I bought my first pair of Chaco Sandals in May of 1997. A seemingly meaningless purchase, it nevertheless had outstanding repercussions for the rest of my life.
Until that particular moment in time, which occurred while I was standing in Back Country Outfitters in Blacksburg, VA, my wardrobe had been noticeably dated. Sort of like the 1980’s met with K-Mart at a Holiness Tent Revival and bought some clothes. Serviceable enough for hard labor, jeans mixed with the appropriate flannel or t-shirt for everyday wear, jeans with white shirts for church. There was also the requisite Carharrts for the work I did; coal mining, heavy construction, farming, cooking, and all the brutal exercise associated with those tasks.
Interesting enough, the clothes I purchased for work were the most expensive items in my closet, or more accurately, on the floor of my closet and some would argue the most stylish. There was also the omnipresent pair of camo shorts, rarely worn except to class along with white socks and tennis shoes. Or work boots. I was hopelessly unaware of fashion trends or anything even remotely related to such a thing.
That unseasonably hot, sticky May morning in the top floor of a gear shop was the beginning of a change in my life. I had long been chaffing at the predictability of my future, realizing with an ever-increasing sense of dread that my entire life was unfolding before my eyes, a path, well-trodden by my family and all those others in the small area of the Coalfields of Virginia. I was married, too young. I was graduating from college, too late. I was only a few years older than my peers at Virginia Tech, but I felt ancient and out of place in the classrooms and laboratories where we shared assignments and peered at minerals through microscopes and broke rocks with shiny new hammers purchased from the bookstore. My hammer was worn, rusted, beaten and well used. The grip on the handle was nicked and slick with use. The pointed end was already worn away noticeably by the thousands of rocks I pulled from the top thousands of feet underground, sweating and gasping in the summer, freezing in the winter.
My clothes reflected who I was. I meant to change that. I was uncertain in the store, wondering which shoe to buy and not wanting anyone to know, those suddenly hip workers with their dreads and stinking gear and bare, calloused feet clad in their cool sandals. I felt hulking and hot amongst them, burdened by my jeans, pressed and suitable for church, tennis shoes and long-sleeved lightly starched white shirt with a button down collar. L.L. Bean. A gift from my very soon to be ex-wife.
Subconsciously, I was gearing up for a total shakedown of my life. I had liquidated every asset that I could for cash. I was surprisingly cash rich for a guy not quite graduated from college who was from one of the poorest places in the U.S. I had scrapped, worked, and saved since I was a kid. I picked and sold berries and jam, chased down honeybees through the mountains to rob their hives, fished for catfish which some would still eat, pulled from the still depths of the dying river, stiff with disease and ruined by heavy metal and acid mine runoff. I split wood and fence rails, mowed yards, dug ditches, sold hay, collected metal, worked for my family in their cinder block factory and mining operations.
I swept and cleaned my school after hours, hoarding every dollar I could. I had bought a small parcel of land soon after marrying, a purchase that I made reluctantly, under the advisement of a zealous father-in-law who insisted that I live with his daughter next to his farm. For the rest of my life.
My new Chacos stayed in their box for a few weeks. Maybe even a couple of months. The mining company I worked for rewarded my efforts in obtaining a B.S. in Geology with a huge raise and more responsibility, more hours, more work. My wife set about the business of spending everything she possibly could of my new paycheck. I discovered just how much a redneck girl could spend at Walmart. The answer: All of it.
We somehow ended up with a singlewide house trailer on the back 40 of her daddies’ farm. I worked increasingly insane hours, desperate to save up enough to escape from this prison I was somehow incarcerated in. The money vanished as quickly as I made it.
I still had my stash of money, well hidden in my little sisters bedroom. She is many things as an adult, but then, we were very close. She would have not given up any information on me under the threat of death. All my secrets were safe with her. Her learning disabilities, which troubled most, bothered me not at all and never interfered with our relationship.
So it was that I showed up on my parents back porch one day. They were moving, had sold the family farm. The place had belonged to the Matney’s since way back. My father, under orders from God, sold his birthright to move his beleaguered family to a small shack a mountain or so over. I was wearing my Chacos and my camo shorts. My canoe was on top of my truck, along with a bag of clothing, gear, workbelt, boots, work clothes, and supplies. My sister retrieved the box, stony faced in her shock. She had never shared a bedroom in her life. Now she was to be lumped into a small room with her two baby sisters, a prospect that had her terrified. I took the box and counted out her take. She shook her head no, quickly, and hard. I saw the last of the fight go out of her blue eyes as she prepared herself for the life I was fleeing at that very moment.
Twenty years later, I just bought my third pair of Chacos. They are amazingly tough shoes. I unwrapped the box from Zappos and breathed in the good smell of new rubber and non-slip soles with their network of confusing straps that ensure the shoe stays on your foot, no matter what. I did a bit of a happy dance. My life has changed yet again, as my wife and companion of ten years and our new son journey with me into the uncertain future. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we have learned to make five year plans with no small amount of humor.
We are not rich. My penchant for making money seems to have evaporated over the years, along with my old wardrobes, relationships and ties to my childhood. I say good riddance. As I discovered long ago, with the box of cash under my arm and no plan beyond the next day, life is too short to become entrapped. Live for the now. Right now.
With Chacos strapped to your feet.