What Led Me to Making Shoes

of-me

I am one of those odd people who would rather spend hours taking apart a phone than using one to talk, text, take pictures, or skim social media. I’m not even particularly interested in technology or electronics. What interests me is how such a device is capable of doing everything that it does.

I feel a need to understand it. A curiosity, and in fact, I have taken apart several phones. What interests me is how things work. How they are made. Where they come from. And why they are important to us.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by how things are made. I made my first bike when I was 6. I collected bike parts from the dumpsters until I had everything I needed. I used my dad’s tools (which I did in secret) to attach the tires, the brakes, the seat, and the handlebars. I spent quite some time wrestling with getting the tires onto the rims.

When the Frankenstein’s monster was finished I took it out for a spin. It was doing really well so naturally, as boys do, I took the street with the steepest hill. I knew there was some broken up concrete filled in with gravel at the bottom but I wanted to test the bike by going straight through it at top speed. As soon as I hit that patch, to my surprise, the front tire bounced out of place, the front end of the bike plowed into the gravel, and my hands and face were painted onto the concrete. A sharp rock went about half an inch into my hand.

Needless to say I sat the rest of the day out. Later, when my dad heard the story, the thing he was most upset about was the fact that I used his tools without permission. I learned two things that day. Tools are treasure, not toys. And, it was okay for me to try something and make mistakes.

I spent the next several years building and taking apart anything I could. I made 18 treehouses. I made underground forts with elaborate tunnel systems “borrowing” pot-pourri candles from my mom to light them. I took apart remote-control cars and figured out how to attach the motors to Lego helicopters and cars I had made. I completed every beginning woodworker’s project: made a work bench, a bird house, a toolbox. And my bike building got better.

Eventually, thanks to my grandfather who bought me my first carving knives, I discovered wood carving. It was then that my creativity exploded. Every boy loves knives, and when I saw that you could carve faces into pieces of wood I was hooked. I spent hour after hour doing that. I even sold my carvings to schoolmates. Santas at Christmas, Roses at Valentine’s.

Eventually, after years of re-sharpening the knives, they wore out. My 18 year old self began to try to shop for more, but when I discovered how much they cost I realized I couldn’t afford any. I decided to make them instead. I found some scrap metal around the garage, cut it into the shape of knives using a Dremel, and started filing the edges down by hand. It was a lengthy process. It wore me out mentally because I didn’t know if I’d ever finish.

When I finally did finish them, I was so proud of them (because no one had given me the idea, and I didn’t use a book to guide me) that I wanted to have sheaths to put them in.

Making sheaths for my knives was my first experience working with leather. It was blast! My wood carving even slowed quite a bit while I spent time making wallets and knife sheaths and such. At that time I told myself that I would eventually make a pair of shoes for myself, cause, you know, the curiosity thing.

As my life began to change (moving into my own place, going to college, working more, etc…), both wood carving and leatherwork slowed. I had other priorities. I was also getting more interested in music, and becoming a good musician. In that time I restored an old drumset (which I still have), made some skateboards (which I still have), and did just a little wood carving.

Eventually I moved to Hollywood to attend a music school and put all my eggs into the music basket. I practiced 8+ hours a day and did very little of anything else. As close as Hollywood is to the beach I didn’t even see it until I had been there a year. It was great when I finally did.

Sometime later, when music wasn’t paying any more than it did when I first started making money at it and I had another job to supplement the bills, I rekindled my love of wood and leather. It was during this time that I finally had the means to make myself a pair of shoes. I tried and failed. I took apart a pair of boots the same way I would an engine, so that I could methodically understand all of the parts. I tried again, and failed. I began surfing Youtube but found very little. People were making moccasins, or other flimsy pieces of footwear. I found some promo videos of Gucci’s shoe factory, but they were using giant machines and going very fast.

I searched amazon for how-to books. I found one originally printed in 1885, by, John Bedford Leno, entitled The Art of Boot and Shoe Making: A Practical Guide. Since it was written so long ago much of the terminology was foreign to me. Also, many of the pages were missing when they reprinted it. I learned a few things but still tried, and failed. The idea of making a shoe by hand was becoming a more mysterious and elusive thing and all the more alluring for it.

