Archives for posts with tag: running in Mexico

When I was a little boy I wasn’t afraid of dogs, just the opposite. I’d walk up to a highly agitated barking dog and attempt to pet it; who would – crazy as it seems – generally let me. My grandfather warned me more than once that I was going to get bit but I never did.

At least not until Bart’s rescue bitch of a German Sheppard lunged out the back of his ’65 Ford Econoline van and took a chunk out of the rear end of my Levis. As an unprovoked surprise attack it quite frankly scared the shit out of me. Bart shrugged it off saying she had a hard time after being abandoned on the mean streets of Detroit. I was 19 at the time and it was at that moment when my fearless relationship with dogs changed forever. Getting bit by a dog is scary. And it hurts. Getting bit by a big dog you didn’t even see is something entirely else; terrifying, that’s a good word.

I’ve had several other frightening encounters over the years; never in the US where there are things like leash laws and legal accountability. I had two encounters in Bolivia back in the ‘90s which could have both turned out very ugly, but didn’t. And I’ve had more than one encounter down here in Mexico. The scariest encounter was with three big dogs while I was running up in the hills called the ‘Big Panties’ a few months back. In surviving that encounter I learned a couple of valuable lessons: immediately fight back, be very aggressive and show those dogs just who the big dog really is – in other words, bluff like hell. Big posturing with the help of throwing lots of rocks can save your life in such an encounter. It sure was news to me. I was in reaction mode.  I had no idea it would actually work.

This however doesn’t work with pit bulls. I learned that lesson here too. For example when that white and tan pit bull advanced on me I picked up a big rock only to find out almost immediately it was the wrong thing to do. His owner standing a few feet away looked at me and very matter of factly said, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. He doesn’t like rocks’. I looked at the big shovel headed brute and concluded that it would probably piss him off and bounce off his skull anyway so I sensibly put the rock down and the owner called his dog off.

A problem with pit bulls is you can’t read them. They typically don’t wag their tails or do anything to telegraph what their intentions are. You don’t know if that particular one was raised to be aggressive or what. And you can’t fool a pit bull. He already knows who the alpha dog is and you both know that it isn’t you. Other frightening facts: you can’t see into a pit bull’s eyes and that they come in only one color – stone cold.

I had an encounter with a bad guy here a few months ago. He had the same eyes; unreadable and stone cold. The man was a killer, no question about it. He asked me questions like what was I doing in his neighborhood and so forth. He liked my answers enough that his mouth formed the rictus of a smile but the eyes never changed.

Thinking about killers got me thinking back to ’77 right after I partied my way out of 5 useless semesters of university. The best job to be had at the time was that as a corrections officer in a maximum security prison in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I worked inside for one year (to the exact day) and in that time saw lots of killers. I talked to them too. During that year we took the transfer of one of the very first of the infamous serial killers – the young guy who murdered those 7 or 8 coeds at the University of Michigan back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Locked up in the Segregation Unit in B-Block with the other protection cases he looked like a baby faced punk who wouldn’t survive a week out in the general population.

Most convicts for that matter look like regular people. It helps that there is this running myth that every last man locked up doing time is innocent. Every last single man in the joint – just listen to them and they’ll tell you – they are there because of some huge mistake. And to keep the illusion and hope alive means that every other convict is working on some stage of an appeal.

There are very few tough guy acts in a maximum security prison. Most everyone just wants to do their time as quietly as possible. And paroles are easier to come by if you play the game and act the nice guy.

But here on the outside – down here in Mexico – bad guys and big dogs don’t have to pretend to be anything other than what they are.

