A couple of weeks ago I was crossing a street in Pueblo, Colorado and a young man’s voice called out, “I like your shoes.” I waved the backwards wave that says “I heard what you said, I don’t know who or where you are, it’s cool,” and kept on crossing.

The shoes were Nike Katana racing flats that Stefan got for me back in 2007, when he  was working at an Ann Arbor running store. I didn’t like them, even though they were light, flexible and low-heeled, all traits that my feet like. But the Katanas never felt right, and after I raced in them a couple of times I retired them.

I brought them out of storage for our Western trip. This was partly to show Stefan they were getting some use, and partly because I hoped they’d make good driving shoes.

The next day we headed for St George, Utah on old US 50, crossing the Rockies at Monarch Pass on our way to Grand Junction. Climbing up, I passed a little Chevy Equinox that courteously moved over into the passing lane for my BMW.

Yes, our BMW is part of this story. I had one in the sixties and thought that I’d never have one again, because I had to use a van for my work in the race timing business. And I didn’t see how I’d ever get together enough money for one, by myself.

But when Ruth and her almost-new Subaru Forester came to live in Colden, and when I retired from teaching and shut down the timing business, we sold both our two fairly new vehicles, dug up some cash, and ended up with a 2007 3-series wagon, AWD and Sports Package. Fast, amazing handling, plenty of room for us, excellent in snow but . . . well, it’s a BMW, and that means dealing with how people relate to BMW drivers. Some seem  pissed-off, some envious, some respectful, and some are oblivious. Some want you to pass them so they can try to glue themselves to your tail. Some don’t want you to pass, so they can slow you down.

For my part I can never decide whether to pass with authority, as I always found was the best way back when I was a good-enough foot racer (blowing by your competition usually discourages them, while easing by encourages them them to think they can re-pass) or whether to slide by politely. This assumes I have some choice in the matter, and on two-lane highways like US 50, often there isn’t any. Pass with authority or risk a head-on.

So I went by the Equinox politely. It had Colorado plates and a woman was driving it. She was courteously on my tail for much of the next 60 miles. She was a good driver. I didn’t try to get away from her, but a couple of times the BMW’s acceleration let me pass trucks that she couldn’t get by on the same stretch. But then she’d be back. It seemed companionable to me.

Just at the peak of Monarch – really, literally the top of the pass – three Harleys pulled out in front of me. These were ordinary cruisers, leather bags with fringed covers, open pipes – pretty much the standard Harley setup I see – no, hear – way too many of going along our road in Colden.

Before the Harley riders pulled out, I’d been following an 18-wheeler – not closely, but I could see it. He – I guess it was a he, but I don’t know for sure – was moving right along.

The Harley crowd wasn’t. Three brake lights lit up at every corner and stayed on through it. It was as if they were riding tricycles. Must. Stay. Upright. Didn’t anybody teach them to lean into corners? Use their gears?

I used to ride bikes when I was in college, and I even rode my AJS 500 single from Salt Lake to Denver once, up over and back Berthoud and Rabbit Ears passes, although I have to confess that I was briefly jailed in Craig, Colorado for a muffler violation. All I did was take off the muffler baffle to help with the altitude. It seemed an unfair rap, because it was Big Sky country, and at worst I annoyed some cattle. I don’t know why I didn’t get nailed for having no proof of insurance and riding on an expired Hawai’i license.

The Equinox on my tail, three can’t-ride-for-shit guys on lumbering Hogs in front of me, meant no way to have some fun coming down the pass. No way the Equinox woman wasn’t pissed too.

I loved it when the 18-wheeler literally ran away from the Harleys. Outran them! Two or three corners – including a tight one – and that rig was out of sight. I doubt that those dudes could have passed the 18 wheeler on a long Interstate sweeper. They just couldn’t ride their bikes, not that Hog handling is anything to write home about.

