They have been on the move for the past half-year or so now, starting from their longtime home in the downstairs closet, on to my desk, then to my office floor, upstairs into another closet, back down next to my desk, then back upstairs. I am supposed to get rid of them; Amy almost has more than once. But so far, I have not been able to. Just when I feel I'm ready to immortalize them in picture, and maybe words, one final time before parting, something comes up and back they go. It's not like I can't let them go, or won't — I will. I just haven't yet. Part of it is procrastination, yes, but part of it, I know, is reluctance to let go, broken down and nearly lifeless as they are now.
These are my Montrail Moraines, the first pair of real hiking boots I ever owned in the Pacific Northwest. Before picking these up, I was scraping by with an old pair of Doc Martens patched on the soles with rubber cement. A picture from 16 years ago shows Amy and me relishing the chill wind and incredible view over Lake Tahoe from atop Mount Tallac, and there on my feet are those old Docs.
But when we came to Oregon in late 1997 and figured we'd stay awhile, hike around, explore, maybe even climb a little, we needed boots. Real boots. Sixteen years ago, before houses and kids and all of the real grown-up stuff, these are the ones that I went with. Without personifying them too much, these are the ones that subsequently went with me — or, rather, took me where I wanted to go.
We broke in with waterfalls and wildflowers in the Columbia River Gorge, the wild coast of Olympic National Park, an obscure lake here or there just to get our hiking legs on. Before long, we were finding the first real gems on Mount Hood: Ramona Falls, McNeil Point, Zigzag Mountain. And then it was crampons, and on up to the very top of Hood, Saint Helens, Adams. Sure, I had to call in something with a bit more backbone when I graduated to the likes of Rainier and Mount Stuart, but the Montrails were there almost always, back when a backpack, a hike, a climb, or a snowshoe was on the agenda more weekends than not.
We hiked the Wallowas, the Enchantments, all the way around Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, along the coast south of Bandon, next to Rainier's Carbon Glacier, miles through North Cascades National Park. A hike to an old shelter on the summit of Lookout Mountain in the Ochocos revealed one of the most expansive views of the entire Cascade Range, and I've never seen more morel mushrooms than on a stroll through the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness on our way to Fish Lake. I don't remember exactly where I was when Amy suggested I write the book that would become On Mount Hood, but I can almost guarantee it came after a few miles on a trail to a campsite somewhere up high and alpine and wild with a mighty view.
These boots didn't just tread the trails, though. They were underfoot for an epic trip to Europe, too. The pictures from an old scrapbook show it all: the crystal blowing in Waterford, Ireland, Jim Morrison's grave and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre in Paris, the fjords in Norway. In almost every picture, from the Brandenburg Gate to the Eiger and Venice, I'm either barefoot, in sandals, or in my boots.
Just a few years ago now, after the annual mileage had begun to inch its way down as home repairs and fatherhood snuck up, I took a slight slip on a trail. Nothing major, but it was something irregular, something that caught my attention, if only briefly. It happened again on another hike soon after. And again, until I finally admitted, like a grown child who has begun to see his parents age, that something must be going on. I looked at my boots closely for the first time in years and saw their inevitable wear. A metal eyelet had long since broken free; the padding around the ankle had shredded, and the sole, oh the sole. In an early picture from University Falls in the Tillamook State Forest, one of my first hikes in these boots, I am envious of not only the long hair and worry-free smile I see but also of the boot sole. Square, deep, and defined as a tank tread, my boots look fresh and new, ready to grasp. Looking at them years later as they first began to falter, that tread had been rounded down nearly smooth from all the miles and terrain.
I tried to stretch them a little longer, but on nearly every outing they slipped a little more. I made excuses for a while, but I began to feel like I was dragging an old dog out onto the trail even though I knew he was past his prime and wasn't up for it anymore.
At a gear sale last year, Amy brought me home a new, used pair of boots that she'd found. They were nice, I admit: newer leather, smooth, a touch lighter, lug soles with tread still squared and sharp. I was reluctant at first — Could I put a crampon on them? Were they waterproof? Would they be comfortable? — but it was all just going through the motions. Once I tried them on, I knew these would be my new boots.
And so the old boys haven't hiked an inch since sometime probably late last spring or early summer. They've been moved, though, from the closet to the office, downstairs to upstairs, and so forth, but they're not really going anywhere anymore. Maybe a pair of old hiking boots is an odd thing to be sentimental about, but when they hold the miles and the mountains and the memories the way these do, well, it's hard not to be. I'm sure the new ones will take me to new places and back to old ones, and there will come a day when I will again have to step into something new. But to think where I was when I took my first step in the Montrails back in '97 — a 23-year-old fresh to the Northwest and the Cascades — and where they've brought me since somehow makes them hard for me to let go of.
It's probably time, though. Now I've got the words down. Maybe I'll take one last picture, and then we'll be done. I'll do that soon, when I have a minute. Until then, I'll just stick them back upstairs.