The Furniture Stainer Who Stole My Backpacking Boots: A True Crime Story

What is it like to walk a mile in my shoes? Funny you should ask...
What is it like to walk a mile in my shoes? Funny you should ask... Patrick Burke
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Many years ago, after an 8-day trek across Isle Royale National Park, I left my backpacking boots out behind our back door to dry out and air out and kill whatever microbial infestations had taken root in them. I’m not a scientist, I don’t know what was in there, protozoa or something? Amoeba maybe? Whatever it was my wife wanted it far away, and I wanted it dead. We were living in an apartment then, and our back door opened up to an alley, so that’s where they went. I would give it a good week.

After a few days… my boots disappeared. These were my good Vasques. Actually, when I put it that way it sounds like I had other, lesser Vasques. Or other backpacking boots at all. I did not. They were my only ones. They were perfectly broken in and I’d just replaced the old laces with bright blue ones. Love is a strong word for footwear, but I definitely had a good rapport with them. I was angry over their disappearance. It occurred to me that they may have been eaten by an animal. From an olfactory standpoint I could see how they could’ve been mistaken for carrion. But more likely they were removed. I assumed that some teenagers had tied the blue laces together and flung them over a telephone line, or lit them on fire and left them on someone’s porch. Either way, I never expected to see them again.

And then I did.

Who steals a pair of boots, seriously?
Who steals a pair of boots, seriously? Chris Martin

Walking home from work I passed the alley. Down near the end was the back of a custom furniture shop, and there, on the feet of a 6-foot, mustachioed woodstainer were my bright blue laces. On my perfectly-broken-in Vasques.

There’s rarely a mirror around when I lose my cool, but it’s been reported to me by others that my face turns bright red and I shake when I speak. This was the woodstainer’s first impression of me, when I stormed over and demanded my boots back. It went something like this:

Me:  “Those are my boots. You stole my *&%#ing boots.” Woodstainer:  “They were just sitting there, for like a week.” Me:  “What’s the acceptable cutoff time for larceny? Anything over 4 days is fair game? Give me back my *%$#ing boots, right now.” Woodstainer:  “I can’t, I don’t have any other shoes here.” (I paused as I considered his point. I found no workaround for this issue.) Me:  “Well… then just leave them where you found them! Tomorrow!” This was, I imagined, how Clint Eastwood might have handled it.

Do you feel lucky, punk?
Do you feel lucky, punk? Orin Zebest

The next day I opened my back door to find, not boots, but a pair of women’s shoes. Flats I believe. Strappy ones. And very used. I was livid. Face bright red, extremities shaking, I stormed into the alley. The shop was closed. On the lady shoes I wrote “Not my size asshole!” in permanent marker and left them there. The next day the strappy flats were back. On the other shoe (in terrible penmanship) was the snappy retort, “Oh yes they are, Nancy.”

Right now, somewhere out in the world, there is a nice couple who own a shaker-style, white oak armoire. And on the day they purchased it, a red-faced, convulsing, 20-something maniac barged in and started yelling to the furniture shop sales associate about stolen boots and mustaches. It’s something they probably remember.

Me:  “Where the &%$@ is he?!?!” Sales associate:  “Where is who?” Me:  “The asshole who stole my boots! Mustache! Paintbrush! You know who he is, where is he?!”

You can imagine where the conversation went from there. It was mostly one-sided. I shook my way through the whole ridiculous story. The sales associate nodded wide-eyed and politely back at me. Then he asked me to leave. I said I was going to call the cops and I stormed out. Now, you would think that this episode would have been the low point for me. Unfortunately it was not. I actually called the police. About boots. That conversation went sort of badly.

The wilds of Isle Royale, destined to be experienced by a new pair of boots.
The wilds of Isle Royale, destined to be experienced by a new pair of boots. flickNYC

I wish this story had a happy ending, but I never saw those boots—or the criminal mastermind wearing them—again. Based on the thief’s physique my guess is that those hiking boots’ final days on the trail were with me, on Isle Royale’s Greenstone Ridge. But sometimes I like to dream that maybe the boots inspired him to slim down, strap on a backpack, and hit the trail. Other times I dream that the microbes in the boots turned him into 'Patient Zero' in some localized flesh-eating-virus pandemic. Either way, I bought a new pair of Vasque Sundowners the next week, and I still own them. I keep them very, very close.

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