Chapter 8: Regarding Feet

Saturday, April 19, 2008, after the first week of walking on my way from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh while learning the gospel of John by heart.

When I read books about hikers or someone on a pilgrimage, inevitably there is a section about feet.  I guess I am no different in that regard, because I too am learning the hard way that foot care is absolutely essential for a hiker.  Feet do the brunt of the work.  Not only are my feet walking farther than usual each day, but they are bearing the additional weight of my day pack.  That includes the water I carry, and water is heavy!  I give my feet credit for working harder on this pilgrimage than any other part of my body, although my back (carrying the pack) and my brain (learning John) would probably challenge that statement if I were to give them a voice.

The big danger for a hiker’s feet is blisters.  My friend who is a nurse explained to me that blisters happen when there is too much friction and pressure.  The body then rushes fluid to the hot spot to shield it, but can only protect it for so long.  Once a blister is rubbed raw, a hiker is in for some painful trouble. 

I have prepared for the blister problem.  To decrease the friction I have planned to wear two pairs of socks: a pair of wool hiking socks on the outside and a thinner sock on the inside. That way, the two socks absorb some of the friction between them.  I also have two pairs of good hiking shoes; if one starts rubbing a place on my foot, I can switch the next day to another pair to relieve the pressure. In preparing for the pilgrimage, I have done plenty of training hikes without a blister incident, so I am not overly anxious about a problem suddenly developing now.  But if all else fails, a friend has thoughtfully given me some medicated blister band-aids to carry with me.

There is a big difference being out on the trail this first week.  My feet are unused to walking for days in a row.  Whereas they have been lucky to get one long training hike a week, now they have less than twenty-four hours to rest in between walks.  Perhaps that is why one or the other foot keeps cramping up at unexpected times throughout these first days. The cramp lasts for about five minutes at a time  until finally the foot muscle acquiesces and eases again into the walking motion.  On the second day, besides the cramping, I notice a hot spot developing, but I assume that it will probably go away since I am certain my feet are toughened from training.  That second night, however, the tender place gets a band-aid, and the next day I switch shoes as a precaution.  But more blisters develop on day three, and by the end of the fourth day, Thursday, my feet are demanding some serious attention.

After getting back to the camper and taking a shower, I sit on the bed inspecting my suffering appendages.  Walking to Pittsburgh is going to be impossible without healthy feet, so I better figure out how to help.  Some hikers swear by duct tape and Vaseline, but that sounds rather drastic and unappealing to me.  So I compromise and reach for my Gold Bond moisturizer and more band-aids.  This is going to sound silly, but have you ever listened to your feet?  As mine are massaged with the cream, they immediately sigh with relief, figuratively anyway.  The skin cools down, and the hurts are softened.  They begin to look relaxed and healthy instead of dry and red. It has not been just my feet complaining, but my whole body is bone tired after finishing the first forty miles of the trail.  So instead of walking Friday and resting Saturday as previously planned, Rick and I decide that I will rest a day early and catch up on Saturday.  Before bed I rub my feet down again, looking forward  to tomorrow’s quiet day of reading, doing chores around camp and writing in my journal.

The next morning I wake up at dawn, even though there is no hike ahead.  It’s all the birds’ fault; they are noisily announcing breakfast and staking out their territorial boundaries before sun-up…..It is breeding season after all.  Their jabber is more effective than ten alarm clocks.  Before making my morning cup of tea to help open my eyes and clear dreams out of my head,  I put more lotion on my feet.  Some of yesterday’s tender hot spots have already disappeared.  These feet are obviously luxuriating in the moisturizing regimen.  I patch them here and there with a few new band-aids  and wriggle toes in the open air.

Maybe it is because I can face the morning of this day off with easy-going playfulness, or perhaps it is simply the feeling of bare feet hitting the floor instead of the inside of hiking boots, but suddenly, as if my feet had been talking to me, I get it!  I  realize what my feet have been trying to tell me: they are simply too tight, too snug when I put two pairs of socks on them.  For four consecutive mornings, as I have shoved them into hiking shoes, I have been too busy insisting  that it is good to protect them with double socks.  I have not been paying attention to the obvious.

So on Saturday, before putting my hiking shoes on to resume the walk, I massage the lotion into my feet once more and put on a fresh pair of wool socks given to me by the parents of baby Alex.  He will be baptized tomorrow.  Wearing them today will remind me to pray for him and his family while I walk.  Without putting on a second pair of socks, I lace up the shoes and stand up.  Immediately my feet are wonderfully more comfortable.  I take a few steps.  There is a marked difference in how it feels to walk, and in another hour, I am back on the trail.  Even the lingering blisters do not complain loudly today.  By the time I return to camp, shower and remove the remaining band-aids, my feet are in a state of remarkable well-being.

Listening to feet is absolutely essential, whether we are hiking or whether we are living and working in our communities of people.  There are “feet” in any organization, family, or congregation who carry much of the weight of other parts.  Christians talk about the church being the body of Christ and how different parts of the body have different gifts and functions.  In this analogy there are some people in my congregation who are the feet in the body of Christ.  They are the ones who do the trudging tasks, often cheerfully, sometimes painfully.  When people in the rest of the body of Christ are not listening carefully to one another, “feet” are the ones who bear the friction of the community.  They try to help us keep our balance in the midst of pain and aggravation.  It has been the “feet” in the congregation who paved the way for me to be doing this sabbatical walk in the first place and who now bear the weight of decision making while I am away.

I am immensely grateful to feet: to the ones back home who are leading the congregation’s way, and to the ones on whom I am slathering more Gold Bond.  Thanks to all of them, the first fifty miles are done.

The beloved disciple tells us:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,  got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”   Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”     (John 13. 3-7)

This pilgrim prays:

Lord Jesus, you walked many miles, teaching the good news, healing people and feeding a crowd along the way.  But when you came to the end of  your  journey on earth and were eating the last meal, you noticed the  dusty feet of your disciples who had accompanied you all that long way.  You got down on the floor to wash their feet.  That’s the way you taught them and us to serve one another.  You taught us to tend to the simple needs that we would otherwise hastily ignore.  You taught us to value our brothers and sisters who accompany us in ministry.

When you knelt at your friends’ feet, did you picture the many more miles they would yet walk on this earth for you?  Did you foresee the dangers they would step into in order to tell others about you? When you poured water over their feet, did you pray a blessing on all their future walking when you would be physically gone?  Oh, Lord Jesus, please pray a blessing on my walk too.  I still have 285 miles left to go, and beyond that, who knows how many more miles on this earth.  I hope I can carry your water-pouring, on-the-knees blessing back home to my brothers and sisters who are also trying to walk in your way with their tired feet.  Hand me your towel, so that when the time comes, we can go back and bless them together, you and I.

    (To be continued…)