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No shoes? No problem. Hiking shoeless in Devil's Den

Published 10:45 am, Friday, July 30, 2010
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Walking barefoot over a flaming bed of coals is one way to turn heads. But what's so rebellious about that? Dave Ellis prefers heading shoeless into the wild.

Standing barefoot in the gravel parking lot of Devil's Den, he offers 15 shoeless rookies some last-minute tips.

"Don't scuff your feet, because that'll hurt," he instructs. "If you see something interesting, stop and look at it. Otherwise you'll stub your toes."

"And spend time concentrating on your feet," he adds. "Enjoy the feelings of the dirt, mud, moss, leaves and grass. Feel more connected with everything."

Hearing this, Kallima Clarke wonders why none of her friends would join her this morning. Growing up in Trinidad, she says, walking barefoot was no big deal.

"So what is it here that freaks people out?" she asks.

"People are afraid to take their shoes off!" one man says. "Don't want to get stared at."

"Snakes!" cries another.

Ellis nods.

"It's our culture," he says.

While shoes can seem triple-knotted to the whims of modern society, Ellis is making progress on the anti-footwear front. Four months ago, the Wallingford native formed the group "Barefoot Hikers of Connecticut," and he's since been finding followers in every corner of the state.

This particular trek through Weston's woods will serve as the club's arrival in Fairfield County. For most on hand -- this reporter included -- it will be a strange and new experience. Ellis provides some context.

"In Australia and New Zealand, people go shopping in the supermarket barefoot," he says. "Here we're supposed to be this beacon of freedom. But when it comes to going barefoot, we're pains in the butt."

Recent showers have dampened the trails, and sunlight shines down through treetops in narrow slants. The hiking sets off slowly, but soon quickens as our comfort levels rise.

Ellis arrives at a trail crossing and pulls out his map.

"Let's go to the left," he says. "Off, into the yonder!"

Out yonder, the ground is strewn with wet leaves. It feels like a mushy sandbar.

Hiking barefoot, you notice more. Small rocks hurt. Big wet ones are soothing. Moss is nature's Oriental rug. Or it's a "party for my feet," as one hiker says.

After rainstorms, tiny orange newts go scurrying around in search of ponds. And how about that curly root?

"Snake!" someone says.

The group jumbles at one end of a rocky ledge, staring at two footless reptiles on the other end. The snakes don't seem to mind the attention. One rests in a coil, its head poking into a hole; the other slithers away.

Ellis swoops in for a quick science lesson. "There are two types of poisonous snakes in Connecticut -- copperheads and rattlers," he says.

"And we're looking at one of them," someone responds.

Save for the copperheads, the scene is relaxing. The ledge spills out to a quiet pond, which is coated with lily pads. Dragonflies are buzzing in circles. One brave soul steps into the snake-sustaining pond, which allows Larry Chernoff, a 53-year-old appliance repairman, a moment to catch the swifter hikers.

Chernoff was the first man to join the barefoot hiking club in March, he says. He signed up almost right away. In fact, he'd been searching for a barefoot hiking club for nearly a decade. The reason, he says, is that he's slightly overweight and has high blood pressure. Chernoff prefers walking slowly.

"You can't walk fast in this group," he says, pausing to snap a photo of the lily pads. With his jeans rolled up over his ankles and a water bottle poking out of his back pocket, he steps atop the rocky ledge and returns to the trail.

"There's another group called Extreme Barefoot Hiking," he says. "They tell you to bring a first-aid kit. I don't know if I can handle that."

The present group will do for now. While on the job these days, Chernoff likes to tell his clients about the Barefoot Hikers. But he doesn't do so directly.

"I say I belong to a group that's unique, that we do one thing different," he says. "I say you've got to be careful where you step, and go slow."

A guessing game ensues.

"Is it a nudist thing?" they often ask.

"I say no," Chernoff says, "and they finally guess it's no shoes. They usually say that it sounds interesting."

As he speaks, someone points out a nail protruding from a nearby log. Chernoff probes it with his toes. "That's an injury right there," he says.

After this morning's hike, Chernoff will head to work. Someone has a leaky washer, he says. Repairing it will require him to put on boots.

"You can't not wear shoes in a customer's house," he says. "It's impolite."

