The Best Shoes In Life Are Not Shoes

I walked onto the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder last Friday and a Denver Voice vendor looked down at my sandals, laughed and said,

“Oh man, you must be from Colorado.” Hey, it was October 5th, far from winter, and it was still 35 degrees outside.

Lots of people talk about fall being their favorite season, because of the changing colors, or the anticipation of ski season. Or they love summer for the long days and ample after-work daylight to go mountain biking. In my life, there are two seasons:

  • The time of year I can wear Chacos (typically early March through late October)
  • The time of year I can’t (typically late-October through early March)

We can rationalize buying ourselves a hell of a lot of different kind of shoes: boots that support our ankles when we’re carrying a heavy pack, shoes with sticky rubber for slabby approaches to rock climbs, shoes for all-day rock climbs, downturned shoes for super-techy rock climbs, cleated shoes for riding road bikes but not for walking anywhere, cleated shoes for riding mountain bikes, shoes for running on sidewalks, other shoes for running on trails, shoes for running through so much water that it has to drain out the sides, and the super-cute heels that really only go with that one dress I have. Well, not the dress I have, but you know what I mean.

You know what’s nice? Telling your feet, “Toughen up, bitches, we’re doing this hike in sandals.” Because I’ll tell you what: You do enough stuff in sandals, and your feet will not whine to you, “We need arch support, lacing technology, all the crap to keep us from overpronating or oversupinating or underwhatevering …” You look down at the dirt between your toes during a long hike, and your feet are screaming up at you, a la Mel Gibson halfway through Braveheart, “FREEEEDOOOOMMMM!”

I like to call my Chacos “The Air Jordans of Colorado.” The company started making river sandals in Colorado in 1989, based out of the tiny town of Paonia. Of course they got big, sold to a larger company and gradually moved manufacturing operations to China — but the Z-series, the model I’ve worn for seven years now, was the last to be produced overseas, in 2008. I have heard Chaco now makes other types of non-open-toed footwear, but my toes are not so interested in that.

I once put up a first ascent of a V1 boulder problem in a pair of Chacos. I’ve ascended and descended slot canyons in the San Rafael Swell in them. I have taken a couple dozen frigid alpine lake baths wearing nothing but Chacos on my feet. My happy place is somewhere in the desert in November or March, wearing a puffy jacket and waiting for the sun to come up high enough to warm me, drinking a cup of coffee and wiggling my Chacoed bare toes. Sometimes waiting for the blood to come into a couple kind-of-numb toes.

I’ve tried other types of open-toed footwear. I never learned to walk very fast in flip-flops. Keen sandals just feel a little too constraining, with the toe cap. They’re like a holding cell on the way to Foot County Jail.

I remember this one time I broke a pair of Chacos … wait, no I don’t. I’ve never broken them. They sometimes smell so bad I wish they would break, but that’s not their fault. When the soles finally wear out, Chaco will resole them for $40. (They’ll re-strap them for $20.) One time, my friend Brian re-soled his using an old car tire. They were heavy, but radder than hell.

Fact: Chacos are not waterproof, but good news: Your feet are. You step in water, your feet get wet. You walk some more, they dry out. Sandals are prone to getting rocks stuck between the sole and the bottom of your foot, but you learn to only stop and remove the big rocks. The other ones are just exfoliants.

Sometimes I get hints that river sandals are not fashionable, or that, gasp, men don’t really wear sandals in other parts of the country. This summer, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a story headlined “Men simply can’t wear sandals.” The article went on to offer tips for men who do want to wear sandals, including “Get a pedicure” and “Don’t wear sandals to work.” I mean, that’s cool and all, but I think some of my Chaconian brothers in the western half of the country might offer other tips for men who want to wear sandals, such as:

  • Get a job guiding rafts full of people through Class V rapids in the Grand Canyon
  • Pair your sandals with dirty Carhartts and a puffy jacket with duct tape over the holes
  • Make fire in them
  • Approach climbs at Indian Creek whilst wearing them

Or, you know, I guess you could get a pedicure.



