MISSOULA — Dave Murray knows the hobbits were onto something.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s little Lord of the Rings heroes walked all through Middle Earth in bare feet. Murray plans to hike the Continental Divide Trail the same way. Not to prove anything — it’s just the way he rolls.
Peter Jackson’s LOTR makeup crew could have modeled Frodo and Sam’s fake feet on Murray’s real ones. They have the casual muscular definition of someone who moves heavy things on the job rather than the gym. Given the scratches on his shins, it looks like a job in a hawthorn hedge.
“I’m probably the only guy in the world whose wife says ‘Dave, put your shoes on before you go in the house,’” Murray joked as he put finishing touches on the CDT plans last week. On Monday, he and wife Connie departed for New Mexico and the first phase of the 3,100-mile journey.
“I’m not going barefoot,” Connie added. “I can’t walk from here to the truck barefoot. But I wanted something big in my life, and he’s always up for a big adventure.”
Humans are born barefoot, and they spent the eons of evolution that way. It wasn’t until the 1970s that runners started designing shoes with heel padding for greater speed.
Otzi, the 5,000-year-old iceman found in an Austrian glacier, wore remarkably sophisticated Stone-Age shoes. But they were intended to give him traction and warmth, not cushioning. Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Rome Olympics marathon in bare feet. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a shoe company sponsored Bikila. He won again, barefoot, carrying the shoes.
The Vibram Five Fingers toe shoes revived interest in barefoot travel when they appeared about a decade ago. But by then, the typical human foot and leg had adapted to the evolution of concrete, losing much of the motion that those 26 toe bones were intended to provide. Most of us use our legs like articulated stilts, slamming our orthopedically cushioned heels into the ground with every step.
“There’s a constantly changing philosophy about whether shoes should have more or less padding,” said Tim Mosbacher, who coaches runners for the Run Wild Missoula marathon program. “Those toe shoes got really involved about five years ago, but then so many people got hurt, you can’t even buy most of those shoes anymore. Some people say if you run barefoot, you run more naturally. But whenever I’ve tried it, it seems less natural.”
A 2016 study by the Harvard Medical School and National Running Center found that runners who use more of their foot to soften their landings also avoided injury. In 2014, Eddie Vega ran 50 marathons in 50 states barefoot. Nevertheless, the style remains esoteric.
For Dave, the decision came down to a footrace with a black bear.
“I quit wearing shoes after I got chased across Camus Creek by a bear that tore up our camp,” he said of a summer he spent on the Salmon River as a 14-year-old boy. “I had a pair of those 1970s high-top Vasque boots. I tried to dry them out by the fire, and they shrunk about two sizes. The tops turned hard as rocks. I cut the backs out of them so I could slip my feet into them, using socks to hold them together. But they just cut into my legs.
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“It took about three weeks, but it got to the point where I could walk barefoot without anything bothering me.”
Other than cactus spines, Murray said the biggest foot care challenge is skin cracks along his heel. He treats those with a solution that’s one part vinegar, one part Listerine and two parts water. The dead skin rubs right off. For other complaints, he rubs in Bag Balm, an ointment originally designed for cows’ udders that many humans use for moisturizing dry or abraded skin.
“The only time I need shoes is when it’s really cold,” Murray said. “Then I’ll feel the sharp rocks. Otherwise, my feet just flex over the rocks.”
In fact, Dave and Connie spend much more time figuring out other challenges on their route. Drug smugglers have made access to desert water holes dangerous in New Mexico. Disputes over access have forced the route to detour around many private ranches, forcing some random deviations. And from the northern New Mexico border on, high-altitude snowcover could require use of snowshoes.
“I didn’t have to snowshoe, but I was four days behind people who did,” said CDT through-hiker Forrest Boughner of Missoula. “The first three weeks of the trail in southern Colorado, I never had dry boots. That would be a big advantage for this guy (Murray).”
Boughner said he wrecked three or four pairs of trail-running shoes on his hike. Connie Murray expects to do the same. Dave Murray has already done hundreds of miles in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Glacier National Park and the wild country around Las Vegas, Nevada. He used the same feet the whole time.
“Hiking barefoot really helps,” Murray said. “You get better balance. You get this uplift feeling. I don’t know if it’s being more grounded with the earth or what, but it helps.”
The Murrays will travel the CDT as “flip-floppers” — taking breaks between segments to return home to Montana. In their case, it’s to keep up with business. The Murrays own Industrial Technologies Corp., which is currently overseeing the dismantling and salvaging of Frenchtown’s former pulp mill site. They timed the start of their trek for the day after they filed their 2015 taxes.
Connie plans on carrying a 25-pound backpack, including food and water. Dave will be packing about 28 pounds. Their dog, Loki, will carry his own food when he accompanies them for some segments.
The couple’s gear was spread out across a kitchen counter last week, with every item weighed literally and mentally for inclusion on the trip. The food goes into packages mailed in advance to post offices and “trail angels” along the route (people who volunteer to receive resupply deliveries for CDT hikers). It includes 200 pounds of dried bison the Murrays cured themselves.
“Some people have done this with 15-pound packs,” Dave said. “When you get started, you have all this stuff you feel you can’t live without. Then pretty soon, you find you can.”