By Stacey Wittig -

stacey wittig making a sad face at her walking bootMy hiking boots have taken me along 1000 miles of trails in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. I found them five years ago while on a travel writing gig with AAA Arizona Highways Magazine in Taos, New Mexico. The top-of-the-line New Balance high tops had an original price tag of over $250. I scored half off. We walked New Zealand's iconic Milford Track together. We schlepped the backpack from Lourdes, France, to Santiago, Spain, and besides other trekking adventures
, trod many miles over Arizona terrain.
Since the boots are no longer available in stores, I scoured eBay for the past year for a replacement pair. Unfortunately, I could not find the correct size, so in April when I left for the 1000-mile walk from Le Puy, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I was wearing my old boots and praying they would go the distance.
Ian, a sprite 40-something must have prayed the same thing as he left his home in Paris for Le Puy. The smallish man of Vietnamese descent started his trek in his favorite, but well-worn Solomon hiking boots. Within the first 20 kilometers, the soles had totally separated from the uppers at the toes. The front of each boot looked like a laughing mouth. Ian was fortunate enough to find some hay binding twine in the surrounding farm fields. He closed the sneering smiles of his boots with the cord and continued forward.
I met him at the first pilgrim albergue on the pilgrimage route from Le Puy. He showed me his boots sporting his own big
 grin. "When I arrived, I asked the hospitalero 'Do you sell boots?'," the Parisian told me. "No, but what is your size?" the host asked. "Eight," Ian answered. The host disappeared for a few moments and returned with a pair of slightly-used size eight hikers. Another pilgrim had left them behind weeks before. Ian was grinning because he just received the first of several boot blessings that were to come. I thought, "And who wears a Men's size eight? Not a common size."
Two weeks later we met Atina along the way. She wore unusual trousers that caught the springtime breezes with their wild red and yellow billows of fabric. On her broad back was a petite schoolgirl pack and what wouldn't fit inside, she carried in two haute couture shopping bags. Large red earrings dangled from her ears setting off her wide cheeks and shiny black skin. Multiple braids and a single boot swung in time with the syncopated rhythm of her unsure steps. "Not a typical pilgrim," I thought. "Maybe she is on holiday." As we passed her for the third time -- there were a lot of starts and stops that day -- I greeted her, and she joined our little band of pilgrims. Later fellow pilgrim Michel said, "With that one boot dangling from her pack, I thought she was baba cool, French for 'Jamaican hippy high on marijuana.'”
Turns out Atina is a highly educated woman who speaks near-perfect French, English and more including her native language from Benin, Africa. We laughed and sang as we got to know each other while walking hours through the countryside of Southwest France.
Atina sitting on a chair in an albergueWhen our pilgrim group stopped at an ancient fountain to refuel water bottles, Atina gasped in disbelief, "I have only one boot! Where is the other?"
"Since we met you hours ago, you've had only one boot," Joseph, the Belgian, laughed. Atina's vivacious countenance suddenly turned grim as her mind raced about what to do. "I should turn back and go look for it," she said.
"Maybe just trust and let it go," I offered. Atina would have a difficult time getting a bed in the next albergue if she went back. Moreover, what were the chances of finding one small boot in the vast French countryside? Atina mulled her options, and you could see in her face the moment she let it go. We again laughed and talked along the way to our sleeping place, one of five or six in the next French village.
In the modest albergue, each of the four sleeping rooms contained four simple beds. When Atina was shown to her room, there was her missing boot! "My shoe walked into my bedroom before I did," exclaimed Atina. Martine, another pilgrim whom none of us had met before, had found the boot and carried it with her. Who would know that the owner of the boot would be staying in the same room? Atina received the second of the boot blessings.
My old New Balance hiking boots made it the first 500 miles. However, the Vibram soles were wearing thin at the heels. By St Jean Pied de Port on the 19th of May, one heel wore so low that it exposed a deep hole into the interior of the boot. "I'll have to buy new boots in Pamplona," I predicted to Joseph and Michel. But once in Pamplona, the Spanish town famous for running with the bulls, I could find no boots in my size. From previous trips, I knew of several sports shops that had walls full of boot options, yet upon tracking down each store, none stocked my size. After running through the narrow streets in search of boots, I was tired and exasperated.
Michel and I stopped and asked some locals for another option, and they sent us to a large department store. I felt a wee bit strange in the chic, upscale store looking and smelling like a road-weary pilgrim. Truthfully, the high-end makeup counters that I passed had me lusting for moisturizing makeovers. The piped-in music was occasionally interrupted by in-store advertisements. Unfortunately, none of the well-clad fashionistas who worked at the place spoke English. And since I'd just spent the past five weeks walking and talking with Francophones, what little Spanish I knew flew out of my mouth in French.
My exasperation mixed with frustration as we searched floor after floor and weirdly, culture shock started to set in. One well-meaning clerk, amid the 4-inch heels in the shoe section on the fourth floor, tried to sell me fashion boots. "Por Camino," I tried to explain.
"Arriba," she said. "Up." So up the escalator, we rode to the next floor where the case of elevators seemed to end. With no boots on that floor either, my patience gave out, and I had "had it." Ready to give up, I told myself with disgust, "Well, I guess this is a sign to stick with my old boots." At that moment I heard Nancy Sinatra's voice telling me, "These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do. One of these days these boots are going to walk all over you! Are you ready boots?" The piped-in music was broadcasting a song that I hadn't heard in years, and I immediately knew that my new boots were somewhere in the store.
At the seemingly last escalator, I found a clerk and asked, "Donde esta las botas por el Camino?" My Spanish was coming back with Nancy’s encouraging words. The clerk showed us to the "secret" escalator on the other side of Floor 5, and we entered Floor 6 into a space, full to the brim with sports equipment and apparel similar to an REI or Decathlon shop. The third boot blessing? The song encouraging me to keep looking for my new boots, which in fact I found and bought at the unlikely high fashion department store.
“Unstoppable Stacey” Wittig, a travel writer based in Arizona, wrote this article for Pinewood News in June 2016. Follow her adventures at