Those three guys kept me and the Equinox at bay for a good twenty miles. Finally I got a clear shot – a decent straight, nothing coming – but of course the assholes hit their throttles because, hey, it was a straight and they were on bad-ass V-twins.

After I shot up over the century and back down again, safely past them, I turned to Ruth and said, “This is why we paid all that money.” She said, “Safe at any speed,” and we laughed.

Pretty soon the Equinox was back behind us, and in the distance, I saw three single headlights. I wish I’d seen her do it. The guys might have talked themselves out of the 18-wheeler problem (no room!), they might have talked themselves out of the BMW problem (everybody knows BMWs are fast!), but the Equinox? Hard to see how they could manage that humiliation. I’m guessing they never talked about it.

At a light in Grand Junction the Equinox pulled up next to me. I rolled down my window and called out “Thanks for the company.” The woman smiled and waved. She had been good company. I don’t know whether she’d been feeling competitive or not, but her smile seemed genuine if a little surprised.

Later that day, on a long downgrade with beautiful sweeping curves, somewhere East of Salina, Utah, I went by a young man in a  blue BMW 335i, the hottest 3-series outside of the M3. Dry, wide road in excellent condition, very little traffic, but he was doing no better than the Harley guys – tentative, lots of braking.

The next day, out of St George, another 335. White. Two 40-something women in it. I went by on an easy curve, doing the speed limit. At the next straight, they went by me at maybe 85. Whoops – next curve, they were down to 60. I went by them. Repeat. Repeat.

On the final straight into Nevada I noticed her Utah plate: O2BME.

So. Harleys, an Equinox, a couple of fearfully-driven Bimmers, one with a genuine vanity plate, me and Ruth in our wagon. And before that, an old guy, not looking too fit, crosses a street in Pueblo, Colorado, wearing Nike Katana racing flats.

There’s no doubt they are strange-looking shoes and no doubt they look even stranger being worn on the street, nowhere near a race. What was the guy saying? Was it “weird shoes, dude,” or was it “what’s an old fart like you doing wearing racing flats?” Or was he saying exactly what he said – that he liked my shoes?

I’ve been pondering that for a while. I thought about it while stuck behind the Harleys, I thought about it when O2BME passed me, and even today, on the treated-lumber deck of a small and exceedingly pleasant little motel in Dubois, Wyoming, perched over the Wind River, I’m still pondering it.

I used to be a pretty fast runner, but those days are over. I can’t run even one mile as fast as I used to run 26.2 of them. But I still have racing shoes. And I even have spikes.

I didn’t get spikes until 2004, because I had no need of them. I did very little track running and no cross-country (XC). But in 2004 I wanted to try “European-style” XC which means woods, mud, water, rocks, hills. A lot of XC races are run in parks and on golf courses, which is fine. If I were organizing a high school meet I’d never put the kids into difficult terrain. I wouldn’t even do it for a college team. But this was a historic all-comers race in a county forest in Boston, NY, which is not far from Colden. It’s known as the “Mud Run,” and is somewhere around 6k. It’s never been measured, and I don’t think anybody cares.

When we were all hanging out waiting for the women to finish their race, I noticed that the college-age men were wearing spikes, some of the high school and even some of the older guys were, but probably half the runners were in regular shoes. And because I knew that probably three-fourths of the runners were going to beat me, I felt a little ashamed of myself, especially since my spikes were new, and obviously so even though I’d been careful to run in some mud while warming up.

I wasn’t in great shape, so I took it out easy. Since the first quarter mile or so was straight uphill, I could do little else. In the muddy part through the forest at the top I began to realize that, slow as I might be, I’d had years of experience on muddy trails, on Bougainville. I passed a few people. On the first long downhill, which was a dirt-rock combination, I passed a few more. I knew about that kind of surface. And when we got back into the woods and there were roots, rocks, mud, and some sharp drop-offs – I passed more people.

There’s no miraculous ending here. I knew the people I passed were faster runners than I, and they would pass me when the surface improved. Most of them did, but in the end I beat a few people who would have scorched me in a road race. And my time was a lot closer to the winning time that it would have been on the roads.