Every so often, though, a customer will request that he take off his shoes to protect a new carpet. Chernoff likes this. But he estimates it's only happened four or five times since the 1970s.

Shopping is a different matter. Chernoff enjoys shopping barefoot, but it makes him self-conscious. He's successfully shopped shoeless in Target and Wal-Mart. But a recent attempt at Dunkin Donuts set him back.

Walking into the doughnut shop that day, he saw two guys standing around, talking. One of the men looked at him, glanced away, and then stared his feet.

"Just like this," Chernoff says, bending forward and craning his neck. He blinks rapidly and his eyes swirl.

Though the man didn't say anything, the look was damaging enough. "Now, I'll go to the gas station and say, `I'm going to do it,'" he says. "But something stops me. It's a mental block."

He gazes ahead to Dave Ellis, who's climbing a twisting, rocky trail. Ellis is looking for some Native American caves. Chernoff is looking impressed.

"Dave says he goes everywhere with no shoes," Chernoff says. "That's something I have to get through myself."

Does Ellis really go everywhere shoeless? It appears so. Shopping? Usually, he says. "Mom-and-pop stores are best," he adds. "Watch out for chains."

How about restaurants? Barefoot. Really? "Mostly," he says.

Ellis only cedes to societal pressure when he's in a large group of shoe-wearers. "I don't want to cause a scene," he says.

He's several times left for three-day hikes on the Appalachian Trail without even bringing his shoes. "Why pack what you don't need?" he says.

He took up barefoot hiking a decade ago, when chronic pain flared up in his knees. It was jeopardizing his hiking regimen. When he heard that ditching shoes might help, he gave it a shot. The aching stopped. These days, he'd rather hike barefoot anyway, even if his knees are good. He relishes the massage that nature's various terrains offer his feet.

Off the trails, Ellis is a self-employed software engineer who typically works barefoot. When he must, he'll slip on a pair of sandals. "It's the next best thing," he says. When the weather gets cold, he straps on a pair of Crocs.

Today, he's hiking in khaki shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt and a "Wallingford Land Trust" baseball cap. Midway through the hike, the T-shirt comes off.

The high-point of the day's hike is a stone encrusted "vista," which offers panoramic views of a wall of trees encircling it. The group lingers a moment, disappointed, then turns down a narrow path. Ellis talks of the several black bears he's encountered in his years of hiking.

"It's not scary," he says. "It's exciting."

And what should one do?

"Look big. Make your presence known." He stands tall, points off yonder, and cries wolf.

"Hey, look! A bear!" he exclaims.

Conversations, like this one, wander easily while hiking barefoot. Perhaps the constant scanning for jagged rocks has a stimulating effect on the mind. Or maybe you're just moving so slowly that your brain picks up speed to compensate.

Whatever the reason, Phil Givens enjoys it. During his first hike with the group last month, he found himself in the midst of an intense dietary debate. One camp subsisted solely on meats and fruits; the other on grains and vegetables.

"It was interesting," Givens says, tugging at his Yale cap.

Conversations often return to the subject of feet.

"Are those bunions you've got?" one hiker asks of another.

"Yeah, they're bunions," the second hiker says.

The first hiker admits his right foot is larger than his left one.

"When I run with shoes on, I have trouble balancing," he says. "But when I run barefoot, I have no problem."

It's one step forward on the anti-footwear front.

With noon approaching, the group winds back to the parking lot. It appears that Ellis's GPS shut off around the 1.5-mile mark. There's no telling how far we've hiked.

"I'd say about two miles," Ellis says. "Three hours, two miles. Go tell that to your other hiking club and they'll laugh."

He reminds us to check for ticks, and to expect some soreness in our feet and lower limbs. We've called into action some rarely used muscles, he says.

Then, reaching into his car's trunk, he grabs two letters from the state's Department of Public Health. There are no regulations regarding footwear in the state's public health codes, he points out.

"There are also no regulations in Connecticut General Statutes regarding footwear and food establishments," a letter adds.

So who's up for a barefoot brunch?

Chernoff isn't. "Time to change clothes and get to work," he says, opening his car.

If he's lucky, they'll have a new carpet.

For more information, visit: http://www.meetup.com/ct-barefooters/

Tim Loh is a staff reporter for the Fairfield Citizen and Westport News. He can be reached at tloh@bcnnew.com