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Click your heels three times

October 3, 2011

When I was a kid, four or five years old, summer began when my red leather sandals arrived in the mail.

In my memory I always had red shoes in the summer, right up until first grade when I was living in France and no red sandals could be found. I’m fairly sure that I actually only had them for two or three years, but the memory remains: boots in the winter, sneakers in spring and fall, red leather T-strap sandals in the summer. They buckled on the side with a dull leather buckle, had soles stiff enough to slap satisfyingly on the sidewalk when I ran, and sported a flower cutout over the toes.

I wore them to block parties and birthday parties and plays, to the park and the beach, in the backyard sprinkler and the lagoon where I launched my toy sailboat. Sand and dirt softened the leather, water washed out the red; the sun bleached what color remained. The dyes rubbed off onto my feet and stayed there, cutout flower and all, so that by the end of summer I wore the decomposing ghosts of shoes, their souls stained onto my skin.

After the sandals came my red gummi boots, which replaced hand-me-down rainboots from my sister. They were made by Nokia and were just as shiny as any new cell phone (and those were the days when cell phones were still exciting). Bright as a the scarlet flash in a blackbird’s wing, with a strip of reflective tape around the rim, they carried me through wilderness that saw very few six-year olds. I forded my first stream in those boots, fending my way very carefully and seriously with my walking stick despite the shallowness of the water. If the red sandals were for summers in town, warm weather and splashing and rootbeer floats, then my scarlet Nokias were the boots that gave me to the wilds.

Many years passed before my next red shoes. These were hiking boots, bought in a basement in Paris that housed one of many branches of the local outdoor store. I have funny-shaped feet (wide toes, narrow heels, and low ankle bones) that normally make finding new shoes an unpleasant chore, but these fit perfectly on the first try and never needed breaking in; it was like they were waiting just for me.

And what journeys we have had! Padjelanta and Sarek, in Europe’s largest wilderness area, over nearly a month of backpacking; the Scottish highlands, where my ancestors hid in the bracken from their enemies; Iceland, fascinating in both its sagas and its geology; Utsjoki, the place where my father fell in love with the tundra (and got seriously lost in the process); the White Mountains of New Hampshire; Hadrian’s Wall with my two oldest friends, the summer we graduated from high school. I’ve worn those boots on hikes and in labs, through mud and desert and thorns, in snow and sleet and rain, forded rivers, climbed mountains, crossed glaciers, crouched by campfires in cozy forests. Together we’ve logged hundreds of miles, those red boots and I, and they kept my feet dry and steady every step of the way. We’ve come a long way. I was a teenager when I got them, timid, withdrawn, and too independent in all the wrong ways; marginally more adult now, finding that my path intersects those of others. Like the sandals of my childhood my red boots have faded now, but I think they have many years of life in them still, and I have only the barest notion of where we will go next.

There must not be a great market for bright red hiking boots with blinding chromed eyelets, because the new model is dull brown. I’m sure they’re just as comfortable, but it’s just not the same. I’ve seen only one pair other than mine out in the wild, on the feet of a man at Geysir in Iceland, and felt some kinship with that other wanderer in red boots.

My mother used to dream of red dancing boots, which led her to buy a pair of red Hungarian shoes for dancing on the square during college. I sometimes wonder if my red childhood sandals stem from those dreams. I also think of Dorothy’s scarlet slippers in the Wizard of Oz. People always remember that the slippers carried her home — that throughout her journey, Dorothy always had the power to go home, if only she had known. But the slippers had a greater power than that. A wish and three clicks of the heels could take you anywhere, anywhere at all. Red slippers aren’t for going home: they’re for exploring, for going places and doing things — laughing in the sun, smelling the heather, scrambling up rock formations, picking blueberries and stomping up a dance.

In the past, I’ve mostly confined these activities to the summer. There is no reason this has to be case. The world is exciting and strange, wherever I am and wherever I’m going; and if red boots will keep my journeying feet dry, that’s always a plus.

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