Leaving Nantahala

It is Saturday and we are leaving late. We have waited at Nantahala Outdoor Center to pick up a package for a friend who already left and the mail has yet to arrive. Howard, a Nantahala employee, said it gets in sometime after ten and assures us no later than 11.

In the meantime, we wait around the outfitters where several vendors have set up tents and are giving away free things: branded buffs, Chapstick, energy bars, bottle openers. It’s supposed to be a hikers’ festival but most of the hikers left for the Smokies Thursday. Lauren and I are two of a handful still around. When the mail arrives, we’ll leave.

At the North Face tent we talk to one of the company reps. He regales us with stories of his John Muir thru-hike, of how he nearly died glissading, and of the PCT thru-hiker he met who, unbeknown to him at the time, was famous for having survived 12 days (or more?) during a snowstorm in the high Sierra. He finishes his story and offers us free North Face-branded Chapstick. We each take one. It’s made of coconut oil (and a few other ingredients I can’t pronounce) and we wonder if it’s safe to use in our coffee; it’s delicious.

The mail may or may not have arrived. Howard was going to drive down to the office to find out. While he does, I go inside to find another Nantahala employee, Tom, to ask him about my knee. Before retirement, Tom designed and produced prosthetics for the VA. Howard said he’s the man to talk to about the pain I’ve been having.

Luckily, he just arrived. I find him chatting with Lauren, discussing the previous evening’s movie night. I recognize him as one of three men who tried to maneuver the DVD menu screen with limited success.

Tom is older, 60s perhaps, of average height, and bearded. I notice his canvas belt. A multicolored parade of Grateful Dead bears march the circumference of his waist. I have yet to meet a Deadhead I haven’t liked.

“I hear you want to talk to me,” he says. “Give me a second while I put my coat away and I’ll be right with you.”

When he comes back he has me walk the length of the floor and watches, holding his chin as someone studying something does: index finger stretched across his lips, eyes lowered in the direction of my feet.

“Now, just stand for me,” he asks. I oblige. “Is that your natural stance?”

“As natural as I can make it,” I respond.

My back is to Tom and Lauren. I’m standing barefoot in the middle of the shoe section of a remote outfitter having my natural stance critiqued by a former prosthetics designer. The trail is a menagerie of people and talents.

“See how his toes stick out,” he says to Lauren. “We should see his big toe and a little of his second but we don’t. I’ll take a picture.”

He snaps a shot from behind of my feet and legs and walks over to show me evidence of the “deformity.” Essentially, what he shows me are two feet (my feet) spread as a duck might waddle.

Normally, you can see a person’s big toe and something of the second sticking out in front of the inner ankle but mine wedge, pointing the toes of each foot in opposite directions. It is not an insurmountable problem-I’ve walked and stood this way my whole life-but it is a possible cause of the pain I’ve been feeling.

He looks at my shoes, sets them on the table in front of him, and crouching to see them at eye level confirms what his initial hunch had been. The midsole of my shoes and insoles have been broken down by the daily compression of my arch and ankle. To show me, he retrieves a skeletal foot from the back room and shows how the bones, if compressed the way mine purportedly compress, affects other bones and potentially the muscles and ligaments connected to my knee. I’m less impressed by the information he gives me than the fact that he has a skeletal foot hanging in the back room for situations like this one. I wonder where one purchases a single foot and not the entire skeleton.

He recommends I wear another brand of insole, one he says the VA recommends to patients who can’t afford custom orthotics. I also try on a new pair of boots, a pair Tom says suit my feet better than what I’ve been wearing. The midsole is stiffer and offers more support where I need it.

Howard is back and the mail has arrived. Lauren hands me the debit card and leaves the final decision of whether to purchase new boots and insoles to my discretion while she attends to the package delaying our departure.

I know what I’m going to do before I have the confidence to say it. I know I’m going to spend the money now as opposed to the inevitable later; I know I’m going to purchase the boots and the insoles, but I can’t bring myself to make the decision without a push, the right words to affirm that, yes, this is what needs to be done, to stop the pain before it grows worse, to put my mind at ease, and to gain the fleeting confidence one feels when money has been spent and the delusion it has been spent wisely still lingers.

“You say these are the right boots for me?”

“I do,” Tom says.

Tom seems honest. That, or he is saying what he knows I need to hear (I’ll believe the former). I make the purchase at the counter. Lauren meets me there. The mail had arrived but the package we’ve waited for is a day late. Our friend will have to hitch back into town later in the week to pick it up.

We leave the outfitter and walk out to the parking lot where the vendors hawking wares are waiting. They all know one another; they talk as though they were neighbors chatting over the hedge. We talk to two of them a short while and then, new boots on, leave Nantahala.

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