A Writer’s Hiking Boots Carry Half a Century of Poignant Memories

“While I have grown about 8 inches and gained about 70 pounds since 1970, the size 10 boots still fit.”

Collage illustration featuring hiking boots, a campsite, a Polaroid of two hikers, and an RV

Illustration by Kavel Rafferty

For better or worse, the clothes in my closet serve as a journey through the past.

The blue suit I purchased in August 1986 to wear as an usher at a friend’s wedding doubled as formal wear on my New Orleans honeymoon (1990) and attire for the funerals of my dad (1989) and my mom (2015). My softball jersey for the South Jersey Media All-Stars represents the three losing seasons (1987–1989) the team endured, with a cumulative record of 21–65.

Winter’s arrival is a reminder that the hiking boots on the closet floor have been companions on my life’s journey for more than half a century, taking me from teenager to senior citizen.

My parents bought the tan-colored boots at JCPenney in March 1970, when I was 14, for a three-week trip that August to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. I was part of a bus caravan from New Jersey with more than 100 other Boy Scouts. It was the longest stretch of time I had spent away from my parents.

I relished the high adventure and natural wonders of Philmont. My boots covered nearly 60 miles of terrain over 11 days, highlighted by the ascent of 12,441-foot-high Baldy Mountain.

That trip whetted my appetite for more hikes. In 1971 and 1972, John Spielberger, a fellow Scout and friend since fifth grade, and I hiked the nearly 30-mile Batona Trail through the Pine Barrens in one day. The first year, it took 14 hours and 25 minutes. Better prepared in 1972, we completed the trail in 12 hours and 50 minutes.

During spring break in April 1973, John and I took on a new challenge: the Appalachian Trail. We covered 37 miles over three days from Palmerton, Pennsylvania, to the Delaware Water Gap, and my boots withstood the heavy rainfall that drenched our tent and muddied the trail.

While I have grown about 8 inches and gained about 70 pounds since 1970, the size 10 boots still fit. They faded in color but remained in decent shape as I hiked Parvin State Park, Belleplain State Forest, and Round Valley Recreation Area in New Jersey; the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York; and up Mount Rainier, where I reunited with John, then living in Washington state, in June 1986.

My hiking days are over as I enter my late 60s. The boots remain my go-to footwear for shoveling snow and providing traction when navigating icy sidewalks and streets, most notably during the blizzard of January 1996, which dumped about 30 inches of snow on South Jersey.

Each time I wear the boots calls to mind the distance I’ve traveled geographically and chronologically, and they remind me of John, who was best man at my wedding and died at 64 in December 2020.

With more snow likely this winter, the boots are ready to return for a 54th year. The final step hasn’t been taken. 

Tom Wilk writes from and shovels snow in Pitman.

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