I just got in from an hour and a half run out on the canal and I am extremely happy. What is there about running in just shorts and sandals exactly that feels so positively liberating? Here in Mexico, in this climate it’s the height of comfort. Running here is nothing like taking a jog through Rock Creek Park or doing a run on the C&O Canal Trail; both in Washington, DC. No, it’s a little less sheltered here, also a little more open and a lot less protected. But my running is the better for it. I like wilderness and running places that are off the grid. Places where there are just the primal elements of rock, dirt, sun, and sky. No people to speak of. No traffic. No sounds but that of the wind moving through the leaves and my sandals as they lightly slap the ground. For all I know it could be 1320 and not 2013. Spend enough time in this Mexican valley and you come to realize just how totally indifferent nature is to both man and time. Awareness like this on days like today further catalyzes my joy as I cross its landscape. It’s at these times that I never feel so more plugged in and alive. The running monster self has emerged.

Sounds crazy, right? If you’re not a runner or if you’ve never experienced that proverbial runner’s high from elevated levels of endorphins then you might not believe me when I say running jacked up on endorphins is the best buzz on earth.

I’ll preface my argument with a conversation that I had on the phone this morning with one of my oldest friends, also a runner, where I said that the running blogs or the stories that get published about running are mostly ignorable at best. We agreed that wasn’t surprising given that on the [popular]cultural level the sport of running has been hijacked by the shoe and fashion businesses and subsequently get’s bundled up like just about everything else into a lifestyle that involves buying stuff. Yeah, that tired old rant about stuff but running is so intrinsically simple that it really bugs me to see the magazines and blog articles cluttered with things that ooze ickiliy of lifestyle. Running is simple: shorts, sandals, dirt, and time. Some of the articles about style and technique aggravatingly get tied to a particular running shoe solution. And I love the whole celebrity style trainer shoe thing. Or the articles on how to improve your 5K/10K times which improbably segue into reviews of the latest array of GPS enabled running watches. Some articles are inspirational (or nagging) to keep reminding neophytes that running will help them lose weight and stay slim. Yes, truth be known your cute little neighbor runs for that reason but she’s not a true runner in the sense that experientially she never has done more than 6 miles. And she, I can just about guarantee, has never found that endorphin buzz; which by the way, is the total point of the argument of why some of us run.

To begin with the sport of running is exclusive; it’s an activity that a person can’t buy their way into. And contrary to popular opinion running at the very root is really about an anti-consumerist lifestyle if for no other reason that you never have time to shop. To become a better runner, you have to run more. And to be a distance runner is to essentially commit the entirety of your day(s) to running. It is amazing how much of your day gets sucked up by long runs. And you have to eat healthy. You can’t stay out late. In short, the distance runner’s value system changes because of those huge commitments. The only things that really matter to the serious runner are: how the body feels, what’s on the feet is comfortable, and doing the miles.

So there is that, the commitment and the base level physical state that are yours as a runner. But maybe, just maybe somewhere along the way through your persistence something clicks for you and you discover the heart and soul of running – true running. You’re out for a run and you find that somehow your motion has become effortless, your legs feel loose and all-powerful, and your breath is light. And you are accelerating (!) and you don’t know why except it feels so good.

Welcome to the endorphin buzz – enjoy it – because for the moment, you are a superman.

To me, running is all about finding that buzz; to take the body to that perfectly matchless state where everything is operating in full synchronicity. It’s like God has just lifted the curtain just a wee bit enough to show you the majesty of your physical self. And for me it’s only running that can lift me into that rarified place that I can only describe as transcendent. Running, writing, and sandal-making is my life at the moment and I am pretty happy with the way things are turning out. I’d like to be selling more sandals. I’d like to see more people catch on to the fact that I am making the best sandals in the world. But wait and see and in the mean time, enjoy the buzz.

But I first had to push myself through the pain and put in the miles necessary to get to that magical place. It took perseverance and lots of time. I remember that first time I discovered endorphins. It was while my buddy, Ian and I were up running the fire roads in the California high Sierras training for my first and only marathon back in ’97. We finished sprinting the last 30 minutes of a 3 hour run. Yes, sprinting. The endorphin rush made me feel like monster. With endorphins, in the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson ‘My heart feels like an alligator’.

It was ironic because when I first started training, my very experienced running partners thought I was a hopeless case. They both said my running form was absolute crap. But I hung in there and kept running. So after 17 years I am still running although I didn’t get started until I was approaching forty. I love running more today at 57 then I ever did at 40. Maybe because after all this time I can still find that monster running self; and when it comes to me I am grateful.