Because of my spikes? Well, they helped. I loved how they felt on my feet, and I loved the grip they gave me not just going up, but down. And I loved the feeling that I was wearing the right shoes for the job, so that the responsibility for my performance lay with me, not my equipment.

But I think it was mostly like the Equinox versus BMW situation. Although I can’t know, my guess is that the Equinox woman knew the road and knew how to get the most out of her car on it. I blasted by the first truck and the Harley guys because I had a lot of horsepower and a great-handling car, so I could pass anytime it was safe. She couldn’t, but she didn’t have to. She must have known where she could do it with what she had.

Just as the guys in front of me at the Mud Run couldn’t get as far ahead of me as they would have in a road race, where they could have used their superior speed, the Equinox driver hung with me because my superior speed didn’t count for as much on Monarch Pass curves I’d never seen before as it would have on a road neither of us had been on before.

And the Katanas? Well, I think I’ve earned the right to wear them anywhere I want to, but how is anybody – the shouter or anybody else – to know that? If the guy in Pueblo was making fun of me, I only fault him for making fun of somebody he didn’t know, not for reacting to something that might have seemed to him improbable and maybe even disrespectful of his sport.

And it’s the same with our Bimmer and its New York plates out here in the West. Ruth and I are a little defensive about this. We aren’t a couple of old urban farts who happen to have enough money to show off with a BMW, even though it’s easy to see why anybody might think that. They can’t know that we haul rural supplies in it, and plow through heavy snow on difficult roads. And more than once the hatch has been open with 2 by 10 treateds sticking out, red flag and all. They can’t know how and why we got together what it took to buy it. I understand that. Anybody can understand that, I think, but that doesn’t make driving it, or wearing the Katanas, less fraught.

I don’t like feeling as though I have to apologize for what I drive or what I wear, or that footwear or cars define who I am. But like it or not, I – we – live in a world where that can be the case. If those Harley riders were introspective at all (and who am I to say that they weren’t?) maybe they were thinking the same thing. I doubt it – I think they and O2BME were very much alike – but it’s possible.

And so when we get out of the rough country and back onto the Interstates, I’m going to take off my Merrill hikers and slip the Katanas back on. They’ve turned out to be great driving shoes.

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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

28 responses to “I Like Your Shoes”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Nice story, Don. I like the fact that you think about such things as passing and are able to spin them into an entertaining and thoughtful piece.

    I think cars do somehow define us. I drive a terrible car right now, because I work in a very poor area of town and it’s being slowly dismantled by the local hooligans.

    I still pine for my old Peugeot 504 which was such a classy beast. I sold her under instruction by my silly ex who thought I should get a practical and economical car. I wish I hadn’t listened to him. Unfortunately, he too, drove a BMW!

    Happy trails to you and Ruth, I look forward to more stories from the road! And by the way – I’m loving the pics you’re sending through! 🙂

  2. dwoz says:

    I bought my first BMW 2 years ago. A 328es. It was only a year away from being eligible for “antique” license plates.

    I purchased the car entirely outside of my wife’s prerogative, with cash-on-hand, and I can’t help but think that this had something to do with the two times she hit it, parked, in our driveway with the big huge 15-passenger van. Not like it was on purpose, but…minor damage that did destroy the “vintage” value and aesthetic. Not road-warrior damage, but pussy-whipped damage. This car would now no longer look to the future as a retro vintage piece of M30 history, but was doomed to someday be a parts car or worse, a teenager’s project.

