A few weeks ago, Dave and I took my son Thomas on a super manly camping trip* at a local state park. The park is situated alongside a man-made lake, the choppy waters of which we heroically canoed by moonlight while Dave and Thomas bickered over who knew more about canoeing. It also features a six-mile-long forested hiking/mountain biking trail that includes a wooden bridge that virtually begs to be peed off of. This is one of my favorite trails in the area, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never completed the full loop before.
In a previous post, I wrote about how my son and I share the rather unique affinity for barefoot hiking. The trail at this particular state park was one of the first challenging trails we tried to hike barefoot, but the rocky terrain was too much for Thomas’s feet and we ended up going home after less than a mile. That had been months ago and we had done dozens of other hikes since then, so I felt confident that we could at least cover most of the trail before strapping on our hiking sandals. If nothing else, surely we’d be able to go farther than we had the last time, and that would be some sort of vindication.
(And don’t call me Shirley.)
Shortly after we arrived and settled in at our campsite, we decided to take on the six-mile loop. Thomas had been barefoot since before we left the house and it took some convincing to get him to bring his adventure sandals (as he calls them) in his backpack, just in case. I slipped off my own Chacos and hooked them in the waist strap of my hyper-masculine fanny pack along with my water bottle. Dave decided to keep his shoes on, and, due to the point I’m about to make in this post, I’m not allowed to make fun of him for it.
The first few minutes of a barefoot hike are surprisingly difficult for me, not so much physically as mentally. Even though I’ve been doing it for months, it still takes some time to acclimate to the feeling of dirt, gravel, sticks, pine needles, rocks, leaves, grass, and roots beneath my bare soles, and until I do I worry that I won’t be able to go very far. But in time those sensations become familiar and even pleasant, and my self-assurance for the journey ahead swells.
It was the same with this trail, which begins with several abrupt uphill and downhill stretches. If you’re hiking barefoot, the ascent isn’t particularly arduous, but the descent–particularly on rocky terrain–can be agonizing because the force of gravity typically makes you move quicker and step down heavier than you’d like. I spent the first few minutes of this hike doubting my ability to endure six miles of trail barefoot since this would be by far the longest trek I’d undertaken with nothing on my feet. Then suddenly and somewhat inexplicably, I felt confident in my own endurance. Capable of completing the whole trail. Tough enough to leave my sandals strapped at my waist.
The point at which Thomas and I had turned back last time came and went, and both of us agreed that this time our feet felt fine. Somewhere around mile three, Thomas announced that he wanted to quicken our pace in order to get back to the campsite sooner. So he snatched his sandals out of his backpack and leashed them to his feet since the constant vigilance that barefoot hiking requires naturally slows you down. He beseeched me to put on my own sandals so as not to delay our small company any further, but I chose to remain barefoot. Hiking six miles in bare feet was something I needed to do for myself. If that meant Dave and Thomas left me in the dust and ate dinner without me, so be it.
For the most part, I managed to keep up with their clip and I successfully accomplished my goal of hiking six miles barefoot. I was covered in filth from the ankles down, my soles were raw, and my toes were bloody, but I did it. And I finally understood why it was so important to me that I did the entire trail without shoes.
The realization came to me as we were nearing the end of the trail. We came upon two long, heavy branches impeding the trail. Instead of simply moving them out of the way, Dave took one in each hand and dragged them along behind him the rest of the hike. Thomas asked Dave why he chose to lug the cumbersome tree limbs so far, and Dave’s explanation was twofold: “Because I want to use them for firewood tonight, and because it makes me feel manly.”
The second part of Dave’s response struck me and answered the question of why I felt like I needed to hike the whole six miles barefoot: because it made me feel manly.
Now, because masculinity can be a tricky subject to write about these days, permit me to clarify what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that the capacity to hike six miles in bare feet makes you a man, nor am I saying that such a thing is a standard that men should be held to. I’m also not saying that women are incapable of hiking barefoot or that the use of footwear is somehow feminine.** In fact, I’m not saying anything about other men or women.
Here’s what I am saying: When I go for a hike without any protection for my feet and I’m able to complete the entire trail, I feel strong. I feel capable. I feel confident in who I am as a human male. I feel, in a word, manly. Barefoot hiking doesn’t define me as a man, nor does it make me more masculine than any other man. It simply makes me feel good about myself.
As foster/adoptive dads, it can be all too easy to lack confidence in ourselves, to feel like we’re not man enough, to believe that we aren’t capable of doing this. When we get to this point, our ability to persist in this demanding lifestyle diminishes and we become less effective fathers, husbands, friends, employees, and citizens. In my time as a foster/adoptive dad, I’ve spent a lot of time in that place. But I’ve also found that I can do things that increase my confidence, that make me feel like a man, and that remind me why I should believe in myself. One of those things just happens to be barefoot hiking.
I believe that toxic masculinity is a real thing that we each need to grapple with, but I don’t think that desiring to feel manly is inherently negative.*** My definition of manliness is simply the confidence a man has in himself as a human male.**** By that definition, I think that developing our own sense of manliness is not only beneficial, but critical, both for ourselves and for those around us.
The world needs people who are confident in who they are as people. To be more specific, the world needs men who are confident in who they are as men. To be even more specific, the world needs foster/adoptive dads who are confident in who they are as foster/adoptive dads. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t really dole out shares of confidence with any prodigality, so, in some ways, we need to take charge of our own grit. For me, a challenging barefoot hike does wonders for my personal sense of fortitude. For you, it could be pick-up basketball or writing poetry. Whatever makes you feel manly, do it. Your kids need you to do it. Your spouse or significant other needs you to do it. Your friends need you to do it. The world at large needs you to do it.
*By “super manly camping trip” I mean “a camping trip in which we left the tents at home and slept in Dave’s 1978 VW Bus, which he had outfitted with a window air conditioning unit that plugged into the campsite’s electrical system.”
**It should be noted that I don’t believe masculinity and femininity are diametrical opposites. In fact, I think many (if not all) of the traits we commonly define as masculine or feminine actually cross over more than we typically imagine.
***The caveat being that how we go about making ourselves feel manly matters. Our feeling confident in our own masculinity should never come at the expense of others.
****Personally, I would maintain that this applies to those who are biologically male and those who are not biologically male but who identify as male. This may not necessarily be the view of all involved with The Foster Dads.