25 replies on “The Best Shoes In Life Are Not Shoes

  • Aaron F

    BUSTED! I can help it; I like all my different kind of shoes…..don’t hate me!

    But, you’re right, we could all get by with WAY less. Can I use the excuse of riding my bike to work everyday as my enviromental offset for owning lots of shoes? Prolly not…..

  • Jen

    Not a fan of Chacos, but a big fan of this post. My bf lives in huaraches, so I can relate (by proxy).

    I used to get pedicures maybe once a year, but now that I’ve built up significant callouses on my feet from running (in Vibram Five Fingers), I would never get one for two reasons: (1) the pedicure person would say, “Ooh. I bet you’re a runner” or something in a passively insulting way; (2) it’s taken lots of miles to build up these callouses, which actually prevent my feet from blistering. Why in the world would I want to get rid of them? Just so people can look at the bottom of my feet once in a blue moon and think they look smooth and “pretty”? NAH.

  • Summer

    From one chaconian to another…I agree with this 110%!! My chaco tan is fading but I still put them on when I get home at night. My feet love me for that 🙂

  • Joe Dirt

    I too have worn my trusty pair of Chacos all over during many different outings. They make great canyon backpacking shoes where you are in and out of the water. Lately I have been bike commuting and doing all kinds of dirty digging yardwork in mine and just wearing them into the shower afterwards. I can’t get into those with the Big Toe loop though. You owe it to yourself to try a pair of their flip flops though, very comfy.

    ~Joe in Tucson

  • whispering

    Absolutley agree. My pair has gone at least 6000 miles in the last several years, on several rivers, climbs, backpacking, and overseas trips. They have been restrapped twice and resoled once … and I still wear them to work! Chaco flips are also awesome for hiking and such as they also hold to your feet better than any other flip flop I have ever worn.

  • Rob Baumgartner

    I’ve never tried on a pair of Chacos, but I’m with you on the “FREEEEEDOM!!!” thing (I recently switched from Reef sandals to Olukais a.k.a. “those fancy dress-up flip-flops”)… My feet just don’t like being all cooped up in socks!

    I actually have to disagree with you on the seasons, though. Flip-flop season is year-round in Colorado, in the same way that rock-climbing season is: as long as it’s dry out and above freezing, flop on!

  • Will

    I prefer Rainbow sandals, which I’ve worn regularly since ’99. Their weakness is with aqueous applications as the leather will crack after multiple submersions/dry-outs. That said, for everything else, this thong sandal excels, and I’ve climbed up 5.3 roped pitches wearing them, and done some serious hikes and bouldering shod in only Rainbows.

    Unfortunately, the DC sartorial establishment frowns on them at work for men, but I do wear them into the office in the summer before changing to “work” shoes to make it through the day.

    Great post.

  • Kristyn

    I love this post and I love my Chacos! It’s kind of neat reading from this perspective since I attended college in Alabama for a couple years and thus just equate Chacos to shoes that college students wear. Around there everyone from the hippies to the preppy frat boys rock Chacos year ’round!

  • Greg

    Chacos loves you……and I love mine. Got mine in Co on a trip w/my daughter – needed something and she turned me on to them. The best thing ever – and yes, when I go into my barber shop owned by an old Italian guy in New Jersey and slap my grimy feet up on the foot rest I get looks……..the Joisey equivalent of “you ain’t from round her son, are ya” ……..don’t care – will never quit wearing them or thinking of my baby girl when I do. Great post, BL – as usual.

  • Debi

    Exactly!…I agree there are only 2 seasons with the minor variation: Mar-Oct – “Happy Feet”, Nov-Early March – “Oh Crab, I don’t want to put on shoes” (to get it right, you have to whine when you say that last one.)

