Archives for the month of: February, 2013

He Disagreed with Something that Ate Him is without a question the best chapter title of all time; from Ian Fleming’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. And in that chapter the story was about some minor character getting stuffed into a fish tank that held a bunch of vicious razor toothed piranhas. All told very tongue-in-cheek, very deadpan as only the British can.

Personally, big teeth and biting animals that savage lesser things scare the crap out of me, no matter how drolly told. My fear started almost 40 years ago when a friend’s rescue bitch German shepherd lunged from the back of his Ford Econoline van and tore a chunk out the back of my Levis. All of this for no apparent reason other than maybe she had a hard time as a puppy growing up in the urban jungles of Detroit.

So I was 30 minutes up into the Calzonuda; the hills the locals call ‘the big panties’ and my feet were getting sorer with each footfall. I was dirty and hot and those damned rocks kept finding the same bruised spot on each foot. I was discovering the running sandals weren’t made for such inhospitable terrain as stony mountainous Michoacán.

I was searching for the branch trail that connected the ‘sack of heads’ piece to the larger one that started down in El Rincon. I knew there had to be some kind of continuity; how else would foot traffic get from Sahuayo to the villages that surrounded the big panties like Tunamanza to the northwest? And I had to find it because it would have to be better than the segment that repeatedly traumatized my feet.

I spied a man and a woman sitting just off the trail with their backs to me. They were sitting up high on a rock and dirt ledge that was shaded by some dirty looking scrub trees. They were sharing a liter and a half bottle of coke and the fact that they were taking their siesta out in the middle of nowhere was only slightly disconcerting to this dust covered old gringo who had been panting his way up hill for the better part of an hour.

I call out to them, just a quiet ‘buenos tardes’,  and the man no sooner turned and looked my way then the brown shape laying next to him stood up, growled, before hurling itself towards me.

I was thinking (or maybe said out loud), ‘Holy shit’ as that  enraged animal, trailing what appeared to be a 10’ piece of chewed off chain, landed in a snarling, snapping, lunging mode just a few feet away.

I didn’t even have time to think; ‘I am so screwed’ before a second dog, a big black beast, came flying out from that same spot.

I am thinking ‘What the shit’?

One of my biggest nightmares was unfolding before my very eyes; two big unrestrained dogs on the attack – on me – and there was nothing I could do to fend off what was going to happen; one dog can chew you up and two can kill you.

I had close encounters like this before, like twice in Bolivia a few years back, and one was totally déjà vu; I was taking a run in the beautiful countryside when I awoke another very big dog who knew for a fact, just like now, that I didn’t belong there either.

And my mind was still grappling with the exploding events being brought to me in the way of two very big angry dogs that I was even more totally unprepared when yet another dog charging into the fray. I am thinking ‘holy shit, who has 3 dogs?’

And suddenly it wasn’t a question of getting bit and savaged but more a question of how many times and how bad.

I threw my water bottle at the closest dog and made myself big as that seemed to work with the 2 small dogs that tried to bite me the week before. One of those little bastards was laying in his doorway and pretended to ignore me as I walked by and it was only instinct that me turn and catch him as he had crept up behind and was in the process of taking a chunk out of my ankle. He got smacked with a water bottle too.

So there I was surrounded by 3 lunging snapping beasts and I see the owner out of the corner of my eye looking on impartially as I was whirling like a dervish throwing rocks, yelling for him to contain his dogs and just generally trying to keep arms and legs out of harms way.

After what seemed like forever, the owner finally stood up and shouted at the dogs which of course just ignored him.

I hit one of the black dogs in the hindquarters with a big rock, it yelped and the owner told me to ease off, ‘that it was going to be all right.’

In a voice 3 octaves above my normal I heard myself scream, ‘Are you crazy? Call your dogs off!’- in English of course – I didn’t want him to hear me call him ‘loco’; as the last thing I wanted to do was to piss off my only potential advocate.

This entire time the woman stayed seated sipping coke with an emotional detachment that suggested the dogs ate people all the time and them killing just another dusty old gringo was too boring to get even remotely excited about.

At what seemed like the last minute, the owner finally stepped down and got into the fray. After some slaps and fumbling he managed to grab the brown dog’s frayed chain and restrained it. The black dog that I hit with the rock retired at some point because I found that there was only one dog left which I finally managed to drive off with a couple of big rocks.

My heart was thumping in my chest and I thought, ‘Oh great, saved from the dogs only to keel over from a massive coronary.’ I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt such fear and unmitigated panic.

And I knew that if things would have turned out different and had I been tore up by those dogs it would have been my own fault; wandering around ‘the big panties’ was inexcusable. If it would have gone to court, which I doubt, the dog owner would have merely shrugged and admitted that his dogs had bit me.

The court would have asked what I was doing up there and if I answered running, the next question would have been, ‘From what?’ Like only criminals run in this part of the world.

