I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. It seemed to me that I had several more lives to live.
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
This is what my right foot looks like at this moment. There’s a lot of story for one foot.
If you could see the underside, you’d be able to read even more.
The river did this to my feet.
The contrasting lines of red and Philadelphian springtime-inspired paleness are the result of wearing only my Chaco sandals for the last 7 days. Slathered with sunscreen regularly throughout the trip, the marks attest to the intensity of the sun along the river.
The fact that I made no move to fish my hiking shoes from the depths of my dry bag attests to the intensity of every moment along the river. Those red spots are sunburned. Showering after getting off the river, I felt the heat of my skin fighting with the heat of the water. In about a week, the burn will turn to itching as my skin repairs itself. I’ll take it as a kind of post card from the river.
Along the outer edge of my foot is a scrape.
Though it looks fresh, the scrape is now a few days old. Wednesday, as we were attempting to paddle down the river, the wind had another plan. Gusting from canyon wall to canyon wall, it first stopped our boats and then began to move them upstream. Making matters worse, the river was incredibly low and we continued to find ourselves stuck in the mud as our boat was buffeted from shore to shore.
Finally, in an act of frustration with all her paddling coming to naught, Steph, our river guide, hopped from our boat, grabbed the bow line and began to pull us down the river in thigh-high water.
Minutes before, the three students riding in the bow of the boat had been largely incommunicative, choosing to lounge rather than engage in conversation.
“What can we do?” one asked as Steph jumped from the boat.
“If you want, you can get in the water and help push the boat,” she said.
In seconds, the the three were in the cold muddy water.
I jumped from my spot at the stern and we all pushed together.
It was freezing and the kids were loud. I’m not certain how much we actually helped other than taking some weight out of the boat to ease Steph’s efforts.
Somewhere along the way, I slipped and scraped my foot on a rock.
Not until we were docked along the shore did I look down and notice the scrape. Even then, it wasn’t for another few hours until we’d set up camp that it began to sting.
I’ll be a bit sad when it’s healed. I was working with students to move forward against forces outside our control. Usually, we do that sort of thing in a more figurative sort of way. I’m happy to have the battle scar as a reminder of the progress we made.
The scrape and sunburn are all the sweeter when taken along with my toenails.
They’re painted – by Steph, actually. The other foot’s nails are decorated as well – by a student.
Our second night on the river, as we waited for dinner to cook, I sat in the sand with my back against a rock face, alongside the other men of our group and had my toenails painted.
It’s something of a tradition on river trips.
In the case of rain or boredom, every trip brings along a retired 20mm ammo can labeled the “Fun Box.” Invariably, the box contains a collection of nail polishes.
I’d be lying if I claimed I wasn’t momentarily surprised when I pulled my feet from my sleeping bag the next morning.
A few days later, now, and I’ve gotten used to them. I won’t be removing the polish when I get home. I like the portrait the toes create combined with the marks of my sandals and the gash of our journey.
I like the idea that the polish, like everything else, will slowly chip and fade. For now, I like the story the heart and polka dots afford me when I catch strangers trying to make sense of my feet.
They are a map of my last week on the river.