    I think the car itself, which ran like a dream, was of the “hope I die before I get old” variety, and looked with jaundice at the prospect of wearing antique “old guy” plates. On the long straight stretches of Route 101 to the seacoast, I’d look down and find myself going at C-note pace, and it felt like I was going 50. I’m flabbergasted that I did not get speeding tickets. Only 2 weeks from it’s “antique-eligible birthday”, the car blew out it’s water pump in spectacular fashion. Realizing within seconds that it would be a huge and non-defensible repair bill, far above the monetary worth of the entire car…that this was, indeed, the end of the road…I just kept driving. Made it almost 15 contrail-streaming miles before the car went into final cardiac arrest, and I can’t think of a more fitting way to retire a bimmer than to render it’s power plant into a solid lump of inert metal glowing cherry red.

    Not fade away.

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    Yeah, the C-note pace that feels like 50. That’s the ticket (as it were). On a deserted stretch of interstate in NM a couple of years ago, I took the 328 up well over C note territory and asked Ruth how fast she thought we were going. Eighty? she said.

    Note to GEICO. I’m just kidding, here.

    Dwoz, were you on TNB when I posted this one?


    I gave up the 1800TI for the same reason you gave up your M30– a huge and non-defensible repair bill. I didn’t mention what I replaced it with, which was a yellow first-generation Honda Civic CVCC. Actually, it wasn’t a bad car, but it only resembled the TI in that it had 4 wheels and an engine.

    • dwoz says:

      No, hadn’t seen that piece. Thanks for that!

      The thing about that car was that it was completely opposite every other car I’ve driven: when I’d go above 80mph, it would start to settle and still, the steering wheel felt very calm, the suspension stiffened but still didn’t feel bumpy. It just liked 95mph as a cruising speed.

      Other cars, you feel like you’re going to rattle the bilge plates loose and start taking on water.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Ah, the Celica. Fine car with what always struck me as an odd name – very feminine-seeming. I had a friend whose daughter did some serious bonding with her father when they rebuilt an older Celica together.

        I’m glad to know I’m not the only constant-internal-monologue guy.

  4. I love a story that reminds me that other people think the same way I do, i.e a constant internal monologue about other driver’s possible purpose or intentions. I’m not a horn guy or a screamer, but as part of my driver-concentration, I am constantly conjecturing as to other people’s motives. While subconsciously aware that they probably have none. I’ve never owned a performance vehicle, but in much the same way there is a sort of universal response grouping to the BMW, there was also a sort of universal appraisal of my not so long deceased ’77 Celica. Jack that thing up? Pop in a new engine? Bondo that wheel well? Race me through the park? A vintage black Celica is a challenge to some people, a trash bucket to others. Anyway, enjoyed your piece, Don.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      The internal monologue, yes, and the staring into the rear-view mirror trying to read cars and approaches and intentions. It’s an affliction, really, and quite the opposite of self-determination, self-confidence, and all the other big SELF-thingies.

      Back in Berlin, I once purchased Nike running shoes only to have some guys yell mockingly at me from the car how great my shoes were, and then they circled the block and yelled at me again. I never looked at the shoes the same way again.

      The Katanas however, are eternally cool. Glad they make good driving shoes.

  5. Great story, man. Really great story. These are the things we think about when driving and no one brings them to literature. At least, they don’t do it well. But you made this engaging and entertaining.

    It really made me yearn for the mountains again. My parents are heading there in three weeks and I’m jealous.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I’m glad you liked it. I’ve never thought about driving and literature, but I’ll think about it today on the last long 2-lane stretch of the trip. At the moment, I can’t think of any examples but it seems impossible that there aren’t any.

      Scottish mountains, right? Or ours?

      On my only trip to Scotland I did some driving between Edinburgh and Kirkcudbright and was ecstatic to find that not only was the volcanic/sheep terrain what I was used to from parts of Hawai’i, but that the roads were also. Another kind of ecological niche, by analogy — not many ways to make a 2-lane road through cinder cones. Some sections of the road seemed so familiar that I could have been back home.

      That’s something I intend to write about some time – realizing that a road that’s new to you has been laid out in a highly predictable manner, because of the landscape. And so even though you’ve never seen it before, you feel where the road’s going right away, and aren’t often wrong.

