Sunday, June 22, 2014

Elementary, My Dear Watson

My son introduced me to the BBC series SHERLOCK (available on Netflix) and I was immediately hooked. We quickly watched all the available episodes and anxiously awaited the most recent season with great anticipation. Upon its arrival we were disappointed only by the small number of episodes (more! Please!). Anyway, the TV series reignited my love for the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so I recently purchased the complete set of crime mysteries in two volumes (containing four novels and fifty-six short stories). I hadn’t read the original Holmes mysteries since my teen years, and while enjoying The Sign of Four I noticed something that went under my radar the first time I read it so many years ago:
     We clambered up through the hole [in the ceiling]. Holmes turned his light once more upon the footsteps in the dust.
     “I wish you particularly to notice these footmarks,” he said. “Do you observe anything noteworthy about them?”
     “They belong, “ I said, “to a child or a small woman.”
     “Apart from their size, though. Is there nothing else?”
     “They appear to be much as other footmarks.”
     “Not at all. Look here! This is the print of a right foot in the dust. Now I make one with my naked foot beside it. What is the chief difference?”
     “Your toes are all cramped together. The other print has each toe distinctly divided.”
     “Quite so. That is the point. Bear that in mind…”
A few pages later the mystery of the footprints is considered further. Says Holmes:
     “Now, do consider the data. Diminutive footmarks, toes never fettered by boots, naked feet, stone-headed wooden mace, great agility, small poisoned darts. What do you make of all this?”
     “A savage!” I exclaimed. “Perhaps one of those Indians who were the associates of Jonathan Small.” 
That the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes deduced the effects of footwear on foot anatomy is not particularly amazing, but when we recall that our fictional detective springs from the mind of the mere mortal Conan Doyle our wonder is more deserved. Conan Doyle likely penned those words sometime in 1889 as The Sign of Four was published in February 1890. His astute observation was prolly aided by the fact that Doyle himself was a world-travelling medical doctor as well as the author of fictional crime mysteries. Still, the observation is treated as common-sense by both Holmes and Watson. Some 15 years later, in 1905, Dr. Phil Hoffman would publish a report in The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery  titled “Conclusions Drawn from a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Shoe-wearing Peoples”.  In that study, Hoffman methodically documented the foot deformities (both in anatomy and functionality) caused by footwear. The figure above is taken from this study. To my knowledge, Hoffman’s report is the first rigorous scientific investigation on the impact of shoes on feet, but once again, it appears that Sherlock Holmes was one step ahead of the experts. Sadly, more than 100 years later, most people - including most podiatrists - still don't have a clue that shoes cause so many foot problems and that going barefoot is good and healthy for your feet. Indeed, they firmly believe that shoes are "modern necessities" and feet will suffer irreparable harm without them.


What's more, after all these years the most common deduction about someone who goes barefoot remains "A savage!"

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Barefoot Hiking: Why & How

It’s summer! Days are hot, but the trail is shady and cool. Long days meander slowly into evening. It is the season for hiking and what better way to experience nature than hiking barefoot?

Yes. Barefoot!

If you’ve only hiked in big, bulky hiking boots, then I’ve got a treat for you. Lose the shoes and experience the trail with your toes. Doing so will completely transform your hiking experience. It’s as if you’ve only seen the forest in black-and-white, but soon it will flood your senses in full color! And don’t worry, it’s completely safe even for the novice if you take just a few common-sense precautions.

Barefoot hiking is one of those quintessential simple pleasures of life. Like all of the other ‘best things in life’ it is free, requires little preparation, and is like a reset button for your soul. For myself and many others, hiking barefoot is therapy. In an utterly unique way it reconnects you to Nature and Nature’s God. In addition to the emotional and psychological benefits of walking shoeless through nature, there are tangible physical benefits, too. Some studies suggest that hiking barefoot boosts the immune system by exposing you to non-pathological soil bacteria. Tannins in fallen leaves give your soles that leathery toughness so essential for comfortably walking barefoot.

Not only is hiking barefoot good for you, it is better for the environment than hiking shod. I can lead a troop of twenty barefoot hikers down a trail and do less damage to the path than a single rambler in ‘hiking boots’.  The bare foot leaves almost no trace after passing through a trail, but hiking boots trample plant life and leave deep imprints in the dirt.

If you’d like to try your hand at barefoot hiking, here are some tips to ensure the experience is enjoyable.

·         If one exists in your area, consider joining a barefoot hiking group. If no group exists near you, you might want to start one!
·         Choose a trail that is smooth and mostly dirt or pine needles. Rocks and roots are fine for those with experience and tough feet but are usually uncomfortable for the tender-footed novice.
·         Avoid (or be very careful) crossing streams and rivers. The mountain stream may, ironically, be the only place a shod hiker might remove their shoes, but it happens to be the most dangerous place to do so. Muddy waters hide real hazards like broken glass, shards of metal, and other dangerous litter. I have hiked hundreds of miles barefoot and the only quasi-serious injury I’ve received is from broken glass in a river. My motto: “Don’t Step Down Where You Can’t See The Ground.” Be careful in rivers!
·         Trim your toenails. Keeping your toenails short will prevent you from snagging a nail on the trail.
·         If you are allergic to poison ivy, you obviously want to avoid the plant. I am allergic to this stuff, but in my experience if I rinse my feet and legs soon after returning home from the trail, then I can avoid breaking out with hives.
·         Wear shorts or capris. Keep your feet and ankles free.
·         Watch your step and don’t drag your feet. Shuffling your feet on the ground is a good way to get cut or stub your toes.
·         Take along some bandages and tweezers. Especially if you are new to barefoot hiking you should expect some cuts and bruises. Rest assured, most injuries can be avoided by simply paying attention, and the more experience you have hiking barefoot the less likely you are to get injured. I must confess, I usually don’t carry these items with me anymore unless I’m leading new barefoot hikers.
·         Check for ticks upon your return. In my experience, you are far less likely to pick up ticks when your skin is exposed (bare feet and shorts) than when your skin is hidden away in shoes and long pants, but you still should check yourself.
·         Keep hydrated. This has nothing to do with feet per se but is good hiking sense!

I hope you will give barefoot hiking a try. Believe me, it is transformational. J