Spaghetti western

What happened to the Aztec Indians? One day there, the next day not. Some say aliens took them, others claim they were aliens. Still others believe they just vibrated to a higher level of existence. Who knows? It’s possible we’ll learn the truth when we get to the end of the Mayan calendar next year. But more likely it’s a mystery that will remain unsolved for some time.

The mystery of where the hell I have been these last many months is one I will solve for you in this post. Last we spoke, we were talking about boots, different types, different looks, different fits. It all seems so quaint, thinking about it now, because something transformative happened between then and now: I have vibrated to a higher level. Let me explain.

In May of last year, I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to visit my parents in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. Hard to believe they’re still hanging in there, but that’s a story for another time. While there, we strolled downtown, like we always do, window-shopping and people-watching. Santa Fe is one of the great shopping towns in the world if you like the kinds of things they sell there – American Indian and Western folk art. I happen to like that stuff. While there, a seed that had been planted in my mind many years earlier suddenly germinated and rapidly grew into an obsession.

Perhaps shooting the shit with you about footwear lo these many moons was precisely the fertilizer that old seed needed. Whatever.

I have always wondered what it would be like to wear custom-made cowboy boots. If you’re a reader of this column, you’ll remember I had a stint in off-the-shelf boots way back in high school. But I’d never had the inclination, nor the resources, to explore the custom cowboy boot world. Well, walking the streets of Santa Fe on that beautiful May morning, the idea would not leave me along, and so, like following a divining rod to water, I led my entire family to the Lucchese Boot Company store on Water Street.

For the uninitiated, Lucchese is not an Italian shoe company. It was founded in in San Antonio, Texas, in 1883, by one Sam Lucchese, an Italian immigrant, and it is a distinctly American company. A Texas-American company. In fact, Lucchese is perhaps the most famous of the traditional, high-end American cowboy boot companies, like Dan Post, Tony Lama and a few others. Perhaps because of its Italian name, Lucchese has always seemed even more exclusive.

Lucchese has had a store in Santa Fe forever, and I have long dreamed of going in with the purpose of buying boots, not just looking. At last equipped with the means to be taken seriously by the staff, I entered the store and was immediately enveloped in the musky rich smell of high-quality shoe leather. This is what I imagine heaven will smell like – this and the inside of an In-N-Out Burger.

What I soon learned is that buying cowboy boots is a rather elaborate process. I walked the aisles of boots in the cozy store for a few minutes and saw some things I liked, but many I didn’t. I realized that if my mission was to succeed, I needed help. Mike, who had been patiently waiting nearby, expected as much. We got right to work.

Fitting cowboy boots is no task for amateurs. But Mike was an expert, clearly the man for the job. He explained how the boots should fit – heel-slip is normal – and helped me sort through the many leathers, finishes, styles, etc., in order to home in on my choice. There were several key decisions – toe, heel, leather and what I’ll call trim/finish. Mike took me to a special waist-high round table where about a dozen black boots were arranged in a circle, toes pointing in, and started showing me the various options. Pointed toe, rounded toe, clipped toe, roper (which is made on a different last [shoe form] than a cowboy boot), as well as all the different heels, some straight, some radically raked forward to make riding easier. Surprisingly I had a pretty clear picture in my head of what I wanted – a roper, which attracted me largely because of the lower heel and the lower shaft (the part that goes up your leg) – with a slightly pointier toe.

So we began trying stuff on. He had a series of try-on boots that were intended to give me the feel of the boot, but weren’t exactly the style I might choose to have made. After trying on a few pairs, all supremely uncomfortable, I started to lose faith in the quality of my footwear-consumer thinking. Maybe these boots were some weird throwback and weren’t actually comfortable at all – explaining why almost no one I know wears them. It had been about 45 minutes, and the family was growing quite impatient — in fact, they were moments from leaving me behind.

Then Mike, the expert, suggested I try on a cowboy boot, not a roper, with a lower heel. I had steered away from the traditional cowboy, as I thought maybe it was too much, on many levels. But he explained that the cowboy last was different and would feel much different on my foot than the ropers. What the hell, Mike knows his shit. After a minute in the back, he brought out a beautiful, simple pair of chocolate brown boots. They didn’t have the traditional higher heel I associated with a cowboy boot, but instead a handsome 1.25” heel that immediately caught my eye. They also lacked the traditional toe stitching that cowboy boots often have, but instead had a smooth leather upper. The shafts were a little lower and a little roomier than other boots I had seen in the store. And the leather, wow, the leather was mesmerizing. I’ve never seen leather like that, a subtle, rich depth of color you could almost taste. I could tell how comfortable they were going to be by just looking at them. I wasn’t wrong. Pulling on those boots I made a noise that other customers in the store could hear, a combination of the involuntary inhaling you make when jumping into a cold pool and saying the word “whoa” at the same time.

I was vibrating to a higher level.

Never have I felt such an instant connection to a pair of shoes. It was true shoe love. I stood there for a minute, eyes closed, soaking it in. I will never wear another pair of shoes again. Whoa. After I snapped out of it, Mike and I got down to business. I decided on that same heel, but with a clipped toe – kind of pointy with the tip clipped off – no stitching and, of course, the rich brown leather. I learned it was called Mad Dog, but was actually made of goat skin. I should have mentioned this before, but one of the remarkable things about the Lucchese experience is the incredible range of leathers they use to make boots. I had no idea there were so many choices – crocodile, caiman, alligator (choice of head or body skin), shark, snake (various kinds), lizard, stingray, ostrich, goat, cow, bison, and even hippo and elephant. Really crazy stuff. Made me think of big-game hunters like Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt. Mike was wearing a beady looking pair of light-blue stingrays that he told me were tough as nails. While fascinated by the expanse of dead fauna, I found myself shying away from the exotics.

After working out the details, Mike told me to expect a four-month wait for my boots. He said this while collecting 100% of the not-insignificant purchase price. I was kinda put-off by this, but he explained that each pair of Lucchese boots is handmade by exacting craftsmen in their Texas facility and that the only way to get boots made to order was to pay up. OK. But the idea of waiting four months for my new love to arrive was difficult to handle – this was the exact opposite of Zappos. I left the store excited to have lived the dream, sad to have to wait so long. But wait I did.

About 10 weeks later, way ahead of schedule, I got home from work to discover the Lucchese box waiting on my chair. I almost fell to my knees. Christmas actually did come early. I felt like Indiana Jones and Sallah opening the stone box that held the Arc of the Covenant – shining light from the rich leather filled the room and took my breath away. Slowly, carefully I selected the right socks from my drawer and slipped on my handmade Luccheses. There was that feeling again – only this time they were mine. And they looked even better, thanks to the clip-toe.

Welcome to a new level of existence.

Sitting here more than six months later, I can tell you that I have worn those boots almost every day. I literally wore them every single day for about three months, before I realized I might wear them out. So I’ve taken a day or two off, here and there, just to give them a rest. And I find myself looking at all shoes differently.

Because make no mistake, I am a new man. The man who occupied this world before the boots arrived has vibrated to a higher plane. He exists in a new place. Today I wear custom, handmade cowboy boots. It’s who I am.