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Friday, December 23, 2011

Made for Walkin'

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: My wife and I drove a VW camper from New York to California and back in September, 1989. Imagining myself a latter-day Ernie Pyle, I filed a number of stories from the road that ran in subsequent issues of the Schenectady Gazette. Two footnotes: My wife was so envious of the boots I obtained that she bought herself a pair in El Paso. And the boots remain in excellent shape, so much so that my teenaged-daughter has appropriated and proudly wears my wife's pair.


NEWCASTLE, Wyoming – The boots in Crum's Department Store are shelved according to size, so the littlest ones are the highest up. But if you're coming in looking for a size four or five, you're probably travelling with tall help.

“It's usually a grampa or grandma who buys that first pair of boots for you,” Dick Crum explains. “They're every bit as good as the full-sized boots, so they're a little bit expensive. But it's a special occasion, that first pair of boots.”

Dick and his brother follow a family tradition in operating this store in the center of what was once a railroad-company town. Crum's has been in business for three generations. A large sign outside boasts the availability of western wear for those tourists who don't take the Route 16 bypass as they travel from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone National Park.

Like so much that emerges from cowboy tradition, boots are very functional and very handsome. Several inches of fine-tooled leather encase the calves and shins; the foot is cradled in a solid mitt of support.

While I don't expect to be riding the range any too soon, rarely get near a farm and don't even own a motorcycle, I had to have a pair of boots. A good pair. I didn't want to make the mistake I made with my cowboy hat.

Let me explain. Anyone taking Interstate 94 across South Dakota is harassed by a series of signs, for hundreds of miles, advertising Wall Drugs. The town of Wall is just north of the Badlands National Park and pretty much consists of this one mighty establishment that is to a drug store what a shopping mall is to a five-and-ten. Inside you'll think you died and went to souvenir heaven – shop after shop sports shelf after shelf of costly items with little useful purpose save that of keepsake or comestible.

Do I have any earthly need for a cowboy hat? No. But I couldn't stop myself from dropping a twenty on a ten-gallon model of black felt. And not very good felt. The best hats are rated according to the material weight, and your typical fedora is a 3X while cowboy Stetsons can run anywhere from 5X to 10X. Mine had no rating. No lining, either. Yet it seemed like such a great buy at the time . . .

Crum's has hats, fine ones. “People depend on those hats,” says Dick, “so they know they're going to have to spend fifty to a hundred dollars on a good one. The tourists don't buy them much.”

Cowboys – not the ones who pilot Winnebagos – depend on their boots, too. Boots offer comfort and support, of course, but also guard against the hazard of snakebites and the annoyance of burrs.

A good pair of boots will run you at least a hundred dollars, and the exotic leathers will drive the price up over three. Exotic leathers?  Dick picks up a boot with a scaly, opalescent upper. “This is boa belly,” he says. It seems a weird idea for encasing your feet until you consider that the boa itself uses (or used) this skin for its own propulsion.

Ostrich is another skin, considered by some the softest of the leathers. Boots of lizard, elephant and antelope are also popular. But the biggest sellers, of course, are the traditional cowhides. The better boots use as much as 16 square feet of leather per pair, including the pull straps that flank the high tops.

What looks like decorative stitching on the toe and sides is in fact what keeps the many leather layers together. The toe shapes range from spike to gentle U, and there are almost a dozen types of heel to choose from, crafted to accommodate roping or wrestling, riding or walking. The walking heel juts forward toward the toe and seems unusually high – until you take it over loose sand or gravel. Then the heel digs in for secure support. Walking on pavement, however, is a little like wearing scuba flippers, and may explain the unusual gait of cowboys (and their over-the-road counterpart, truckers) on sidewalks.

“Care to try on a pair?” Dick asks solicitously. He is a middle-aged man whose face is fleshy but whose figure is trim. Although he wears the street clothes of a casual salesman, you can easily imagine him looking comfortable in a full Western get-up.

There are no familiar-looking shoes in his floor-to-ceiling display, reminiscent of Wall Drugs but much more down-to-business. He senses my gringo apprehension. “What size do you take?” I tell him and he produces a pair a half-size larger. “Because of the cut,” he explains. And he's right, they fit, for a boot, perfectly, and will prove to be the best-fitting pair of the many he shows me.

“This is right,” he says, feeling around the toe. “You should have about a half-inch of room here. They should be tight in the insole and the heel should slip.” The slipping heel is important, and we'll see this emphasized by signs in every boot department we visit. “As the boots break in, you'll feel them get tighter in the heel.”

Right now it's an awkward walk up and down the boot-area carpet, with a bit of a feeling of what walking on stilts must be like. And that heel is like a boat on choppy waters, bouncing precariously.

Bootmaking – it's tempting to say bootbuilding because of the intricacy of the process – is a competitive art. While Dick won't make any judgment as to who the best bootmaker is, he favors boots from Texas and Missouri. “There are boot conventions,” he explains, “where the manufacturers gather to show their product. My brother goes to a lot of those. I just go to the big one held every year in Billings, Montana.”

He boxes my pair. I'm too bashful to wear them right away on the streets of Wyoming. But, “boots are the most comfortable shoes you'll find,” he assures me. “Except for these.” He indicates his feet. He's wearing moccasins.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, October 14, 1989

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