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Trendsetters find freedom — by baring soles

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Dave Shearer sails boats. He also sells them. He performs both tasks without shoes.

When he's on a Hobie Cat, out in the wind and water, his bare feet give him a grip on the slippery tarp. He finds it easier to work barefoot, too. You'll see him padding across the floor of Sid's Sports, in Salt Lake City, waiting on the customers. Or he'll be out in the parking lot, still barefoot, helping to load a boat he just sold. Having gone shoeless for most of his life, Shearer doesn't notice the hot asphalt.

All year long, Shearer spends most of each day unshod. In this respect, he is a trendsetter. There is actually a national barefoot movement, now, a movement for freedom of dress. It was started by people who think their bare feet are nice — at least as nice as their neighbor's green spiked hair. As nice as the nose ring their waiter wears.

Barefooters promote their cause on the Web (www.barefooters.org and unshod.org/hikers) and through clubs such as "Parents for Barefoot Children" and "Dirty Sole Society" and "Barefoot Hikers." One club site lists 715 Barefootin' Members, including dozens from California, Texas and Florida, and even some from China, but only one member from Utah.

Shearer laughs when you tell him about the movement. Sure he hikes barefoot, he says. But he doesn't consider himself a trendsetter. He's not a member of an organization. He merely finds shoes uncomfortable.

So does Linda Strickland, although she does wear shoes to work at the University Hospital. She's also hiked barefoot, carrying a heavy pack. Rocks don't hurt if your feet are callused, she says.

Strickland grew up in California. Not a day went by when her feet didn't feel the sand. She loved going out on the jetty, loved feeling the smooth granite boulders under her skin. She'd be overpowered by the sensation. "I had to run," she recalls.

If she wore shoes on the jetty, there was no joy, thus no compulsion to run. Also, wearing shoes on rocks made her feel less stable.

Stability, yes. Dean Campbell of Yoga Central, in Salt Lake City, understands stability. He says we take off our shoes to do yoga to connect to the earth. The feet influence how the legs are in space, he says. The legs influence the pelvis, which influences the spine. "Most people do not stand properly. A whole lot of that can be tracked back to how they use their feet and legs," he says.

Terry Smith, a Salt Lake podiatrist, agrees that people who go barefoot all their lives have a unique underpinning. Their toes can spread like fingers on a hand, he notes. But Smith says a good athletic shoe also offers stability and can prevent sprains.

Smith also worries about infection.

Fungus. Bacteria. Like all infections, foot infections are becoming resistant to antibiotics, he says. They're getting hard to cure.

Strickland concurs: City sidewalks are too dirty. She only goes barefoot in her own yard or in nature.

Of course in some cultures, feet are deemed cleaner than shoes. You may be asked to remove your shoes in a Thai or Japanese restaurant, or before entering a house of God. Muslims and Buddhists remove their shoes before worship as a sign of humility.

It's probably not a sign of humility when shoeless Salt Lake teenagers come into Hires restaurant. Still, the waitress will ignore their lapse, because, as the manager explains, they don't like to discourage customers.

And it's not as if health inspectors care how the patrons are dressed. Jana Kettering, spokeswoman for the Utah State Health Department, says there is no law requiring restaurant customers to wear shoes, though owners may certainly require them.

Nor are there laws about wearing shoes while driving, according to Chris Kramer, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Soon, however, the barefoot question will be over for most Utahns.

Winter can't come fast enough for podiatrists like Smith who spent the past few months removing thorns and nails. Not to mention treating another common barefoot injury. Here's how Smith tells that story:

First you are just walking through lawn, loving the feel of bare feet in grass. But then someone tosses a frisbee. You run for it. And that feels even better. You begin to race, jump and frolic.

But then! A sprinkler head! And suddenly your foot is pointing east except for one toe — which is pointing north.

Sometimes fractured toes need to be set. Sometimes they even need surgery.

How would the Barefootin' club members respond to that warning? Probably with a quote from Barbara Holland, "Soul is resident in the sole — it yearns ceaselessly for light and air and self-exposure. . . . Our feet are our very selves. The touch of floor or carpet, grass or mud or asphalt speaks to us loud and clear from the foot, that scorned and lowly organ as dear to us as our eyes and ears."

E-MAIL: susan@desnews.com