People that run to win things like ultra- marathons, marathons, or 5Ks, or whatever – fine – they’re competitive; my daughter is that way. She ran a 3:07 marathon in May of this year which qualified her for both the Boston and NYC’s marathons next year. And I am very proud of her. She’s a competitor and she admits to love passing people in a race. As for me, I’m not a racer. I run for the buzz.

And running where I live in Mexico it’s a year around proposition; 5000 ft. above sea level, spring like temperatures every day. It’s a runner’s paradise. And I absolutely love Mexico. I live in a town where the people are the nicest in the entire world. And I love living in a place where I don’t understand everything; where day to day living creates an awareness of mysteries the likes of which I haven’t felt since I was a kid. Mexico, as Octavio Paz points out, has multiple cultures living on different historical timelines. If you get off the beaches and away from the resorts and move inland and spend some time here you’ll soon discover that there’s lot’s of shit that makes positively no sense at all. But that’s another story…

And this is the first place I have ever lived in my life where I actually care about what people think about me. Part of that awareness comes from finally growing up but I also think it says something about the people and the place. For example, I use the Gray combi-bus line (Ruta Gris) to get back and forth to the valley that lies east of town. I chat with the drivers some, tease the kids, and try to make myself extra small and less sweaty when the bus is packed. Some of the drivers are reciprocal. They see me making an effort to fit in and so they’ll honk and wave when they see me. Some have taken to tapping on their electronic whistles when they pass my house, just to say hello. If I am home sitting up on the third floor working or hammocking out on the terrace and I hear that familiar toot I know one of the Ruta Gris buses is out front of my house wheezing its way up Calle Victoria.

And another example of the great kindness of these people is while I never buy any of Ramone’s fried pig’s guts he greets me warmly and graciously just the same every morning when I enter the Mercado for breakfast. I say good morning to half a dozen different people on my three and a half block walk down to breakfast and say good morning to another half dozen people when I get to the Mercado. And so it goes all day; there is always someone to talk to and the list of smiling, happy, warm and friendly people that I interact with here just goes on and on.

The local people are very kind and gracious to this old gringo who runs their valley in huaraches and who is also trying to make a go of the sandal business; something that all the huaracheros are struggling with these days. I sense that these people want me to succeed which is a refreshing contrast to some of the more competitive places and people that I’ve known.

And crazy as it seems, I enjoy riding the combi – the poor person’s transport – crowded as it is some days, mostly just to watch the little kids. Coming back this afternoon there was a 5 year old little girl who I saw as the splitting image of my own savage little self at that age. The combi driver had to wait for her mother to chase her down before then having to literally wrestle her on to the bus. Arms and legs snagging first at the door until finally latching onto her brother who she stuck to like chewing gum before getting finally pried off his leg.  But as mom’s do, she won in the end and guided her firmly to the bench on the other side of the bus. There was no screaming or hitting; just mom’s quiet insistent voice. I don’t think I have ever in my entire life seen such amazing and persistent stubbornness in such a small package. It was absolutely so funny I laughed out loud. The mom smiled and gave me one of those knowing ‘you have no idea’ kind of looks. As we passed a cathedral the mom told her daughter to make the sign of the cross. The child looked back and scowled. What was noteworthy is that the little girl wasn’t crying, screaming or throwing a tantrum during any of that. She was just highly independent and very determined to have her own way. Her 7 year old brother on the other hand had boarded quietly and sat drawing pictures the entire way into town with the last nickel’s worth of ink in his chewed up 29 cent blue Bic pen. He reminded me a little bit of me too.

Now I don’t exactly have proof that the big sugar sack lying by the side of the road contains 5 heads but I would be very surprised if it didn’t.

A couple of days ago I found the route that allowed me to extend my run beyond an hour.

