When hikers approached Mike Berrow on the trail, he often stood in tall grass or hid behind a tree. By choice Mr. Berrow's feet were shoeless. He was a shy, inhibited barefoot hiker, "sensitive to comments," he says.
Mr. Berrow, who is part owner of a computer consulting firm in Oakland, Calif., has joined some 150 other unshod hikers around the world as outspoken but soft-walking members of Barefoot Hikers, an organization that promotes and enjoys the pleasures of barefoot hiking.
Unshod chapters are now in Canada, Sweden, Kansas, Connecticut, Oregon, North Carolina, and three in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"I started going barefoot almost all the time about five years ago," Berrow says. "On trails my boots always caused me trouble."
Then came that memorable moment on a hike, when he decided to free himself from shoes.
"I took my shoes off and felt great," he says. "I thought, 'Why am I denying myself this pleasure?' " Gradually his hiking boots were stowed in his back- pack when he hiked. Now he only carries moccasins on hikes, and has put them on only once in five years.
To all shoe wearers who perhaps cringe at the thought of hiking barefoot across pebbles, twigs, stones, or fragmented pine cones, consider the bare logic behind shoeless hiking offered by those sans shoes.
Going barefoot is natural, they say, politically correct in many cultures since time and walking began. Feet are not fragile, and can easily be conditioned to be tougher.
On the trail, bare feet keep you in touch with the earth because of their flexibility. "You can really feel the texture of the ground," says Richard Frazine, author of "The Barefoot Hiker" (Ten Speed Press, l993).
"My feet are in really good condition," says Berrow, who hikes at least once a week.
David Francis, who lives in a rural area of Ontario, Canada, and hikes barefoot as well as being shoeless at home, says, "I enjoy the different textures to walk over, grass, mud, moss, puddles, and pine needles. You can develop a technique of sort of rolling your foot if you happen to tread on something sharp, and sort of roll off to the side."
Many ardent barefooters don't just hike without shoes, and tie them on at other times. For them being shoeless is an alternative lifestyle. Shoes simply are not as necessary as society has concluded.
Mr. Frazine, who owns a gift shop in Thomaston, Conn., says he goes barefoot year round, including shoveling his driveway in winter. "I'm basically a winter person," he says. "If there has been a fresh snowfall, walking barefoot through it can be really lovely."
Barefooters point at high heels: Such spikes are culturally acceptable among women, they say, but going barefoot probably causes no more injuries or problems than wearing high heels.
And a further irony is that some shoe manufacturers tout their shoes as being close to going barefoot. "Somehow people don't make the jump to the real thing," says Frazine.
"We live in a culture that turns sports into serious money affairs, and many people define themselves as outdoorsmen on the basis of how much money they spend on boots," he says. "And they have difficulty with people who prefer to go barefoot in a wide variety of hiking environments."
Organizations like the Sierra Club are not quick to embrace barefoot hiking on long, arduous journeys.
"We run rugged backpacking trips," says Molly Spofford, a spokeswoman for Sierra Club Outings in San Francisco. "And a good portion of them are in the high Sierra on granite in tough conditions. I don't think we would recommend barefoot hiking there, but maybe trails on the East Coast that are packed dirt and cool would be OK."
Barefooters can gather on the Internet at the Barefoot Hikers site, along with the affiliated Dirty Sole Society. Here shoeless hikers share their experiences and rally to the cause with facts and essays. "In Hawaii kids can go barefoot to school," says Berrow, and in Amish schools too."
"What most people don't know," says Frazine, who signs copies of his book with a footprint, "is that it has never been illegal to drive barefoot in any state. And we have checked with the health departments of a dozen states and none of them say it is illegal to go into a store or business in barefoot."
What irks barefooters is that it may be a store's policy to prohibit barefooters from entering, but it is not illegal by health department edict, because none exist.
Frazine says that wide acceptance of barefootedness has an uphill climb. "We have no product to sell," he says. "We are promoting an activity that doesn't need equipment, and our message is that the way we are made is entirely sufficient."