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He was looking for custom made boots. The journey led to a life deeply touched by love and death and learning

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All my life I have looked down on them.

How could I not?

Cantilevering my legs as architectural wonders of the world, they are inevitable. No foundation, my feet are statements, emphatic dots at the base of an exclamation mark of 6 feet and 5 inches.

I stopped measuring them years ago. 14s? 15s? 16s? Restrict? Super narrow?

Bring me your longest and narrowest shoes in stock, I would tell the clerk who would appear with a dusty pair from a forgotten corner of the back room. If they fit, I would inquire about the inventory.

Italian leather? No. High stairs? No. Crocs? Become real.

Motorists come and go from Vernal, Utah. As a teenager, Randy Merrell helped run the family farm and one of his duties was a monthly trip to the city to have his father's shoes repaired.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

As a separate republic, my feet were deposed years ago, and the peace we have kept has never been easy. I once traveled through the Montana wilderness, 111 miles in 10 days, in a pair of hiking boots that I thought would fit. In the end my feet looked like the remains of the battlefield of Verdun: blisters, birthmark and duct tape.

After years of disagreement, I decided to hit a detente. Instead of forcing my feet into ill-fitting shoes, such as an arranged marriage, I started looking for true love. I would buy a pair of custom walking shoes.

Column one

A showcase for fascinating stories from the Los Angeles Times.

My journey began in March with a plane to Colorado, a connector to Utah, and a rental car in front of one of the country's foremost boot manufacturers. Randy Merrell, who lives just outside Vernal, assessed and measured, sketched, cut, stitched and nailed leather into soles to connect me to this dream.

For 10 days he played host to me and my wife and invited us to his house in the evening, where we warmed up in front of a wood burning stove while telling us his story.

More than a bootmaker, Merrell, 68, is something of an armchair theologian, and we listened attentively to the mysteries of a life deeply touched by love and death and leather.

Randy Merrell

Shoemaker Randy Merrell is among the instruments of his profession.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

::

Philosophers say that eyes are the gateway to the soul. I would say it is the feet, this strange collection of ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones, partners in the evolution of a knuckle-dragging past to four minutes of miles.

Feet have a talismanic grip on our psyche. Reflexologists manipulate them and inquisitors hit them on the ground. Parents play piggy with baby's toes and lovers suck on it.

Yet, so far from our brains and so close to our heart, they carry our weight and carry us forward, but they weigh us down. Itchy, sweaty, lumpy, they contract mold, develop hammer toes, calluses and corns. They put on sock fluff and they sweat.

Randy Merrell

In his workshop, Randy Merrell inspects the fit of trial boots made from packaging tape on Tom Overton, a lawyer from Evergreen, Colo.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

So when Merrell, who is an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took my feet in his hands, I wanted to shrink. He was, after all, a stranger. But I was surprised by the thoughtfulness of his touch.

Neither the size, the narrow-mindedness, the fallen arches, emerging callous nodules, a single callus or two, Morton's toes (second toes longer than the first) nor – which is certainly a sign of evolutionary progress – the absence of baby nails deterred him. He simply noticed how flexible they were and seemed blunt.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said.

::

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell and Preston Barker, his apprentice and business partner, work together to remove the outsole of a customer's boat.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

Merrell & # 39; s journey as a bootmaker began when he was a teenager and saw a pair of Tony Lamas in Salt Lake City – brown lizard-wing tips, pointed toes, buck-stitching, burgundy upper and a quarter-inch heel – and he was beaten .

But his father, a hard-bitten soul, said no, forcing Merrell to skimp and save and lay the $ 67 himself.

Merrell and his father had a difficult, if not confused, relationship. "If I did 98 things right," Merrell said, "I would be disciplined for the two that were wrong."

Yet the two remained close. "I worshiped the ground on which the man walked," said Merrell.

As a teenager he helped run the Vernal family farm – 40 acres of Arabian horses – and among his chores was a monthly trip to town to have his father's shoes repaired. The old man had a clubfoot – divine punishment, he believed, because his parents fathered him before they married.

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell cuts leather for a modified pair of boots. He often uses the word & # 39; magic & # 39; to describe his work.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

That is a way to understand why Merrell became a boat maker. More than an exchange, it is a dedication, a remedy and a reconciliation for a man with whom he struggled.

The next stop on Merrell's journey was the city of Apucarana in Brazil, where knocking on doors was considered rude. So, Merrell, on a mission for the church in the early 1970s, clapped hands in front of a shoemaker's house, and Pedro Barrato welcomed 20-year-old Mormon.

