Iceland: a veritable cornucopia of textures. Soft snow, smooth ice, squishy moss and a whole lot of hard rock. During the last six months or so—most of that time spent in Iceland—I’ve been experiencing these sensations in a way alien to most people. I’ve been feeling this amazing country… through my feet. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But for the next few minutes, as insane as this may sound, I’d like to push your comfort zone and suggest that by wearing shoes, or at least traditional ones, you are in fact missing out on a whole lot that Iceland has to offer.
It’s not just me, though. A minor revolution is sweeping through some areas of society, especially that of recreational and professional runners. Barefoot is back and apparently it’s very healthy indeed. A growing number of people are casting off their shoes and not just running, but living their everyday lives unshod. Studies by well-respected scientists, such as Harvard University’s Dan Lieberman, offer that we as Humans are made to be barefoot. They argue that we evolved this way and that shoes are damaging our feet, letting our muscles atrophy away through under-use. There is still much debate in this area—although it is hard to argue that barefoot living is harming people—but the list of evidence in favour of barefoot living is certainly growing.
Cut and bruised
Of course, the world we live in is harsh—arguably much more so than thousands of years ago. Broken glass and sharp tarmac leave unprotected feet cut and bruised. If you are venturing up mountains or through volcanic ash, naked feet are clearly a bad idea. But where there’s a market, there are products, and some shoe manufacturers are beginning to expand on this by offering shoes that are little more than protective coverings for feet, letting them work unsupported and uncushioned, as nature intended. And while your opinion may vary, I actually think a lot of these shoes currently pushing the boundaries of footwear fashion, look pretty cool. Disappointingly I only know of one store in Reykjavik that sells such minimalist shoes, but they are out there, and if you’re coming from abroad they are generally easier to find.
So, fashion and health are my reasons for this, then? Actually, no. I’m not sure how I got turned onto this whole movement in the first place, and Lord knows what made me take the leap and purchase a pair of freaky-looking shoes with toes. But when I slipped my feet into those foot gloves, it suddenly all made sense. When I ran through my Reykjavík neighbourhood, I could feel the changing surfaces beneath my feet—tarmac, concrete, grass, gravel. Running in the snow was an (admittedly slightly chilly) joy, added to by the fact that I was leaving bare footprints in the snow as I went. Hiking up nearby Esja, I could wrap my toes around every little rock, feeling rooted to the mountain. Clambering across lava fields near Hekla for some recent fieldwork, the combination of the thick carpet of moss and the sharp lava rocks were a feast of feedback for my feet.
Completely connected to the ground
Venturing through the ash fall area during the recent Eyjafjallajökull eruption, I felt completely connected to the ground. I felt as if I could sense the Earth moving beneath my feet. It was a wonderful feeling. Not only have I seen amazing things in Iceland, but I have actually sensed them through my soles.
Of course there are places you can’t really do this. I’m not suggesting you walk across glaciers barefoot, or make long hikes in adverse conditions like this. I probably wouldn’t even suggest walking across those lava fields in anything less than hiking boots. But even if you just do it once, for a few minutes, give it a try. Go into the countryside, cast off those blocks around your feet and set them free. Take a little walk. Marvel at what you can feel. Iceland is such a special country, richer in raw nature than almost any other, and it would be a shame not to get as close to that as possible once in a while.