Xtratufs, Bogs, Muck Boots — comfortable, waterproof footwear is pretty much a necessity here in Juneau. But not for the local some know as “the barefoot guy.”
“Oh yeah, barefoot guy! What’s the story?” Juneau resident Michael Boyer said. “Is he a hobbit? Is he into New Age spiritual stuff? Don’t his feet get cold?”
Boyer lives in the neighborhood above Juneau-Douglas High School. As he’s out walking his dog or with his kids day-to-day, he’s noticed a certain walker who also frequents the area.
“Rain, shine, 10 degrees, 70 degrees, uh, never any shoes,” Boyer said after submitting his question to KTOO’s Curious Juneau. He wanted to know more about the mysterious man whose bare footprints crisscross the neighborhood.
One 30-degree day, I had my own sighting downtown near the State Office Building. The ground was slick with ice, and across the street, a bearded man in cargo shorts was walking — without shoes.
I introduced myself and he laughed in a “not again” kind of way.
I met Ezra Strong on a sunny day in late March for a hike along Dredge Lake Trail. Several inches of snow were on the ground. He wore shorts, a light pullover and, of course, no shoes.
Strong grew up in Tenakee Springs, the youngest of six kids. He’s 29 and works in IT for the Juneau School District, where he has to wear sandals.
Strong’s brought a book with him for the hike, just something he pulled off the shelf at home. He often reads while he walks.
As we set off, I noticed pretty quickly that Strong seemed to fare better than me in a lot of the slushy spots.
“Stuff like this, I’m probably better off than most people in shoes,” Strong said. “Actual real ice? Not so much.”
Strong said he would love it if they made micro spikes for bare feet, but he makes do.
Gravel sticking to his feet is probably the most annoying thing he deals with.
Of course, the main question is why go barefoot at all?
“My right foot is defective. I was born with a birth defect, apparently,” Strong said. “I think it has something to do with the shape of the arch.”
One of his older brothers had the same issue.
Doctors told their parents the solution was to break the foot and reset it.
Doctors did that for the brother, but by the time Strong came along, his mom hesitated.
“I guess she didn’t want to have to put another kid through having his foot broken, so they just never did it to me,” Strong said. “So, getting stuff that fit me was a pain.”
Strong’s right foot is abnormally wide. And people with weirdly shaped feet just don’t have a lot of options.
As a kid growing up in a rural community, running around without shoes was no big deal.
Strong moved to Fairbanks for college. Winters were colder and he didn’t have a car.
For the first time, his feet started drawing attention.
A reporter for the student newspaper at the University of Alaska Fairbanks did a story on him.
Then the questions really started up.
“Facebook and that sort of thing were just becoming a thing,” he said. “I started getting these weird emails from people on the East Coast who had read this.”
Strong doesn’t understand the fascination with his feet.
For him, it’s always been about comfort.
Strong experimented with different sizes, styles and brands, but nothing works. He owns a pair of 15-year-old running shoes — They’re about two sizes too big, and the sides are almost worn away.
“The shoes hurt pretty bad too, but it’s better to have the shoe pain for 15 minutes to go jogging than it is to deal with having a shattered callus for the next three days,” Strong said.
He’s experienced mild frostbite, cuts, infections and cracked heels. He uses over-the-counter products like Flexitol, a cream with shea butter and aloe, to help heal.
But it’s not as easy as it used to be.
“As I get older, my theory, again, is my body takes a little longer to recover and to repair,” Strong said. “It’s been getting worse.”
Not long ago, he reached out to a California startup company that 3-D prints shoes.
Their custom-sizing model seemed promising. But they told him they’re in the middle of a transition period and not accepting orders.
Strong said he’s hopeful technology will eventually catch up to his feet.
In the meantime, it’s not all bad.
“I have to say, I love being a bad influence for children,” Strong said. “The idea to these children that you don’t have to wear shoes for your entire life seems to startle them and I have seen more than one child, when they see me pass, sit down on the sidewalk or the beach and start trying to pull off their own shoes.”