Barrato was a & # 39; wizard & # 39 ;, said Merrell, watching the shoemaker cut pieces of leather by hand with a saw blade. His only machine was a polishing machine and a sewing table with a pedal. Merrell paid $ 13 for a pair of Barrato's calf-high, black leather boots with heels made from aircraft tires.

Once home, Merrell boarded a Trailways bus to Denver and an Amtrak coach to Boston, where he enrolled at the Lynn Independent Industrial Shoemaking School and learned the finer points about pattern making and machine maintenance.

On New Year's Day 1975 he hung a silhouette of a boot in the front yard of his father's house and waited for customers.

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell, right, and Tom Overton compare two types of leather on the hood of Overton's SUV to decide which will be used to make his boots.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

::

The late winter landscape of Eastern Utah was beautiful and severe when we were there. Fields were buried under a blanket of snow, a sea of ​​whiteness driven by scattered farms.

Every day I drove west out of town on the straight arrow roads of the Maeser municipality to see how my boots took shape in Merrell Footlab, three miles from the turn to Dryfork Canyon. Further up the road is the cemetery where Merrell buried his son Luke, his wife, LouAnn, and where he will one day stay.

Merrell's workshop and home are shelters, large Quonset huts covered with concrete, rebar and 3 feet of soil. Deer driven by hunger sniffed through the dry grass that grew on the roofs. The honking of Canadian geese flowed through the valley.

Merrell could never imagine living somewhere else, and he doesn't have to. The world has come to him. Initially it was for his western boots with their exotic leather and chic stitching – but one day when he read the Backpacker magazine, he saw the potential for a market dominated by heavier and stiffer European styles.

Randy Merrell

Preston Barker, a student and business partner of Randy Merrell, smooths the sole of a customer's boat after removing the outsole.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

He started to develop hiking boots that were better suited to American terrain, and in 1981 he wrote a seven-page feature on selection and fit. Shortly thereafter the telephone rang.

Two entrepreneurs from Vermont wanted to make a deal and with their support the brand – Merrell Boots – was born. What started as a garage company in the backyard, became a business of millions of dollars in two years.

But the Faustian bargain he made with the investors could not be sustained. He often traveled for work, and Merrell became a stranger to his wife and their four young sons, and after five years he ran away. Today, Merrell Boots is part of Wolverine World Wide and Merrell has no formal relationship with the company.

With the help of LouAnn, he started to keep his trade on a more modest scale, to make seminars for making boots and to expand to include orthoses. Soon customers from all over came to him.

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell measures a shoe last for a customer. Unlike other items of clothing whose loosening can be remedied by a belt or safety pin, a shoe is less forgiving.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

Most came with feet that all Foot Lockers and Boot Barns in America could not help – the substandard, the oversized, those damaged by industrial accidents, those with congenital diseases – and Merrell helped them find their way.

"In the beginning I just wanted to make nice boots, but all these problems came in through the door," he said. He couldn't ignore them.

There are other tailor-made boat manufacturers in the country – half a dozen according to internet accounting – but Merrell does not claim that they can provide podotherapy. He would rather not talk about the price until he has made a consultation. Each foot is different, and my estimate – in thousands – was a measure of my uniqueness.

By the end of the first day he had studied my leg lengths and steps. He had traced the circumference of each foot, measured them in five places, and found the number and letter to describe them.

The average shoe size in America for men is 9D.

Mine were 17AAA.

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell inspects the fit of custom-made boots for Tom Overton, a lawyer from Evergreen, Colo.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

::

Merrell often uses the word & # 39; magic & # 39; to describe his work, and I understand why. Building custom shoes is a change in shape.

It starts with the last – rim shot, please – an easy joke among shoemakers. In their box, one last is an accurate model of the foot that replicates its length and width, its protrusions and cavities.

Merrell develops paper patterns from the last minute. He then cuts the leather, sews the pieces together, stretches it over the last and adds the soles. He swings his wand from foot to shoe, changing three dimensions into two and then three again.

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell inspects the customized boots from Tom Overton. Merrell does the math: if you weigh 200 pounds and take 10,000 steps a day, you put 1,000 tons on your shoes every day.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

Unlike other items of clothing whose loosening can be remedied by a belt or safety pin, a shoe is less forgiving. It must not only fit, but also be sustainable. Merrell does the math: if you weigh 200 pounds and take 10,000 steps a day, you put 1,000 tons on your shoes every day.

Standing between workbenches and sewing machines, belt sanders and hand tools, Merrell started building my boots, helped by Preston Barker, 24, who started working here two years ago as an apprentice. Barker had delivered household appliances and jumped when Merrell offered him the job.

If he hadn't done that, Merrell claims, the company would never have survived.

::

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell sees his grandchildren playing during a sacrament meeting as part of a service in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Rock Point Chapel in Vernal, Utah.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

One Sunday I went to Merrell for the weekly sacrament meeting in his church, and during a short breakout session, the conversation shifted to the role that accident plays in life.

