I never knew about hillbillies in the true sense of the word. I always thought they were fellas named Bill who took to the hills barefoot with a shotgun in hand, drinking moonshine, with bad teeth and worn-out clothes.

It never crossed my mind that the word had an insulting connotation against white folks who live in the country, like the Appalachians or Ozark Mountains, and therefore isolated or somewhat out of touch.

I cannot say the same for one of my favorite old sitcoms, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” You may have caught a segment from the 1962-1971 series of a nouveau riche hillbilly family that moves to Beverly Hills and shakes up the privileged society with their hayseed ways.

I was up to the foothills of New Hampshire recently and encountered such a family. Here we were, climbing Mount Willard in Crawford Notch when we approached the summit 1.6 miles to the top.

Once we reached the peak, some incredible views unfolded before our eyes on a perfectly clear day. Mountains and lakes were everywhere in sight.

Suddenly out came a guy with long hair and no shoes — barefoot on this rough terrain. I don’t know what made the sight so conspicuous, but my incredulous eyes met his surly feet.

Next appeared his 11-year-old son wearing no footgear, followed by the boy’s mother. Here was a family of shoeless folks who had hiked up and down nearly 6,000 feet over some pretty rugged terrain.

Even with hiking boots, it was a daunting task. I couldn’t withstand such a “feat” or “feet” if you paid me. How the dickens did they ever negotiate all those rocks on the trail? One slip and it could have been a footfall.

Okay, I know about Shoeless Joe Jackson and his baseball heroics, one of the best outfielders of all time, including a .408 batting average in 1911. He got his nickname during a mill game in South Carolina when he suffered from blisters on his foot from a new pair of cleats.

They hurt so much that he took the cleats off and played in his socks. Fans heckled the guy, calling him “a shoeless son-of-a-gun.” The nickname stuck with him the remainder of his life.

There was never another marathoner like Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who won the 1960 Rome Olympics with a time of 2:15.16 — barefoot! Officials couldn’t find him a pair of shoes that fit comfortably, so he felt it best to forego any foot gear.

Mind you, a lot of streets he crossed in the baking son were cobblestone. They had little effect on the runner.

So I asked this barefoot climbing family how they managed the hike up Mount Willard with no shoes. They appeared quite unfazed by it.

“Just fine,” they said. “Some maneuvering, but just so natural.”

My hiking partner was just as amazed and offered this conclusion: Perhaps they had an extra layer of skin and weren’t bothered by it.

I mean, we see and hear of people who walk across a bed of hot coals and others who stand on a platform of needles with no repercussions. I am not one of those. I have a good pair of hiking boots and thermal socks to cushion my feet. Even then, an occasional callous pops up and makes me feel like I'm walking on a pebble.

I remember one hike where the entire bottom became detached from my boot and I was forced to finish the last two miles downhill with one shoe on and the other off. It was somewhat tricky, but we managed.

I see people walking barefoot all the time, whether it’s through town or in parks. I also see signs posted on shop doors, “No shoes, no entry.” I would not want to be inside a store smelling someone’s feet.

“It’s a fad,” I’m told. “Like tattoos. Going barefoot has become a rage, especially with younger folks.”

Sure, my grandchildren don’t don shoes at the lake. And the beach may be another place where it’s acceptable. But a mountain laden with jagged rocks? All three members of this family wore their hair long. I thought they were hillbillies.

So my curiosity overwhelmed me and I dug a little deeper. I found a Society for Barefoot Living that started in 1994. It was all about barefoot hikers who answered the call of Indian Chief Sitting Bull: “Healthy feet can hear the very heart of Mother Earth.”

It further states there is nothing more natural than hiking through nature barefoot. The soles of your feet and toes are wonderful sensory organs and the myriad of feelings you get from the earth, grass, moss, pine needles and mud are wonderful.

As for me, I’d rather have cold feet inside a boot.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.

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