In basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri there was a saying, “If your feet go bad you go bad”. I have repeated it to countless campers and students over the years but like so many things the severity of old time advice is only learned through experience. What did those psychotic drill sergeants mean anyway? For starters your feet are the one interface between you and planet Earth. Other than the occasional crawl or fall our feet are our primary method of movement – hence the term bi-pedal, which we are. Our ability to influence and change our environment, or adapt to it, to travel through and across it, to escape or pursue, is all made possible by healthy feet and legs. It’s something most of us don’t even think about when everything is fine but it’s all we can think about when there’s a problem.
Healing is impaired by the distance from lower legs from body core, so circulation is reduced, even more so when standing. Pressure and swelling can be aggravated by the rest of the body above the feet. Shoes are often breeding ground for bacteria and they hold moisture and heat, all of which can lead to both primary problems and complications. During cold weather the toes and feet get cold quickly and further reduce circulation, robbing vital blood and nutrients from damaged tissue.
Many of my readers have heard the story of the Jamaican who tried to pee on my sea-spine injured foot so perhaps I’ll skip that one, but I have plenty of others to illustrate warnings and possible solutions. Do you remember the tales of Washington’s revolutionary troops at Valley Forge and how soldiers marched through winter with rags on their feet? The first time I found growing rot on my toes my heart stopped for a second and I imagined having my limbs severed by a hacksaw from a Civil War surgeon. Most of life I’ve been without any sort of health insurance so my first thought whenever I have a problem is usually, “how much is this going to cost?” followed by, “well, can I fix it myself?” Remarkably I’ve become a pretty decent self-care giver for mild and moderate issues. That’s one reason I’m writing this short essay. That, and to say I’d rather be poor and free than a well cared for slave. Keep in mind I’m not a doctor and this is not a how-to; any perpetration of backwoods foot fixin’ is your deal and at your expense.
One harrowing adventure that turned out just stellar was on a sailing trip off the NC coast with my good friend Kaitlin. Much like me, Kaitlin likes to go fast. And going fast on a sailboat is a rush you just can’t imagine. We were hitting the open ocean on a 14’ catamaran, with an extra jib sail, the day before hurricane Charley arrived. It was smoking! Some series of decisions, however, including me picking her up in the surf mid-session and heading back out, resulted in us having one life jacket which she donned. We were catching air every so many waves until we hit a rogue crest that buried the boat bow and flipped us end over end. The ship mast was grinding into the ocean floor as the 8+ foot swells rose and fell. Not having a life jacket meant I could get around much faster in the righting process, and I’m so glad it happened fairly quickly. I have since hit total fatigue on a capsized boat and that’s no fun. As we walked away from the landed craft, safely on shore, I noticed a small puncture in my foot. A wire cable had penetrated the skin on the bottom side as I scrambled around trying to get the boat turned over in the heavy wind. That wound gave me no end of trouble for many, many weeks, even months, proving difficult to close and heal and I was constantly battling against severe infection.
Another tale almost saw my foot lost, for real. After wrestling and having my ankle ground away basically to the bone, on the inside of my right leg, I cleaned it with water and went on about my business. The ensuing infection knocked me down and out. With greyish tentacles reaching outward from the throbbing and inflamed wound site I was unable to walk, even hobble much, and the initial medications received from the school nurse at UNC-A were ineffective (despite her valiant attempts at ‘abrading’ the tissue, a term I loathe to this day). Some mix of prior knowledge and primitive intuition brought me to the right pharmacy, which happened to be in my backyard at the time. The window of opportunity had almost closed as I was unable to drive and barely saved my foot. Do you want to know what substance it was? I’ll tell you, but keep reading.
Back in the day when I spent every day under the trees and stars, that wonderful time of my life I call “living in the woods”, which I did, there weren’t many socks to go around. My old shoes were constantly wet and my habit of changing socks every couple of days (mostly without washing) seemed to be adequate. I’d occasionally rinse and dry them in a creek, most of the time this process was fine. The danger happens when an abrasion or skin break occurs, even a small rub between toes, and bacteria can find a place to set up shop. People often ask what kind of shelter or cabin I built but often times I found a log suitable enough. Lay a tarp or rain coat over a downed log and in warmer months you have an instant dry place to lay your head. The problem was my feet would sometimes stick out in the weather. One particularly bad night, as I snuggled my new pup (one of the original ‘two dogs’) on my chest, the steady rain poured down and my feet got quite damp. I noticed a day or two later how the leather on my shoes was turning green. That’s really not a great sign when the feet inside haven’t seen the light of day since the storm. It starts like an itch - a scratchy feeling with a little burn and tingle between the toes. Ignore it for even a day and you’ll have a bubble of rotting flesh on your foot. Beneath the blackened surface is raw tissue that becomes painful and the whole thing smells like a dead, wet dog. Dead, wet dogs smell gross. Having no health care options except my own body, my mind, and the forest, I discovered an effective way to rid my human vehicle of that pesky condition known as ‘foot rot’.