A woman told the story of a visit to a neighbor with a steep driveway. Snow had fallen and her truck slid on the slope until she filled the bed with wood. The message was clear, especially to Merrell.

"We need a burden to advance spiritually," he said.

His burdens started to accumulate almost 35 years ago.

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell walks to a priesthood meeting in his church. Feet and faith have carried pilgrims through life for a long time, and they have also supported Merrell on his journey.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

The company started and he had started building on the earthen structure that would become his workshop. One afternoon in November – with the shell of the building completed – his father built the layer of earth on the roof when the bulldozer he drove broke through. He died of a broken skull.

Twenty-two years later, Merrell was on the field when LouAnn called for him. An accident had happened at the White River Bridge where their son had gone abseiling. A knot had slipped and Luke had fallen. Merrell and LouAnn arrived just before the paramedics and found the 24-year-old "in a pool of blood".

Two years ago he and LouAnn walked in the Grand Canyon with a daughter-in-law and her teenage son, Jackson. They crossed Tapeats Creek and the water came halfway up the thigh. They had their walking sticks and held each other's backpack straps.

Then someone slipped and then another one. When Merrell fell to his knees, he looked up and saw LouAnn and Jackson being carried away by the current.

Neither survived.

"I'm probably more broken than I look," said Merrell.

But sadness is not something he shuns. He speaks freely to those who want to listen.

"When I was young and worked at my father's farm," he said, "I learned early on that the closer you are to the horse, the safer you are because of its stairs and bites."

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell at the grave of his son Luke. He also visited his wife's grave. Sadness is not something he shuns. He speaks freely to those who want to listen.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

::

Feet and faith have carried pilgrims through life for a long time, and they have also supported Merrell on his journey. What happened at Tapeats Creek was as terrible as the aftermath was extraordinary, and his faith gave him the understanding and power to explain the inexplicable.

"Where there should have been screaming and screaming and hectic terror, there was no," said Merrell. It was as if someone had pulled a veil over his eyes and "an umbrella of calmness" had come over him and his daughter-in-law Julie, and he knows why.

During that dark night in the wilderness before the helicopter arrived – and four days of searching began – his father and Luke approached them. To ease their last breaths, Luke & # 39; s spirit joined LouAnn and Jackson. To provide comfort and comfort, the spirit of Merrell & # 39; s father stayed with him and Julie.

Randy Merrell

A photo of LouAnn and Randy Merrell is in their living room. She died in a walking accident.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

& # 39; I just know, & # 39; Merrell said, tapping his chest, & # 39; that it was my father. & # 39;

His conviction is supported by a church where the scrim between earth and heaven is easily separated and couples that are once sealed are reunited in heaven. Life is not a series of random events, but instead filled with signs for those who want to see.

He knows that many will say that his beliefs are a mask for pain, fear and doubt, but that hardly matters. Just like Job, he does not ask why he carries this burden. He only knows that his faith enables him to find meaning in these losses, to know that the dead walk among the living and guide them in their encounters with the world.

That rejection is stealing the consolation he has found and discrediting what many others desire in pain.

::

The day Merrell finished my boots, I tried them. While I was standing in his workshop, I felt something new going through me. Instead of making a joke – an easy reflex about these feet of mine – I felt a touch of sadness and joy as if I had finally been able to accept what I have.

Two days later Merrell took us for a ride. We headed east out of town in the direction of the Green River for a walk. The rolling plateau lay in the snow so that I thought we were flying over clouds from the car.

We arrived at the Jones Hole Fish Hatchery and in the parking lot I put on my boots, the distinctive blue laces a counterpoint to the undamaged brown leather. They were, in one word, beautiful and as reserved as I was to sand them, I waited anxiously for the scars.

Randy Merrell

Randy Merrell departs on one of his most visited hiking trails near his home. He knows that many will say that his beliefs are a mask for pain, fear and doubt, but that hardly matters.

(Isaac Hale / For The Times)

The path followed the east side of Jones Creek. Fishermen in waders fly in the boiling water. We trudged through the snow that lay on the ground in pieces, red dirt turning into mud.

The gorge is filled with old boxes that had not yet broken out and above us sandstone rocks climbed like skyscrapers. We stopped two miles down to study icons of sheep, handprints and swirls on the walls.

While we quietly walked back to the car, I thought of acceptance.

No matter how much I fought against my feet, I realized that I had no right to anything less. We can shake our fists to fate – whether it's a pair of clumsy feet or a heartbreaking loss – or we can understand that life doesn't follow a script, not a fixed plan.

We are only responsible for finding our own peace.

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