Finally, I found a school Jerome, AZ that could teach me in an allotted time that I could afford to be there. I took two classes, one on pattern making and the other was making a shoe by hand. The tuition was just what I had in the bank at the time, so I said, alright, it’s now or never.

I had to camp in a nearby state park because I couldn’t afford $80/night for a hotel, and no one was offering a lease as short as I needed. Luckily, I like to camp, but my instructor thought it was a bit extreme.

After I completed the courses I walked away with my first pair of shoes! I couldn’t believe how challenging shoemaking was, even after I made my first pair. I was hooked. It had been a while since something had challenged me as much. I returned home, began purchasing the tools I lacked and went to work developing and honing my skills.

At this point I knew that I wanted to make shoes for a living. I didn’t just want to make handmade shoes though. Most of what I had seen in the custom shoe world was by and large the same. There were wing tips, cap toes, broguing, etc… I wanted to create unique, artful designs with an emphasis on function and wearablity. So they had to be long-lasting, comfortable, and fit well. The idea was to be progressive in design, but traditional in construction.

I spent a year developing my first product. I made it and remade it utilizing different construction techniques until I had the results I wanted.

The Premiere Oxford and Standard Handmade were born. I began measuring people’s feet and selling immediately. The product continued to improve as did my skills. Those first customers still get the red carpet treatment.

I encourage you, if there is something you feel you need to do, do it. It took me 10 years to finally make a pair of shoes from the time I had the desire. I couldn’t have known then that it would be such a good fit for me.

(Photo Credit: @TheDGTL_Prophet)

How to stare into the face of a black bear (or what not to do)

black-bear

The first time I ever visited Big Bend NP I was under prepared. I was a novice camper and new to backcountry hiking/camping. I think it was 2003, which means I was like, 22.

I bought a tent at a garage sale for $20 bucks. It weighed at least 60lbs. I did not know they came lighter. Novice deluxe. I also had a large stove with propane bottles, a sleeping bag, a couple of pans and lots of food. I guess I just assumed that you camped in the backcountry the same way you did in developed camp sites.

I must have looked like an idiot carrying all of that junk hiking into the back country. You couldn’t tell me that though.

I only made it a mile, maybe two, the first day. I set up camp and decided I would leave it all set up there and just day-hike the next several days choosing a different direction/trail each time. On the third day I decided I wanted to hike up one of the mountains.

It was foggy and wet. It seems I had picked visiting the park during the rainy season, a particularly hard time to be at Big Bend, and not a popular time to be there either. The rain is unpredictable and causes flash flooding in a millisecond.

I was having a great time on the way up. It was just a little chili. The fog was thick which felt exciting. Like I was breaking new ground. And I felt like I could smell it, the fog. About eight tenths of the way up I stopped where there was a nice overlook, only all I could see were clouds below me and more mountain peaks across the distance.

Suddenly, I see a guy coming down. He’s walking briskly. Without stopping when he gets close, says “you should turn around and go back, there was a bear about 15 minutes back up the mountain. I didn’t wait for him to see me.”

“Whoa!” I said, “Thanks for the heads up!”

Then I was torn. Something inside of me lit up when he said there was a bear ahead. I got excited to see one in its natural habitat and at the same time felt afraid for my life. I also thought, if I get injured that’s it. There might not be anyone to find me if I get injured and can’t walk.

Bears have been my favorite animal since second grade. All of them. I dream of having bear pets. I would have hated myself if I didn’t try to see it. So I went up the mountain. Now though, for safety sake I was walking slower, quieter, looking for tracks on the ground, and listening for out of the ordinary sounds.

First I saw tracks. Much too big to be a dog and not really the same. There were five toes instead of four. And defined claw imprints.

Cue the dryness in my throat.

Next, I heard very strong walking sounds. I might even say I could feel the ground vibrate a bit – at least I remember it that way. There was heavy breathing too. Almost like someone grunting under their breath.

Cue the panic in my brain and the heart palpitations.

I chickened out. I couldn’t go any further. I very quickly turned around and headed back down the mountain, as quietly as I possibly could. I felt like it was following me the whole way. I felt like I could still hear it off to the side of the trail. My heart was pumping so hard I couldn’t feel my legs. I had to concentrate just to remember they were there so that I wouldn’t fall all over them.

