An Ode to Old Boots
I’m not a shoe person like my mom. My stylish mother’s head turns every time we pass by a shoe store or display. She loves pretty footwear; I believe she’d have a pair for every outfit and occasion if she could. I guess I’m more of a boot person. For one thing, boots don’t even pretend to be pretty. There is no such thing as a pretty pair of shoes when you wear my size. Boots come in men’s sizes, and when I shop, I’m looking for comfort and mileage. One of the most important qualities is durability because I’m looking for a long-term, hard-working relationship.
Which brings me to my current situation. Sadly, like good dogs and honest horses, boots have a limited lifespan. I have outlived four dogs and a horse and friends have been telling me for some time now that it is time to say goodbye to my old cowboy boots. Two years ago, at the Palmer Fairgrounds, someone wondered if I’d forgotten to change into something more respectable for the Parade of Stallions. Last year, someone else bluntly asked when I was going to buy some new boots. This year there’s just an awkward silence that happens when something embarrassing stays, shall we say, unmentioned.
I admit the boots are literally coming apart at the seams. The inside lining has long since ripped out. They are tattered and stained. All that remains are worn soles, cracked leather that lets in daylight, and a whole lot of memories.
I bought them in North Dakota in the small town where my late mother- and father-in-law at one time owned a working cattle ranch. We rode many miles checking and mending fences in the hot Dakota sun. In early spring, we pulled calves and watched newborn babies totter to their mother’s sides. We rounded up cattle on horseback and moved them from one pasture to another to graze. We branded and vaccinated bawling calves in old wood-rail corrals. We hauled bales and planted trees and watched for deer that the guys would hunt in the fall. The day my father-in-law and I lay my sick horse to rest, those boots stood on prairie ground as tears rained from both our eyes. They hold the memories of ranch life, hard and dusty but good.
Those boots also saw many fine experiences on trails in Alaska, although they went airborne twice with me as I got bucked off my new horse. This set me on a journey to learn a new kind of riding that expanded beyond the cowboy way. I set about learning a nuanced language and discovered that horses had more to teach me than I could have imagined. I rode in view of Pioneer Peak with my mother, who aside from pretty shoes also enjoys the beauty of mountains and horses.
One day in attempting to keep from getting my boots wet, I put my feet up on my horse’s neck as we crossed a deep spot along the Little Susitna River. I might mention that leaning back, feet out of the stirrups, is not the most stable position on a horse. When a school of salmon swam by, bumping into my mare’s legs, she leaped out of the water, leaving me and the boots behind for a thorough dunking.
Last week, I finally relented and bought that new pair of boots — but they remain in the box. I’m still wearing the old ones, knowing their days are numbered. The new boots are young and inexperienced. They are strangers to my feet and have not yet melded to my stride. They haven’t yet kicked manure, been buried in mud, or pressed their heels against the flanks of a horse. Every time I slip into my old boots, it feels like a hug from a good friend. To think about throwing them in a dumpster seems, well, disrespectful. It seems far more fitting that they should be buried under an old oak tree – or in Alaska, a tall birch.
Sharing these sentiments with a friend recently, I was gratified when he listened without laughing. Then quietly he said, “I’ll dig a hole.”
So today, or tomorrow, or maybe the next day we’ll bury the old boots. I won’t be parting with the memories though. Those I’ll hold dear for the rest of my days. Afterward, I suppose, it will be time to take some new friends out of the box. And maybe the best way to get acquainted will be to go for a nice long ride.
I am a friend of Dick Griffith and wish to congratulate you on an excellent book chronicling his truly amazing life.
Would you be interested in taking on another project? I have been working for quite some time organizing personal journals, research notes, trip reports, light logs, published studies, countless photographs of the “old days” in the Alaska bush and other information accumulated over roughly four decades of living and traveling in Alaska. During those years my wife, Barbara, and I were school teachers at Sheldon Jackson in Sitka
followed by teaching in the Native villages of Barrow, Wainwright, Huslia and Hughes for a total of eleven years. We participated in local traditional cultural practices and subsistence hunting and fishing activities. In North Slope villages this included traveling by skin covered umiaq while hunting seals, walrus, caribou and whales. We developed a dog team and traveled extensively in northern Alaska. We added an airplane in 1967, to enlarge our travel opportunities.
In the late 1960s and early 70s we became involved in the aerial wolf hunting controversy, in part because of our personal experiences with wild wolves. We worked with others with a similar interest to end the practice of shooting wolves from aircraft. This effort brought us into contact with many interesting characters on both sides of the issue. We joined forces with friends (Gordon Wright, Jim Hunter, Jim Kowalski, and others) and formed a conservation organization based in Fairbanks. It is now known as the Alaska Center for the Northern Environment.
In 1974, we carried out a 1200 mile dog team trip across northwestern Alaska from the Koyukuk River to the northern tip of the state. At the end of this journey we spent two years engaged in cultural research into the subsistence lifestyles of the people of the Kobuk Valley, Koyukuk Valley and Anaktuvuk Pass. This included traveling by dog team to communities within the study areas. This research contributed to
the published works, “Kuuvangmiut Subsistence” and “Tracks in the Wildland”. In 1976, I was employed by the National Park Service to assist in the planning of a proposed national park in the central
Brooks Range that eventually became Gates of the Arctic. My duties included exploring the area by aircraft, boat, dog team and on foot. Barbara frequently accompanied me in my travels. Barbara and I were
caught up in the turmoil of the monument proclamations in 1978, as we were the only official NPS representatives north of Fairbanks. To say those were interesting times would be an understatement. In addition
to work in the Gates of the Arctic and Northwest Alaska Areas, I assisted in dog team trips within Yukon-Charley National Preserve and Denali National Park.
During the early days of the new parklands there was a need for providing factual information to rural Alaska residents on the provisions of the monuments and, later, ANILCA. I was detailed as a National Park Service liaison to travel to some of the “hot spots” around the state to speak to communities and groups affected by the new parks. I traveled extensively, usually flying a light aircraft, to spend time with folks who often were both angry and anxious to talk. This role continued for roughly two years.
My work with the National Park Service also included serving as a management assistant and acting superintendent for Northwest Alaska Areas based in Kotzebue and as superintendent of Katmai National Park during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Our primary purpose in telling our story is not so much to chronicle our personal lives as it is to share our memories of and experiences with some truly amazing people. Over the years spent in Alaska we had the pleasure of meeting and associating with some fascinating and inspiring individuals. These included our Eskimo friends in Barrow and Wainwright who so kindly took us into their homes and conferred on us traditional Eskimo names. The Koykukon Indians of the Koyukuk River exposed us to their own distinctive Athabascan culture and enlarged our world. The two years of carrying out intensive cultural research into the subsistence lifestyles of northern Alaska Eskimo and Indian communities revealed a ancient system of living with and from a demanding natural environment. We followed them on their rounds of harvesting wild resources and were given passage into their history and worldview. It would be nice to know that some small part of what they so willingly shared with us may be shared by others for many years to come.
Please let me know if you are interested.
Again, thank you for your work with Dick.