It begins from my house on Calle Victoria and doglegs to the northeast where I pick up a semi-rural road that cuts back west terminating at gated community called Rancho Dorado. The road first runs past a small gated community on the left, then a cemetery, and then there is a small brick making operation on the right that sits on the road side edge of acre after acre of pastures and fields. The air doesn’t clear up until well past the brick kiln where they use everything imaginable to fire the brick. The mud is hand mixed and put into 8 lot molds and air dried much like I would have thought the Mesopotamians did it 4000 years ago although I reckon it took maybe another 1000 years to figure out that firing the brick made them stronger. Mexico brick makers, being on the peso economy and all, have extrapolated their energy requirements to include those things that are rich in underutilized petroleum products- like old tires – to fire the final process step. And it really isn’t a kiln inasmuch as huge heap of bricks stacked over and around freaking big hot smoldering fire.
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So this road is remote in a way but then again not, and is quintessentially Mexican in that it is just another place where you can do what you want.

Anyway, this road runs straight for about a mile before taking a sharp left hand turn where it turns from tarmac to an improvised cobblestone made from mostly river rock and then runs its final 200 yards uphill where it terminates at a gate. It was 50 yards before the turn on the right hand side of the road where I saw the bag sitting more or less on shoulder; that is if Mexican roads had shoulders.

I literally jumped. My intuition told me something was wrong. I passed it but looked back over my shoulder because something about it gave me the creeps. It was an old white sugar sack of the industrial size that originally held 100 lbs of sugar or thereabouts.

This bag was now about a third full and held several lump like shapes. The bag was tightly tied off, not once but twice, with heavy twine. On my run back I clearly remember that it wasn’t there the day before and I made sure to give it a very wide birth as I passed it.

Yesterday the northwesterly wind announced the presence of the bag 10 yards before I passed it and I once again gave it as much berth as the road allowed. The sack was covered with flies and contained something recently dead and whatever it held it was seriously into the spoiling stage. I wasn’t going to let my imagination run wild even although I couldn’t keep the image of 5 severed heads out of my mind. And I thought, if it was bad guys they’d want to make it public like when they left a cut up body that was hacked up into 10 pieces and left in bags in the plaza (3 blocks from my house) a couple of months ago. I tried to include other possible scenarios like maybe it was a Mexican dog burial? But no, dead animals, pets included, don’t get trussed up in a sugar sack and left so neatly by the side of the road. And most certainly don’t get doubled tied off with strong twine.

I told Lulu this morning (my 21 year old English student) that I found a great place to run. I described where and she told me that her father ran that some route early every morning with a buddy of his. She then asked me what time I ran there and I told her that I ran mid-day. She told me that was good because after dark it was a very dangerous road.  I asked dangerous how and she said gangsters. I was not able to get from her the why of what gangsters would be doing on that road at night. So all I know is that a cartel somehow and for whatever reasons uses that road at night.

Creepy huh? Something dead, trussed up in a bag lying on the side of a road that’s used by the bad guys.
Personally, I think its 5 heads.

I have finally found the best place to run in this little northwestern corner of Michoacán. And it has been a long struggle to find a good place to run. A couple of weeks prior I had literally run out of road, or I should say trail, up in the hills the locals call the ‘big panties’. The short 1 hour turn around time was only part of the deal killer. It might have been different if I could have found a connecting trail to Tunamanza but after bushwhacking 2 hot sweaty hours one afternoon through a mile of thorn thickets I came to the conclusion that one didn’t exist. So there wasn’t much point in running the big panty trail day after day.

And in addition to being too short, the trail across the Calzonuda had some other seriously annoying limitations. Like I had to run by the sack of heads (a story that warrants its own future post), followed by trying to keep downwind of the 3 hounds of hell that guarded the empty rock quarry 30 minutes further up the mountain, and assuming you got around those dogs encounter free then there was the turn around 10 minutes ahead when the trail dead ended up on Highway 15; meaning you had to turn around and run the same piece of trail all over again.