If I would have replied in some naïve el norte Americano way that ‘I was running for recreation’, I would reckon that after the laughter stopped and after everyone caught their breath the immediate response would have been something like, ‘Are you simple minded? There’s dangerous stuff up there.’

So all the humorous bravado aside, it is truly a wonder I didn’t get as much as a single bite. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my entire recollectable life.

Who makes the best sandals in the world? The Italians? Maybe once but not anymore. Morocco. Nope. China? Are you kidding? Colombia? Nope. Peru? Nope. Brazil? Nope. Think again. Mexico. That’s right Mexico; more specifically Michoacán. 

Mountainous Michoacán; the land of avocados, back to back to fiestas, ear shattering Banda music, carnitas, hot salsas, sultry women, hard mustached men, and laughing bright eyed children.

In the northwest corner of the state lies a town that produces the country’s artisanal huaraches. The large city of Leon in the state of Guanajuato lying to the east produces the country’s boots and shoes but it is in the small town of Sahuayo that the sandals known as huaraches are made.

If you are thinking that huaraches are only those crude looking old leather things that are nailed to soles made out of car tires you are only partially right; that’s the old school style. Some things down here are slow to change and one of those is the huarache. 

The town took little notice the day I arrived. And why should it? I might have been the only gringo visitor for miles and miles around but the town had its time honored routines that were impervious to change. Still it didn’t take long at the El Cito Cantina before I got introduced to a few of the huaracheros. I got invited to visit some of their shops and after looking around for a week or more I started asking a few questions. ‘What if we wanted to make a different kind of sandal here? I knew that they’d been making those huaraches the same way since the days of Moses but what if we wanted something a little more contemporary? And what if we made those sandals out of only the finest leathers imaginable? And what if we stitched those contemporary designs onto soles cut out of recycled airplane tire?’

Those were by no means revolutionary ideas; they were just different ideas that came from the same wellspring of practicality. And why couldn’t someone other than the Italians make originally beautiful leather sandals but make them more awesomely comfortable before putting bottoms on it them that don’t wear out?

Material speaking airplane tire is to automobile tire what carbon fiber and titanium is to cast iron; its way lighter as well as way stronger. And because it is made for one of the most critical services in the world it is also pretty indestructible. And because the material is thin as well as an ubiquitous color of black it marries perfectly to the greater contemporary design aesthetic. 

But answering these questions created some problems. What? You want to make a sole out of airplane tire and stitch it to a beautiful leather sandal? We don’t do that here. We don’t know what that is. What would you call that? That’s not a huarache. We make huaraches here. Those were a few of the answers I got back. Frankly speaking that wasn’t a big surprise; I knew it was always hard to undo the incumbent and the whole ‘not invented here syndrome’.  

And I had totally expected that my sandal mission would be counter-intuitive to some of the local craftsmen; more than a few tried to get on board but some just couldn’t wrap their heads around the heresies that broke them from their tradition.

And tradition was that you took stiff leather and configured it into a time worn indigenous pattern before nailing it to a heavy sole cut out of a car tire. And best local practices dictated that the sandalias – the more stylish and more prettily crafted sandals – the sandals that the huaracheros made to compete with the Chinese and the Brazilians – were glued (although they looked stitched) to a pretty looking synthetic sole; which of course in short order wears out and falls apart along with the rest of the crappily made sandal.   

No one, and I mean no one, foresaw a retro market that might be quality driven; combining beautiful with an heirloom quality aesthetic. Everybody here in Mexico had been drinking the Chinese Kool-Aid for far too long and all of the local craftsmen were as a result locked in a competitive death-spiral with both the Chinese and the Brazilians. For example the Chinese might flood the Mexican markets with 150 pesos sandals (say for a specific set of women’s styles) and both the Brazilian’s and the Mexican’s are forced to follow suit or die. Of course prices would fall further and as they fell so did quality. The losers were everyone (including the consumer) except for the country with the lowest labor cost (China). 

But thankfully a few craftsmen embraced the change and a new sandal company was born; Sahara Sandals. I know it’s not very Mexican sounding but the naming decision was made long before I discovered Sahuayo and quite frankly I am inclined to be more sentimental towards my only child, Sarah, from which the name was derived. 

So what exactly gives? A gringo mucking around down in Mexico trying to make a go of a sandal business named (without benefit of the back story) after that big desert in Africa. I know it sounds like it could be pretty stupid.  And if it turns out to be a mistake I will confess upfront that it wouldn’t be the first time; I’ve made mistakes before. But I have to say given the design successes and some of the sandals that we’ve now produced, I’ve gotten pretty committed to this sandal business idea. 

But I recognize that there is always that chance that people back in the states won’t embrace the quality nature of my sandals. It’s not like American’s hadn’t already created a pretty successful track record of choosing low price and convenience over quality. So I recognize that maybe my fellow citizens are going to stay pretty happy buying the cheap crap coming out of Asia. 