I got down to the bottom and felt immediate relief coupled with regret. I didn’t get to see the bear.

The next day when I woke, the regret was so heavy on me that I decided to hike up the same mountain, on the same trail that day. I made it to the where the tracks were, but there were no noises this time. I made it all the way up, fearing every corner, but alas, there was not a bear in sight. I spent a little time in quiet thinking about the fear that I felt and wondering why my life was so precious that I had to preserve it at all costs.

I remember feeling really connected on the mountain top. I could see out in all directions and everything felt like it was below me. I knew God was near and I was trying hard to listen to see if He was saying anything. I walked away with a sense of peace, but no great wisdom or insight that I could sense. The peace was enough. I made peace with my fear. I knew it could be a helper, but the previous day it felt more like my master than my helper.

A few years later I was in Big Bend again. This time with a 6 pound tent, no stove (as I only carried in nuts and dried fruit, the rest I foraged), and just a small sleeping bag. By this time I had learned to hike 8-plus hours a day and keep up the pace for several days. I had learned a few tricks such as grinding mesquite seeds into a flour and adding juniper berries and water to make a sort of pancake. I had seen my fair share of wildlife by this point also, such as elk and big horn sheep. Still no bear.

One day while hiking though some dense trees I looked to my left and saw a huge black bear about 30 feet away. He saw me before I saw him. We both stopped in our tracks and stared at each other. I was so excited that I almost started smiling before remembering there wasn’t a fence between us.

We continued to stare at each for what seemed decades. The whole time I was thinking “you shouldn’t be staring, you shouldn’t be staring, you’re threatening him,” but I couldn’t help it. I could feel myself getting nervous and I had the thought he was going to rush me. He was staring, and dead still. I felt like prey. The air turned pulpy.

Then something happened in me. I remembered my regret from last time. I decided that I wasn’t going to back down or shrink. I was going to keep my ground at all costs. About 5 seconds after I decided that within me, the bear broke eye contact and slowly walked away, turning back to look at me every few steps to make sure I wasn’t getting closer.

I stood there and watched it until it left my sight all together.

I felt calm. I actually felt much the same as I did on the mountain years before, like king on top of the world, yet humble.

There is something about courage that requires us to be willing to lose our life in order to save it.

G.K. Chesterton says it best for me: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”

How I survive cold now

Years ago on a cold morning, I woke up cursing my broken furnace while getting ready for work. Cold house, cold room, cold water, cold. I put on a set of thermals but it didn’t help. I got ready, cursing. I made sure to start my car a few minutes before leaving, but when I left, the car heater was still cold. It was an old car. Probably I should’ve known better. I started on my way, still cursing. At a stop sign I looked down and to my right. A little finch was bathing in a puddle which was still liquid but frozen around the edges. The damn thing was soaking itself like spa-time at a tropical resort. Tiny, little stupid bird. I realized that day, I was a pansy. And to my surprise, I stopped complaining.

A few years later I was atop a mountain in the back country of the Smokey Mountains. I spent the whole day hiking up waist-high stones to reach the top and ran out of daylight. I opted to spend the night in my sleeping bag against a giant rock who, graciously, was willing to cut the mountain wind for me. I knew it was going to be cold, really cold. I made a crackling fire with a few sticks I found and read some R. L. Stevenson. The stars were so dense they looked like coconut oil. I could hear the occasional sound of coyotes howling. My bones were tired and I slept well, except for waking few times from the cold. I woke a final time with the sunrise. It was red and blue. Not purple, but blue, like the pacific, and it was slowly turning gold. I laid there watching it for a moment, and when the landscape became green again I started to get up. I noticed my saliva was frozen on my bag, which I had been using as a pillow. Just as I made some zipper noise I spooked two mule deer. I watched them spring up and run off. A huge grin fell over my face. Then a finch landed on top of the windbreaking rock and danced back and forth for a second before flying off.

As I began walking down the mountain I thought about the finch on the rock and then the finch in the puddle, somehow, and I got mad at myself for not telling the bastard on the rock that he didn’t win this time.



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