Persistence and trial and error led me out onto the vast agricultural plain that began just east of town. The valley is watered by a canal that starts up at Lake Chapala to the northwest. Lake Chapala is the largest lake in Mexico and borders several states including Michoacán. The canal is flanked by service roads that allow machinery to dredge it periodically so that the water keeps flowing.

These service roads connect to numerous other dirt roads that criss-cross the valley linking up all the small villages with their fields. The immense Tziróndaro Valley sits at 5000 feet above sea level and all manner of produce is grown here. With 320 plus days of sunshine per year and an average daily annual temperature of 75 degrees F, there isn’t a growing season here in the tradition sense; it’s more about perpetual crop rotation.

The canal that waters all of this agriculture is hugely long; immeasurably so to this solo runner. There aren’t any running clubs in Sahuayo and there aren’t trail maps and the few local joggers that live here content themselves with the 3 mile loop to El Rincon and back. I know because everyone I’ve asked, ‘Do you know a good place to run?’, always without exception point me to El Rincon.  

I’ve since come to the conclusion that 90% of the local population have never ventured over in to this valley and some, especially those of the gated community crowd, maybe are only just dimly aware that a canal even exists in the valley, or that there are service roads, or that quite a large number of people live and do farm work out there.

But as this gringo had discovered, the canal and the service roads that wind through the valley were a runner’s paradise. But unfortunately like many other things in Michoacán, there were the accompanying hazards. Like snakes. Thus far I’ve only seen 3 but I know they inhabit the canal area in great numbers because the lush cane thickets support such a readily available food larder including vast numbers of birds and a whole bunch of some species of rodent that looks an awful lot like a North American Brown Squirrel; but ain’t. The other day I saw a skinny looking snake that was maybe a foot long swimming upstream. He immediately dove under water once he sensed my presence. And I saw a bigger snake a few days earlier. It noisily slithered away as I crossed the footbridge under which it was resting. And who knows if it was poisonous?

I’ve heard from several people that the deadly Coral snake lives here. A guy told me that his two Rat Terriers had killed four of them in the last 2 months.

The last snake I saw was a big brute of a fellow, probably 4 feet long and as fat as a man’s wrist. I was running north and saw a police truck stopped in the middle of the road a hundred yards ahead. And when I caught up to it I saw two policemen standing on the road taking a cigarette break. I broke off my run when I saw that one of the cops had this huge yellow snake pinned by the head under his boot. The snake just lay there writhing in the dirt. I surmised that he and his buddy cop were just killing time and were entertaining themselves by applying a little abject cruelty to the snake before I reckoned they killed it too.

Thankfully dog encounters out on the canal have thus far been mostly benign affairs with only a couple of small heart stopping moments like when that big shovel headed pit bull terrier crossed the road to check me out. I picked up the biggest rock in reach just as the owner stepped out of the tree line. The dog’s ears pulled back when he saw me pick up the rock and the owner said, ‘I wouldn’t do that, he doesn’t like rocks.’ I am thinking, ‘Shit, this truly is a Mexican stand off’, but thankfully the owner stepped up and grabbed his dog by the collar as I put the rock down. The owner assured me that he was a good dog. And I’m thinking that good dogs in Mexico love taking chunks out of gringos.

I was more than a little grateful for his intersession because I knew there wasn’t a rock big enough that would have made any significant dent in that big old dog’s thick skull and I just knew that me hitting him with it would have pissed him off big time.

On another run I came upon a mounted cowboy with 5 dogs in tow, one of which was a massive German Sheppard. I spied them 30 yards off and was downwind so thankfully I able to alter my course before such a time that things could have gotten out of hand.

So if snakes and dogs and sharp pointy rocks aren’t enough to put some pain and fear into an afternoon run then there’s always the occasional dust storm to contend with. Imagine big open fields as far as the eye can see in every direction with nary a tree in sight and you can get a sense of what can happen when the wind picks up. And the bad dust days are like now because it’s dry season here. It hasn’t rained but one time in the last 4 months so everything is literally bone dry. All the roads are a mixture of brown dirt and gray sharp stones which pretty much describe the entirety of the landscape. So when the wind gets above 15 mph there can be lots and lots of dirt in the air. All this of course is acerbated by big trucks carrying livestock and feed and fast moving pickups that don’t slow down for nothing; all pulling behind them 30 yard long contrails of dust.