My testimonial is that I wear these sandals every day. Comfortable; so damn comfortable in fact I expect to die and be buried in a pair. I also run 2 hours a day a pair; my newly created most awesome running sandals. So simply put – I am down here, committed; just wanting to be making sandals that’s all. Not ordinary sandals but quite possible the best sandals in the world. 

 Now keep in mind that I never saw this coming. I never planned on getting into the sandal making business until I discovered that good sandals were a very rare commodity these days. With the exception of a few custom shops, like a place I know in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, a person pretty much has to leave the United States to shop for good sandals. Yes, I’ve looked online but I could never conclusively find anything met the criteria. 

So after many disappointing sandal shopping excursions and after buying lots of pairs over the years I’d come to that opinion that the perfect pair just didn’t exist and so consequently I kind of fell into settling for wearing sandals that didn’t make me happy. 

I had a foot injury, which I’ll explain later, that made me realize how a simple thing like foot wear can make the difference in the whole happiness equation.

After some simple study I have discerned that the perfect pair of sandals has 3 characteristics: they have to be comfortable, they have to wear for years, and they have to get more beautiful over time. 

I guess I really didn’t know till recently that I had been on the sandal quest for 30 years.

I had bought sandals all over the world – six continents and who knows how many countries – and most recently bought sandals for Sarah and me in Italy on the island of Capri. I loved the styles that I bought there but I found that they weren’t particularly comfortable and they didn’t like to stay on my feet. The pairs I bought in Colombia the year before were handsome but uncomfortable as hell. I just couldn’t reconcile myself to a lengthy break in period. And Washington, DC summers where I was living at the time might have had longer summers than Northern Michigan where I grew up; but not by that much. And it didn’t seem right that I should have to nurse a pair of knotty, stiff peasant sandals till they might someday possibly loosen up. I tried to make them work but in the end I just couldn’t get used to the uncomfortably thick toe thong..

So way back when, before I decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns, I considered different options. Buy local? Nope. Every shoe department in Washington, DC like most everywhere else in the United States sold pretty much the same thing. Sports sandals and flip fops; all invariably made in Asia and all out of the same cheap synthetic materials. I couldn’t really find anything that was a better value proposition so I settled for one of the Reef brand’s flip flops. That model had a comfortable leather upper but the sandal could only deliver a single summer’s service because like clockwork on September 15th the synthetic bottom that it was glued to wore out.

I got positively angry the 3rd time that happened. I do not like stuff that wears out. I have long subscribed to the notion ‘buy the best you can afford and cry only once.’ And I do not like it when some company perceives to play me for a fool. Nor do I like being part of a relationship that has me situated always on the losing end of the proposition. And I find the hypocrisy of making and selling shit that wears out to be positively appalling; 80% of everything we buy ends up in a landfill in a few months time.

And every company out there purports to be green but that is mostly their creative sales and marketing talking. 

Historically I had long preconceived opinions about foot wear; some of which weren’t necessarily correct. I used to be a distance runner but injured my left foot 10 years ago and I thought that I never would run again as my foot just kept getting weaker. I found and read ‘Born To Run’ and after more study realized that the traditional treatment and therapy for foot problems like mine were totally upside down.
Born To Run inspired me and got me back on my feet and running once again; this time in the barefoot minimalist style (shoes w/o orthotics) and long story short, it wasn’t long before I was back to distance running again.

So what did that have to do with the sandals? Two significant points – first, as my feet got stronger I discovered that my feet loved that new minimalist structure. So much in fact that it wasn’t long before I couldn’t comfortably wear normal shoes anymore. My feet no longer needed things like arch support. Two – I, as a grumpy old man and persnickety old-school engineer, finally made up his mind not to buy anymore of those sandals that wore out after a single season. And furthermore, I vowed not to buy any company’s products that were created with a specific shelf-life; great for the economy (esp. China) but infuriating for someone me.

So I had a dilemma that was compounded by the fact that my side interest of running had somewhere along the way overtaken my career interests.

I was fortunate for the timing because the complete lifestyle overhaul I had done a few years earlier meant that I no longer needed to fund a lifestyle upkeep because at that point I didn’t really own anything anymore. I had gotten rid of my car years before and sold my last house in 2007. So it wasn’t hard to conclude that I could opt out of my present job of fetching shit for assholes (aka defense related engineering in Washington, DC) and follow those new found interests to see where they led. 

So once I made up my mind it took all of about 30 days to give up both my small Capitol Hill apartment and my engineering career. I gave my daughter the last of my favorite stuff including all my books, the handmade bookcases, the matching pair of leather chairs, my Moroccan carpet, a few good pots and pans, and assorted odds and ends. 

I packed my remaining stuff into two bags then boarded a plane the next day for Mexico City. 

And in the end it was as simple as that; I was headed south to find the huarache trail.Image