And before I give away all these wonderful secrets as to how to care and clean a damaged foot I have to mention the bigger picture here. What’s the bigger picture? The bigger picture is diet and daily activity choices. Sometimes it can be frustrating just how radical folks can go with the barefoot doctrine. As in, “I and my kids will not be yoked to imperialist powers and separation from the Earth by a sweat shop made synthetic petroleum based SHOE!” I have known Rastas who are quite determined not to ground out the connection they feel between their living bio-energetic self and the great bio-electrified rock we call Earth. The rubber sole is indeed a major separator between ourselves and the ground we walk upon, but I have also known hippie kids with severe foot injuries and parents who were at a loss as to how to get the embedded glass shards out since they insisted on wandering around without foot protection. Common sense goes a long way. Being barefoot and in the Sun is critical to health in my mountain boy opinion. The muscles of the foot need training, our sensitivity increases when we feel where we are going, and toes can really dry out and get clean rubbing through grass, dirt, and sand. Combine that with the overall emotional effect of sunshine and air and the physical nature of being outside and you have a recipe for excellent overall health. Add to that moderation of sugars and foods that weaken the body’s immune system and lead to diabetes and you are approaching the big picture. The big picture is our foundation as warriors, as human beings. For too long our society has treated the problems and ignored the root causes of just about everything you can name so forgive me if I indulge in a minor rant about foot health starting with Food, Sun, Activity, and Attitude. And as if you needed another reason to skinny dip in some forgotten water hole the sand and water is a scrubber into every foot crevice, keeping us clean and, uh, abraded? I hate that term.
Some foods even increase circulation! Can you imagine? And have you ever tried putting powdered garlic in your sock under the sole, soul, of your feet and then tasted it in very short order? The feet are intake points to the entire blood stream. Think about that next time you step through some toxic substance in a parking lot or a pile of chicken poop. If you find you have cold fingers and toes munch on Almonds and keep plenty of spice in your diet; it will warm you up. Edgar Cayce said an almond a day keeps cancer away so why not try. The cold extremity issue is more pronounced in women than men due to a difference in circulatory systems – coldness means less blood flow, which means less healing of tissue and injury, which means more infection and complication from injury.
So as we zoom in from the big picture and begin to look at foot care at the middle level, I call this the strategic level in my teaching method DST (Doctrine, Strategy, Tactics), we begin to realize anything that promotes circulation is good. So, regular stimulation and rubbing is good. Foods that aid are good. Hot water/cold water repetition is powerful; but as a warning, I once froze to some socks on High Windy with a Boy Scout Troop and burned my toes trying to thaw them out. Moderation is the key here. Mild and temperate is better than frozen and less damaging than hot when thawing toes.
Moisture leads to cold! So take those socks off that you hike in and put them down in the sleeping bag where they will get dry and warm for morning use. If you want to sleep in socks, do like you SHOULD with t shirts and any sleep gear; have a set only for that, dry and warm. It’s so worth it. And instead of super-duper water proofer commando boots on the rainy portion of an outdoor adventure; go sandals. I just had another flash from basic training that’s relevant. Oh the trauma of having everything you brought thrown out on the ground stomped on and tossed in the trash all to the chorus of maniacal drill sergeants with electronic bull horns in your face. The first thing they threw out? Any shower shoes that were other than rubber thin strip flip flops. Why? Bacteria. Foot rot. Useless men. Contagion. But really, those hard core boots are going to get wet in the rain, sorry. Put them away in a pack where they will stay dry for later and put on sandals and go without socks. You’ll be soaked. But then you dry, and when the Sun comes out guess who has dry socks and shoes to put on? Do it, you’ll thank me later.
Ok ok, so how did I stop my foot from falling off? Imagine you have been adapting to the environment for say, I don’t know, millions of years, have one leg, and are yummy. You can’t move or walk or shake off bugs and have a circulatory system that moves slower than my old Datsun 540 hatchback. In fact, you are a tree. What brilliant defense system has the Creator given you to defend against all enemies foreign and domestic? Sap. Pine sap. Awesome. Collected in a plastic bag it can be placed in hot water and made very soft. So a wounded foot immersed in hot and cold water, abraded (ACK!) to remove dead and nuisance tissue, and then packed with soft pine sap and wrapped and elevated – gets better! And fast. The foot rot is much less dramatic, you just pee on it. Wash and scrub, immerse in piss (yours is really ideal here), leave for 15 minutes, then wash again with natural cleaners from the forest or at least warm water if possible. It gets better. It goes away. As for the puncture wound; that was just a constant process of keeping dry, airing out, keeping clean, not re-opening the wound, keeping clean, keeping dry, not letting it dry out too quickly (hydrogen peroxide etc.), elevating, eating healthy, and repeat. Keep clean (no sweaty socks, nasty shoes, etc.) One final problem that pops up for me is peculiar to martial artists. We train barefoot often an a variety of surfaces. Sometimes repeated twisting and turning leads to a build up a huge callouses which can dry and split. The broken skin can run downward and into the foot, is painful, and can be difficult to treat because the outer layers are essentially dead tissue. After bathing sand the area with a fingernail buffer and work down as deep as you can stand it. Then treat as a typical surface wound with some anti-bacterial stuff and a bandaid. Never underestimate the potential of super glue and duct tape used correctly in tough situations. Use shoes during training for a while (which we should do anyway for practicality training), and avoid rubberized floors! They are bad for the knees anyway.
I’m sure after I finish this and put it up for ya’ll to read I’ll think of the best story of all but this is long enough. I appreciate your attention and hope you gleaned some useful information in a context of humor and adventure. I am so over survival books that are the literary equivalent of a remote control manual. It’s a fine line then to also not be too self-aggrandizing and patronizing to an awesome audience of learned folks. All I can do is just be myself, share some information, and put my best foot forward. Take care!