That new boot smell is the hunter’s equivalent of new car smell. The fresh scent of slightly greased leather emerging from the crackling beige wrapping paper is a signal that autumn is not far away. Clean and bright stitching, unmarred by dirt, mud or rain and running in a dotted yellow line from heel to toe serves as the proverbial roadside flashing-bulb arrow sign pointing out the front door and toward the upcoming hunting seasons. Breaking in new boots is a semi-regular August tradition occurring every few years which leads up to the warm grassy fields and sometimes humid woods of September in pursuit of sharptailed and ruffed grouse. It is an activity which ensures that foot and boot function as a team to tackle hills, trails and all the terrain in between. Getting to that point requires some work, and I’ve found a lot of excuses recently in order to get ready.
While socks and field boots below cargo shorts makes an interesting summer fashion statement when walking around the block in late summer’s heat, it’s been a daily effort to help create a five-toed groove in the front end of the sole cushion and establish a solid heel divot in the back. Working my new set of boots into the regimen of four or five pavement hikes a day throughout the neighborhood isn’t tough, but it doesn’t do much for the simulation of the instability presented by the rolling prairie, so I look for just about any excuse to run down into the small draw adjacent to our neighborhood to add more realism to my efforts. One of which being a slightly self-conscious state induced by the development’s fashionistas who are certainly watching from their front windows.
After a rainstorm a few days ago, my lab Ole and I went down into the wooded valley simply to inspect the runoff in the small creek which is normally low this time of year, to see it still gushing with the road-based discharge from the surrounding developments. We wandered up and down the single-track trail used by runners, bikers, hikers and — I’m certain I’m not the only one — boot-breaker-inners, as I worked through the stiffness in the ankle of the new pair and inspected the security of my double-knot to see how the laces would hold in the bow that tied much smaller than on my previous set. I kicked through the grasses, went off trail and scaled the sides of the valley hills to get a feel for how the soles gripped dirt, vegetation and rock. After scaling a few of the large field boulders, and jumping from one to another to another without falling, I raised my hands atop the largest one in a “Rocky”-like V, having conquered the challenge akin to the 72 steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I emerged at the top of the trail by our house with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” still sounding in my head.
With Saturday night’s breezes blowing and my wife’s plan for a small bonfire in the backyard offered up after dinner, I quickly saw another opportunity.
“There’s no way you’ll get the balance of that wood started and keep it going without some real kindling,” I advised, stating that I’d gladly make the trip to a buddy’s nearby treerow to gather up a few piles of starter wood for the evening and add a mile or so to my new boots.
I was laced up and out the door in the time it took her to say, “don’t bring any ticks back with you.”
Hiking from the field approach to the long stretch of trees, I set to work on some downed boughs and branches, cracking them under the clean, crisp rubber soles and swatting mosquitoes as I sorted the wood into two buckets. While I worked, Ole sniffed the adjacent grasses for what birds or other animals might have been running through them before our arrival, and I flashed forward to hunting season as his swirling tail propelled his body forward and suggested birdiness. On our way back, I inspected the new tracks of my boots in the dirt, familiarizing myself with the marks I will undoubtedly follow on my way out of the damp logging trails of the autumn Northwoods and the snowy fields of the prairie in late season.
Before the blazing flames of the just-lit bonfire, I sat back and relaxed in a deck chair, kicking my brown-leather clad feet up on the overturned five-gallon pail. The flicker of orange between the veed toes of my boots served as another sign of accomplishment, and its mesmerizing dance in the twilight caused my mind to wander in the direction of finding new ways — and excuses — to break them in before the seasons to come, with hopes the rock-jumping and fire-building would be just the first great accomplishments for the new pair…in our outdoors.