  • Josh

    Dude, forget Minneapolis! I’m from Ohio, I’m a sea kayak instructor in the summer and a Chaconian all the time! Whenever it’s warm enough, I’m building those awesome Z-shaped tan lines that let people know I do shit with my life. Loafers say something along the lines of “Yes, I wear sweater vests most days” and that’s not really what I’m going for (though, I did buy a pair of Chaco pedsheds for the winter because my toes still don’t agree with snow…).

  • josh nizash!

    I would redicule the awefulness of chacos but I wear five fingers. Casually. Out in public. My wife hates them so much and refuses to walk next to me when sporting them.

  • KatieSue

    I love my chacos!! They’re my everything shoes. I got a second pair this year but I’m so devoted to my originals that I can’t even take the time to break in new chacos, that’s how bad it is. I even wear them to the gym because I think if my feet are going to make the 15 and 16 mile day hikes in them this summer a gym is nothing. I get weird looks.
    Although I did wear them on a top to bottom hike of The Narrows in Zion this year…it was bad. I ended up with tendonitis in my feet and ankles. I did it, but I will not do that again.

  • Jeff

    Spot on. My Chacos pretty much are my go to footwear. Life isn’t right unless I have that semi-permanent Chaco tan on my feet. My girl gives me grief for wearing them when it’s “cold” here in Seattle, but let’s be realistic – if I could wear them during early season snowstorms in Leadville, they’re worthy of daily use here.

  • Matt

    Chacos are the raddest of the rad! There is no “off-season” for Chacos in my life. If I fear that my toes will freeze off due to sub-zero temps, I’ll just rock some socks with my chacs.

    Great post, bro!

  • Matt

    Thanks for writing this! I left Telluride for a week to visit my brothers in Philly this past November. I showed up in a puffy, Patagonia stand up shorts, and Chacos and it was around 35-40 degrees. I didn’t hear the end of it from my brothers. But one of them read this article and now knows how we do things out here.

  • Michael

    I wear my Chacos wherever and whenever I can, and I live in South Carolina. Of course I did live in Colorado for a few years, and even made a few trips through Paonia back in the early 90’s. I’ve had 3 pairs of Chacos (actually my first pair were Geckos – before they changed the name) One was chewed to oblivion by my dog, one smelled sooo bad that my wife finally threw them out, and the pair I have now. I wear them around town, for hikes, for yard work, out to feed the horses, and they also make great trail running shoes. Long live Chacos!

  • Miles

    Brendan! I found a new form of footware for you. They’re called “barefoot”. Or maybe its “bearfoot”, could be German, I don’t know. But they’re great! I’ve climbed mountains in them, canyoneered, gone swimming/dipping, hiking, even sleeping! They require frequent maintenance: washings and bandaids and such. But totally worth it! Cheers.

  • Brandon

    This is a fantastic article, I came to the same conclusion too about 5 years ago. I had tall boots for backpacking, shoes for approach, shoes for the lake, and these for everyday/light activities. I finally just said “enough is enough” and pretty much use my Chacos for everything! I did keep the tall backpacking boots though, for those winter months/long backpack trips. I now wear Chacos everywhere, and have 6 pairs total (2 pedshed, 1 gunnison, 2 Z/1s, and the Nurl boots) so I can spend all year in my beloved shoes. Nothing will replace my Chacos, and trust me I have tried plenty of other sandals (jaurachas, keen, etc.) nothing holds a candle to these rugged beauties.

  • Brittany Vegas

    Just did the Narrows top to bottom, and at the top while debating whether to bring flip flops for camp or Chacos, my fellow Chaconian said, “you can’t trade out your hiking shoes for flip flops.” One mile into the trek, I took off the heavy hikers and strapped on my Chacos with my friend as the booted up people shook their heads at us.

    We hiked the whole Narrows in our Chacos with nary a blister, raw spot, bleeder, and kept all our toenails. Everyone says not to do it, but WE ALWAYS WEAR OUR CHACOS! I think our feet and bodies have learned to compensate for whatever will supposedly kill your feet on that hike because we were so fine. Can’t say the same for the guy in leather hiking boots who had a killer blister that had to be moleskinned up!

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