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Memories of barefoot summers are inspiring me to go shoeless once more

Lindsay Campbell/The Globe and Mail

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When I was a kid, the long months of summer stretched by without the need for shoes. We would peel them off on the last day of school and cast them into the closet.

All summer long, we would run around in bare feet on springy grass, through pillows of garden dirt, over sharp sticks in the bush, even across nubby gravel roads or down the melting asphalt of the highway. We'd slide across slippery rocks in the creek and climb trees by gripping like monkeys with our toes. Our feet became shoes themselves, hardened and able to resist any kind of puncture short of stepping on a nail.

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In the late spring, when a thick layer of new gravel had smoothed the bumps on the frost-heaved roads, we would take off our shoes and deliberately walk across, over and over, the sharp stones biting our winter-softened soles. We were toughening up our feet for summer. The first person to cross without flinching was the winner.

I won a lot. I loved going barefoot. The worst part of going back to school for me was forcing my feet into shoes. I was teased for wearing moccasins in September because putting on shoes again felt like punishment (note: it is hard to play soccer in moccasins). Shoes felt alien, stiff and clunky. Walking in them felt unbalanced, teetery, as if my feet had grown roots, now severed.

I remember feeling strange about going barefoot only once, when, during a fierce game of hide-and-go-seek, I was slapping along the hard-packed dirt path that ran to the barn and I stepped on a baby toad. My foot squished him flat. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw his flat tongue protruding from his mouth like a cartoon character under a rock. I had a moment of squeamishness, a new sensation. I made it "home" safely before I sat down to look at my foot. The bottom was so dirty it was hard to make out the stain the toad had left behind. I started scrubbing my feet with a brush in the bath at night, but the dirt had penetrated like dye, impossible to wash off.

I think that was the beginning. By my 20s I had become aware that my feet didn't look very good in sandals, so, before a trip to the beach, I went for my first pedicure. I remember the girl who got saddled with the job. I bet she remembers, too. This was back when they were still allowed to wield what amounted to a vegetable peeler. Off came years of hard-won calluses. No more gravel roads for me. I left with tingling, baby-skin feet and her advice: Don't go barefoot ever again.

I am not sure if it was that humiliation, vanity or a bout of plantar fasciitis that caused it, but over the years I slipped out of practice with going barefoot and somehow it stuck. I gradually became precious about my feet. I never go barefoot, even in the house. Slippers sit beside my bed, the first thing my feet touch. I am so scared of athlete's foot that I won't take off my socks in exercise class, even when the instructor points out that I would have a better grip on the Bosu ball with bare skin.

When asked to remove my shoes at the airport, I'm not happy. I bring socks, but once I forgot them and had to walk barefoot through the scanner, my feet shrivelling up against the grit and sweat left behind by every other traveller. We were late for our connection, but I begged my husband to wait while I got my shoes back on. When I told a friend this story, expecting sympathy, she rolled her eyes and said that in his place she would have run, hoping the plane would take off without me.

I admit it: I have a thing about my feet. I love scrubbed skin and shiny toes. My feet are polished and perfect, eternally ready for inspection like your best underwear in case of an accident, though rarely intentionally on view. I am not sure what changed, but I've begun to realize it's odd. Where is that barefoot girl? Maybe it was the long winter, but this summer the green of the lawn looks particularly inviting. I've been thinking about what I'm missing.

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I miss the feeling of grass, that cool, feathery tickling on the arches.

I miss sinking right up to my ankles into sun-warmed, moist dirt, my feet being hugged by the earth.

I miss the way, as kids, we used to climb a certain waterfall by grabbing the slimy strands of algae with our strong toes.

I miss wrapping my foot around the branch of a tree and flexing the bones out in a fan, balancing while I reach for the next one, in a way that shoes just don't allow.

This summer, I vow to take my feet out for some fun. I'm going to walk on our dandelion-filled yard and not worry about staining my heels. I'm going to see what dirt feels like again, in my tomato patch and on hot pavement, too, on our sidewalk. I'm going to wade into the river nearby, not with water shoes but barefoot, regardless of goose poop and crab shells whitening on the rocks. And I'm going to climb a tree and let the bark dig in to my too-soft soles.

This summer, I'm going to run around in bare feet.

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J. E. Hewitt lives in Elora, Ont.

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