Wednesday, June 5, 2013

"These boots were made for walkin', and that's just what they'll do..."

We’re on the road to Austin, Texas, with a 100-degree tailwind blowing across the prairie at about 25-30 miles/hour. I look in the rear view mirror as San Angelo quickly recedes into the background, with its ring road and everytown USA malls sprouting up like crabgrass along the wide concrete ribbon, and remember a conversation…

Momentarily escaping the concrete heat downtown and hungry for adventure, we slipped into an antique store, occupying a space that had been re-purposed from a business a century or so past and unknown. We wandered the aisles of glassware, cases of pockets knives, old watches, dishes, furniture, and after staring in wonder at the large collection of early Americana African American racial kitchenware, salt & pepper shakers, cookie jars, and flour containers, a man in front of us turned and asked us where we were from. For just a millisecond. the thought crossed my mind as to why he would ask a question like that, but reason quickly caught up with my visage of long red/violet hair and two pounds each of silver bracelets on each tattooed arm. That and perhaps the conversation between Ruth and me as to whether or not America had really changed as we stood in front of the display case, speechless at the "mammy" cookie jars, trying to keep our jaws from dropping. The man in front of us was smartly dressed in pressed trousers and sport shirt, and neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair. Speaking with a slow Texas drawl, he informed us that he was a rancher, and in town killing time as his wife attended a teachers' conference. We got to talking about the weather, as most initial conversations begin, and learned that this part of the state was in the midst of a brutal drought. It did strike me, as he spoke, that during our long drive across Texas, every river and creek we crossed was dry. He continued to describe the necessity to sell off his livelihood, cattle, in order to survive, and told us that this was happening across the region. With no respite in sight, the rancher reminisced about the droughts of the past, the last of which was in the mid-60s and lasted for 5 -6 years. I thought to myself of the cyclic patterns of weather in this region, particularly the great dust bowl years and how lives were so drastically changed. Much of the migration to California came about as a result of this tragic period, yet much good did come with this change as well. As anyone who saw "The Grapes of Wrath" remembers, the Joads escaped to make a better life, becoming Route 66 road gypsies. But then there are those who never leave. In particular, and most fascinatingly, families and communities that live directly in the path of tornadoes, storms, and other natural disasters that are wiped out numerous times and continue to rebuild. The sense of belonging to a place is powerful. The contradicting forces of wanderlust and being rooted in place are equally strong and very much a part of our American history. Texans are poster children for “place pride.” Everywhere you look you see the evidence of this: posters, flags and pendants, billboards, bumper stickers, and vehicle medallions, clothing and tons of "State of Texas" tattoos on huge tracts of human flesh large enough to represent this country’s second largest state.  Oh yeah, there is lots of pride!

One of the most prominent brands of Texas might be the cowboy boot, so ubiquitous a representation of our rough and tumble, independent, “go your own way,” fun-loving, mind set. Purchasing cowboy boots in America is a no-brainer, 99.9% of which are mass-produced in Mexico or offshore. To those discerning seekers however, there are a few remaining “real” old fashioned bootmakers left in America. One of them, M.L.Leddy’s it just so happened, was located just down the street from Sealy Flats. We felt a strong itch to go in and were blown away. If you are a lover of cowboy boots, let me warn you, DON'T click on this link! We fell down a craftsmanship rabbit hole that stretched back in time close to one hundred years. They had many samples of types of boots of every design imaginable, but of course you can make whatever you want. I began to sweat and shake with desire like a heroin addict in need of a fix, and lifted up one very stunningly beautiful alligator skin sample to discover a price tag of $7000! Yes, my heart sank and yes, I counted the number of zeros to be sure that in my excitement there wasn't a misread. This is where the ZZ Tops, Vegas performers, country music stars. and just plain rich ranchers buy and have always bought their boots. Our store guide, Jason McClelland, proudly pulled down a volume, one of perhaps 50-60, filled with page after page of personalized drawn footprints and every detail necessary to build a custom boot. He then asked if we were interested in going into the factory to see them in action! Crap, we said yes!

Immediately upon entering the door the smell of leather hit us between the eyes like a tannery mixed with the soft soothing smell of a soft leather jacket. Station after station of craftspeople, most of whom had been with the family and company for several generations, were totally focused on every stage of boot building. We observed how each section is cut, stretched, sewed on antique Singer machines, turned inside out and right side in, blended with pure leather innards, more leather linings, solid leather and hand shaped toe sections, soles, 24 penny nail instep shank construction, custom dyeing, and much more. The "lasts" which comprise the foundation of each boot are saved for posterity, and lining the walls of the small factory were hundreds of them marked with their owners' names, many of whom probably had been dead for years. We could have stayed and watched each person in the process for hours but we couldn't monopolize their time. Jason shared the founder's and each generation's, now three, since them, vision of quality and it was an honor to spend time in this magical place. I tried valiantly to convince myself and Ruth that I wanted to buy a pair. The time to have them made I had--one year. The money though, I couldn't drag into existence despite a lot of rationalization...oh what comfortable boots they would be! How unique! They could be whatever material or shape I would desire, elephant, sting ray, ostrich, alligator, human....ah, not! Rumor has it in local legend that these boots were so prized by cowboys that some chose to be buried with them on. Ruth brought me back to reality and even now, as we leave San Angelo in the rear view mirror, I pine for those boots...

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