      California 155 between California 65 and Lake Isabella is one like that, and California 245 south of California 180 is another. We landed on both those roads on this trip and they were wonderful.

      • They’re off to the Rockies, where I was last month. Beautiful land. Scotland’s great but the Rockies are beyond words. Absolutely spectacular scenery.

        As for literature and driving… Obviously “On the Road” comes to mind first for me. The road has been a tremendous inspiration for writers. The actual act of driving itself seems to have gripped some more than others, though.

        Roads do tend to stick to the contours of the land, but occasionally I find myself thrown off by tunnels and bridges. In Korea the country is so mountainous that there are tunnels and bridges everywhere. You never know where the road will take you.

  6. Joe Daly says:

    Don, racing flats are the most comfortable things to put on feet outside of the sock. You’ve certainly earned enough miles to wear them however and wherever you’d like.

    Now I’m feeling guilty for throwing away my last couple of pair after a year. I think it was my ego seditiously telling me that I am so fast that such shoes can no longer serve me. Of course, running 3 days a week at an 8 minute pace hardly qualifies me for that attitude anymore.

    I try to not think about what other drivers are thinking because in my mind, they’re always thinking about fucking me over. I’m not very good at not thinking this. But we endure, don’t we? 🙂

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Throw away shoes? No! You need a big pile of them for dirty jobs, don’t you?

      My sequence is:

      – run in them until they lose their bounce
      – they become walking around shoes
      – they become working in the yard shoes
      – they go to the clothing drive

      Heavy and slow, we endure.

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    Just a note to readers — I’m in rural South Dakota and have to borrow time on a friend’s computer. So no rapid responses here. One or two online sessions a day is going to be the max.

  8. Wonderful piece, Don. And as far as the kicks go, it’s like Michael Stipe once said: “When you meet a stranger, look at his shoes.”

  9. Don, this piece is my favorite of yours. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the “I am who I am” attitude, which is sort of the “Come as you are” mentality at the churches I like to attend. Kind of took me a while to just be myself. So I went today in my khaki Army-looking shorts and a T-shirt and praised God and worshipped, not caring what the wealthy folks might be thinking.

    And, while I know this isn’t a spiritual piece you wrote, that’s what it reminded me of. We are who we are and must be accepted by the people around us who truly care, who truly don’t judge, and love us for, well, who we are.

    Oh, and I loved all the racing too. Life is this big race that we must endure. And I just loved imagining the wobbly Harleys!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      That’s nice, Nick. I’m not often found in a church (weddings/funerals guy that I am) but it’s good to know about come-as-you-are churches. It does seem rather in the right spirit to me.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    I like the way you’ve always got so many solid objects in your pieces, Don – it makes me think of my shoes, of the cars I’ve driven, of the experiences I’ve had where I’ve been out of breath and fighting to keep going, or of times when I’ve stretched and fit into a good rhythm and kept going easily for miles.

    The judgment of strangers? Yeah, like it or not… that’s how it goes.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Who was it who said something along the lines of “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers?”

      I suppose if we depended on the judgment of strangers we might be in trouble — but I really do think that a thoughtful, observant person is always aware of being judged in that way. What happens after that is up to the individual.

      Say, was that a Toyota Camry you were driving there in East Randolph? That’s an awfully vanilla sedan, mate. I was surprised, your being a cool guy and all.

  11. Irene Zion says:

    I’ve always wondered, Don, are you a dragon there?

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Tibetan Buddhist tiger (detail from a door). If you look at Ruth’s (over at Gloria’s current one) you’ll see a Tibetan Buddhist phoenix (from another door).

      • Irene Zion says:

        They’re both really great!
        (Do you have any idea how long it took to find Ruth in 4 kazillion comments?
        But I did it, that’s what counts.)

  12. Erika Rae says:

    I saw a red Corvette parked at a gas station a couple of weeks ago with the license plate: Y ASK Y. Yeah. They didn’t deserve that car.

    Nice story, Don.

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