But apart from that, the weather on any given day is beautiful and hazards and all, I’ve found myself a place to run everyday. Not as gentle as I’d like but living on the cheap down in Michoacán learning the sandal business reminds me of those shut up and quit complaining words, ‘I beg your pardon. I never promised you a beer garden.’ 

I got the latest version of my running sandals from my fabricator late yesterday afternoon and I was looking forward to the next afternoon when I could take my first test run in them; hoping those improvements, the fourth, would be the be the last.

The running sandals have the same DNA as my other sandals – the foot bed and the upper both made from fine leather with a thin midsole, all stitched to a sole taken from recycled airplane tire. It weighs slightly more than the Minimus but the difference is totally inconsequential.
I was nervous since I got them yesterday knowing that the first run in them would quite possibly be a majorly disappointing ordeal. I even snapped at some chatty Kathy in the Mercado who was disturbing my breakfast meditations with the usual incessant prattle about how I need to practice my Spanish [all the time] to learn it. This was coming from the same over caffeinated fool who spent 15 years in the US and didn’t learn but 10 words of English. I was so distracted I forgot to tell Gabby not to salt my eggs and so I sat and fumed through each bite; angry for loosing my temper and angry that someone could dump so much salt on 2 innocent eggs.
And I was angry even though I knew that my anger was really only sublimated anxiety over the coming test drive of the new running sandals.
I squirmed through Spanish class even though Salvatore delivered a better than average lesson; we’re reading Coello’s ‘The Alchemist’ in Spanish, working through all the unknown nouns, verb tenses, and trickily placed pronouns.
When I got home I powered up with pinole and a couple of bananas then slipped into the new sandals and locked the gate.
The first 50 yards down the hill and I was thinking that there was possibly something missing until I remembered that running down hill is not a very comfortable proposition in minimalist shoes period. The street finally flattened out and I was able to get a better feel of the sandal and my feet were sending back lots of information. So I was running, processing, running, processing until after about 15 minutes my feet sent back this huge collective sigh and this kind of ‘oh shit’ like ‘this is what it’s all about’. And the next 30 minutes was just this repetitive ‘oh thank you’ and ‘I can finally do this and this’,
as my feet reveled in their new found joy in being free at last.

So the running sandal gets 5/5 stars vs., 4/5 stars for the Minimus. I think the difference is that the foot is unbound and it is finally able to do all of the things that a foot likes to be able to do. I think that one of the reasons why the Minimus doesn’t deliver the true minimalist potential is that binding of the foot bed acts as a constrictor, promising motion control and support that your intuition tells you really isn’t there. And another thing is that your foot hesitates when it touches ground or leaves ground as it feels only part of the ground. The foot doesn’t get a chance to open up and splay when it needs to once again because of the binding of the foot bed restricts its motion.
The binding of the shoes keeps trying to give these reassurances that the foot is protected, not to worry, but your feet know better. Consequently your feet are always operating in the ‘safe’ mode – I don’t know if that is the right metaphor – because they are not
getting all of the data back. So the subconscious knows it is being tricked because the data isn’t right; this then has the brain primarily listening on the pain channel, ‘you’re on the heel’ – ouch – ‘get off the heel’ (or get off the side of your foot, etc.) so with
the feet in safe mode it is no wonder that runs are not full spectrum as they should be.
I found that the running sandal allowed my feet to feel the terrain better. And my feet could open up and splay and move around more as the terrain changed. The straps held my feet loosely to sole and offered no promises of protection or support so consequently my feet went ‘yes, we get to do our job’ and I could feel my feet opening and closing as they grabbed the earth.
Please forgive all of my recycled ‘Born to Run’ analytics and instead just hear that these sandals are the most comfortable things I’ve ever run in and in the days to come I look forward to giving them many a thrashing over on the canal roads east of town.Image

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