Boots on the Ground

Backcountry Corpsmembers take great pride in our boots.

(This piece is based upon 1987 Backcountry boots. I hear they’ve changed.)

For one thing, our boots set us apart from everybody else in the CCC. Just like jump boots identified elite paratroopers on World War 2, Red Wing Irish Setters identified Backcountry Corpsmembers to everybody else in the CCC.

Regular issue CCC boots are made by Prison Industries (PI). Yes. Inmates in the California penitentiary system make the boots worn by the CCC. They are black steel-toe safety boots with a high ‘logger heel’. The high heel is supposed to give the wearer’s foot a better grip on wet, uneven surfaces like logs. The heel and sole are supposed to collapse in upon each other a little, acting like a big clamp. It actually works that way on logs.

The quality of PI boots is uneven. Most of the time they are pretty good. Sometimes there can be tacks sticking up through the boot’s sole. It is always a good idea to feel around inside the boots with your hand before you put a pair on for the first time.

Trail work requires a different type of boot. Steel toes do not work in hiking boots. The steel toe caps intended to protect the toes actually become a hazard to the toe when hiking long distances. An inflexible toe on the boot leads to more injuries than are prevented from falling rocks. The logger heel creates poor posture for hiking.

Red Wing Irish Setters became the official CCC Backcountry trails boot. They are all leather construction with high tops, a low heel, and a Vibram sole. It’s a big day in the life of a Backcountry Corpie when the Red Wing representative, George the Boot Fairy, comes by your center to fit you for your boots. Your brand spanking new Red Wings are delivered to your center shortly afterward. The Red Wings are expected to be broken in by the time a Corpie reports to Backcountry, so the Red Wings become a matter of pride as a new Backcountry Corpie struts around in his/her brand new Red Wings. And they are the color of an Irish setter! The make the new Backcountry Corpies stand out in a crowd.

There is an initial bonding moment among trail crews at Orientation as all of the new Backcountry Corpies meet for the first time. Everybody shows up at Delta Center in ones and twos from the bus station or dropped off by family or friends. We all sport our brand new Red Wings. The second moment of bonding is when everybody gets chewed out by Delta staff for wearing our boots inside their center. The audacity we had, to wear our CCC-issued boots inside a CCC facility! It turned out to be Delta Center policy that work boots were forbidden inside because their floors were maintained with a high polish. Boots scuffed the polished finish. This little note had not been included in any of our ‘report to Delta Center’ instructions. In hindsight, getting chewed out by Delta staff over our boots was just one more thing that set us apart from the ‘regular’ Corpsmembers at Delta. Maybe that was Peter’s plan all along!

The beautiful new Irish setter-colored boots would be unrecognizable by the end of the season. We had seen the pictures in the Backcountry recruiting slide show. The leather would be dried out if you did not keep your boots oiled throughout the season, or a buffed to a deep, rich brown if you had oiled them. Seams had probably started to come apart, and glued back together with the Backcountry Corpies best friend…Shoo Goo! The Vibram tread would be pretty thin by the time you hiked out of the Backcountry, too. Most boots could survive to the end of the season, but probably not much longer. I think I got an extra six months out of my first pair. And I did get an honest extra six months out of them…I never went back to PI boots! When I had to replace my original pair of Backcountry Red Wings, I bought another pair of Irish Setters. (Well…I traded a pair of PI boots for a pair of Red Wings…but that’s another story!)

The pride in our Backcountry boots is what led to Wayne’s injury. He wanted to ‘save’ his Red Wings, so he wore his PI boots whenever he thought he could. Wayne found out how necessary that low heel is. He was wearing his PI boots when he pulled up lame on that weekend hike. A few days after Wayne was evacuated, after he had been to a doctor and prescribed treatment, we received word on his condition. He has developed stress fractures in his foot. The most likely cause of the stress fractures was hiking in the logger heels. The elevated heel shifts more of the body weight forward onto the metatarsals. The metatarsals are not designed to take that much pressure. After so much time and pressure, they start to crack. This causes pain. The only treatment is to stay off the stressed metatarsals for six to eight weeks.

The life lesson for today is simple: never hike in high heels!

Categories: Backcountry, CCC, Hiking, Yosemite | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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