Footprints in the Far Places

Two or three years ago, in the “Reader’s Digest” magazine, there was a letter to the editor, accompanied by a photo from Machu Picchu (Peru), from a reader suggesting a new way for travelers to document their journeys: taking photos of their feet.

ImageNew? Hmmmm. No disrespect to the letter writer, who inferred that this was an innovative technique which he and his family had created and wanted to share with the world, but it’s hardly new. I’ve been taking pictures of my feet since sometime in the early 1980s. I’m not claiming to have invented the idea either, but I do have a picture just like the one they published in “Reader’s Digest” that was taken in approximately the same spot about a decade earlier than theirs.

It started in a moment of spontaneous silliness. Sitting on the beach in Santa Cruz, California, I pulled off my shoes and dug my toes into the sand, seeking the warmth trapped below the surface. I then placed my shoes – new pink and white Nikes – in front of me and snapped a photo of them with the waves crashing onto shore as a backdrop. Okay, that technically doesn’t qualify as taking a picture of my feet since they weren’t in the shoes at the time, but that quickly led to a new trend.

A few months later at Disneyland, sitting on the Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster, I slid my foot next to my cousin’s and snapped a picture of our two feet while waiting for the ride to start. That was only the beginning.

I have pictures of my feet everywhere: at home (which usually include a cat or two who are sleeping on them) and around the world: Norway, Zanzibar, Argentina, British Columbia, Antarctica, Iceland, Dubai, etc. I have pictures on beaches, glaciers, and man-made structures. I have pictures of my feet in places where it was probably a bit disrespectful: standing on top of Hadrian’s Wall in England, propped up against the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt. I tried to take a picture of my feet on a bench in the British Museum (London), but got yelled at by a matronly white-haired docent with a sharp accent and even sharper tongue. I have pictures of my feet alongside relatives and friends at any number of places from a nameless lake up in the Sierra Nevada to a park trail in Bandelier National Monument. The friends and relatives think I’m a bit crazy, but they go along with my urging to “hey, put your foot there!” I even have one friend who, when now viewing any of my vacation photos, always first asks “Where’s the foot pictures?”

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Do I have a foot fetish? No, I don’t think so. Feet, mine or other people’s, don’t fascinate me. I don’t run around in my daily life snapping foot pictures in ordinary circumstances. I don’t take pictures of strangers’ feet like some crazed stalker.

Like the letter writer in “Reader’s Digest” I came to discover what a unique way the foot photos were to document my travel, to say “Janet was here.”

All of my photo albums (traditional or electronic) have at least one foot picture. My Antarctica photo book even includes pictures of penguin feet (I thought that was a nice counterpart to pair with mine), and even a couple footprints in the snow. As eco-travelers like to say (and this might be a National Geographic slogan, but I’m not certain): “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”

I will eventually be making a photo album containing only my feet pictures, but I’ve got two more continents to go first (Asia and Australia). I envision using a global map and placing a foot photo on each country my feet have touched. My journey. My footprints.

Do you take pictures of your feet? Dog owners – do you take pictures of your foot next to your dog’s paw? It’s an ordinary thing, walking the dog every day, but did you ever think to memorialize it for later? Parents – you have tons of photos of your kids, but of their feet? Their foot next to yours, say once a year, as their foot grows in comparison? Take note of where your feet have been and whose paths they have crossed.

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Trusting Yourself

I’ve been asked on several occasions if I’m scared to travel alone. And the answer has always been no.

Sometimes I ask myself why.

After all, it can be a big, scary world out there, full of violence and greed.

I think it comes down to trust. Not trusting others necessarily, and certainly not blindly trusting, of course.  Clearly there are people out there who don’t deserve your trust and never will.

I’m talking about trusting yourself, your own instincts. Trusting that you’ll recognize when you need to alter your plans whether it’s something as simple as walking down a different street or politely excusing yourself from an invitation which makes you feel uncomfortable, or something more drastic like seeking help from your embassy.

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Such self-confidence may come naturally to some people, but for others it can take years to cultivate. People like me, who as a child were timid and socially awkward. In such cases, one must put on a pretense of bravery and step out into the world. Small steps, like traveling to foreign locales where you’ll be meeting up with friends or relatives, is a good start. Finding a reliable tour company which treats solo travelers as well as they do others is another. In the latter instance, there are always other solo travelers within the group to pal around with. Many of these will be fleeting friends, like-minded individuals in the moment, whom you’ll never see again. A few, however, you’ll form a closer bond with and become lasting friends.  Some, you will discover are just like you: taking their fear and shoving it deep inside because they refuse to allow it to keep them from following their dreams, from exploring the far corners of this beautiful planet.

I recently encountered a woman I had not seen in several years. We’d never been friends, but had known each other for some time before she moved elsewhere. She’s a few years older than myself, and she had always seemed to be much more confident and socially adept than me. While that may still be true in many settings, I found it quite surprising when she admitted she found it too scary to travel alone.

The conversation made me reflect upon the differences between us, and I couldn’t really find many. The only conclusion that I could come to was that I had finally grown into myself. I’m not saying that she hasn’t – in whatever ways matter to her. But I, in the last ten-fifteen years, have truly grown into my self-confidence and self-trust, especially when it comes to my desire to travel.

Which is why I felt no fear back in July while I stood at the edge of a 400-foot cliff in Bandelier National Monument taking photographs of a waterfall across Frijoles Canyon. I had hiked the 1.5 miles up to this vantage point, alone, on a trail that was technically closed. I had found places to jump across the creek where a flash flood just days earlier had wiped out the three footbridges. (Not an easy task for someone with short little legs like mine.) I had climbed over debris left behind by the flood and kept a watch out for wildlife.

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Admittedly, New Mexico is not so far away as the exotic locales that are my usual destinations. But when deep inside a canyon, with nary another soul in sight and not even the hint of a cell phone signal, it can feel further away than standing on the Antarctic Peninsula where a cruise ship awaits just offshore.

Anything could have happened to me: I could have fallen off the trail and died, or been seriously injured. I could even have been attacked by a mountain lion. Who knows when I would have been found? Being a closed trail, getting later in the afternoon, no one else was coming that way. Yes, the park rangers knew I was out there and knew my estimated return time, but when minutes may count: blood loss, shock, etc., I could have found myself in serious trouble.

But I knew I wouldn’t. I trusted my feet, trusted my balance, trusted my agility, and I trusted my reflexes. I was ready to grab whatever rocks or sticks needed to fight off a big angry feline. Heck, if other people can fight off a mountain lion by hitting it with their camera, so can I.

That’s what trust is. And learning to trust yourself so implicitly is perhaps, for some, as far as traveling to the ends of the earth.