. I heard the heel hit the hard, wooden floor. In the same manner, I removed my second boot.

They’re still there now.

Maybe I should hang them up from one of the rafters in the garage? Or maybe just tuck them under my bed or keep them in my closet.

Not to wear, just to have.

Maybe commonsense will catch me unawares and I’ll throw them out, like any regular pair of worn-out slippers or running shoes.

Whatever I ultimately decide, I’ve walked my last mile in this old pair of boots.

They may be worn thin, dusty and torn, and missing a silver heel rand, but they’ve been very good to me.

I won’t forget that, and I will remain grateful.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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