Who makes the best sandals in the world? The Italians? Maybe once but not anymore. Morocco. Nope. China? Are you kidding? Colombia? Nope. Peru? Nope. Brazil? Nope. Think again. Mexico. That’s right Mexico; more specifically Michoacán.

Mountainous Michoacán; the land of avocados, back to back to fiestas, ear shattering Banda music, carnitas, hot salsas, sultry women, hard mustached men, and laughing bright eyed children.

In the northwest corner of the state lies a town that produces the country’s artisanal huaraches. The large city of Leon in the state of Guanajuato lying to the east produces the country’s boots and shoes but it is in the small town of Sahuayo that the sandals known as huaraches are made.

If you are thinking that huaraches are only those crude looking old leather things that are nailed to soles made out of car tires you are only partially right; that’s the old school style. Some things down here are slow to change and one of those is the huarache.

The town took little notice the day I arrived. And why should it? I might have been the only gringo visitor for miles and miles around but the town had its time honored routines that were impervious to change. Still it didn’t take long at the El Cito Cantina before I got introduced to a few of the huaracheros. I got invited to visit some of their shops and after looking around for a week or more I started asking a few questions. ‘What if we wanted to make a different kind of sandal here? I knew that they’d been making those huaraches the same way since the days of Moses but what if we wanted something a little more contemporary? And what if we made those sandals out of only the finest leathers imaginable? And what if we stitched those contemporary designs onto soles cut out of recycled airplane tire?’

Those were by no means revolutionary ideas; they were just different ideas that came from the same wellspring of practicality. And why couldn’t someone other than the Italians make originally beautiful leather sandals but make them more awesomely comfortable before putting bottoms on it them that don’t wear out?

Material speaking airplane tire is to automobile tire what carbon fiber and titanium is to cast iron; its way lighter as well as way stronger. And because it is made for one of the most critical services in the world it is also pretty indestructible. And because the material is thin as well as an ubiquitous color of black it marries perfectly to the greater contemporary design aesthetic.

But answering these questions created some problems. What? You want to make a sole out of airplane tire and stitch it to a beautiful leather sandal? We don’t do that here. We don’t know what that is. What would you call that? That’s not a huarache. We make huaraches here. Those were a few of the answers I got back. Frankly speaking that wasn’t a big surprise; I knew it was always hard to undo the incumbent and the whole ‘not invented here syndrome’.

And I had totally expected that my sandal mission would be counter-intuitive to some of the local craftsmen; more than a few tried to get on board but some just couldn’t wrap their heads around the heresies that broke them from their tradition.

And tradition was that you took stiff leather and configured it into a time worn indigenous pattern before nailing it to a heavy sole cut out of a car tire. And best local practices dictated that the sandalias – the more stylish and more prettily crafted sandals – the sandals that the huaracheros made to compete with the Chinese and the Brazilians – were glued (although they looked stitched) to a pretty looking synthetic sole; which of course in short order wears out and falls apart along with the rest of the crappily made sandal.

No one, and I mean no one, foresaw a retro market that might be quality driven; combining beautiful with an heirloom quality aesthetic. Everybody here in Mexico had been drinking the Chinese Kool-Aid for far too long and all of the local craftsmen were as a result locked in a competitive death-spiral with both the Chinese and the Brazilians. For example the Chinese might flood the Mexican markets with 150 pesos sandals (say for a specific set of women’s styles) and both the Brazilian’s and the Mexican’s are forced to follow suit or die. Of course prices would fall further and as they fell so did quality. The losers were everyone (including the consumer) except for the country with the lowest labor cost (China).

But thankfully a few craftsmen embraced the change and a new sandal company was born; Sahara Sandals. I know it’s not very Mexican sounding but the naming decision was made long before I discovered Sahuayo and quite frankly I am inclined to be more sentimental towards my only child, Sarah, from which the name was derived.

So what exactly gives? A gringo mucking around down in Mexico trying to make a go of a sandal business named (without benefit of the back story) after that big desert in Africa. I know it sounds like it could be pretty stupid.  And if it turns out to be a mistake I will confess upfront that it wouldn’t be the first time; I’ve made mistakes before. But I have to say given the design successes and some of the sandals that we’ve now produced, I’ve gotten pretty committed to this sandal business idea.

But I recognize that there is always that chance that people back in the states won’t embrace the quality nature of my sandals. It’s not like American’s hadn’t already created a pretty successful track record of choosing low price and convenience over quality. So I recognize that maybe my fellow citizens are going to stay pretty happy buying the cheap crap coming out of Asia.

My testimonial is that I wear these sandals every day. Comfortable; so damn comfortable in fact I expect to die and be buried in a pair. I also run 2 hours a day a pair; my newly created most awesome running sandals. So simply put – I am down here, committed; just wanting to be making sandals that’s all. Not ordinary sandals but quite possible the best sandals in the world.

Now keep in mind that I never saw this coming. I never planned on getting into the sandal making business until I discovered that good sandals were a very rare commodity these days. With the exception of a few custom shops, like a place I know in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, a person pretty much has to leave the United States to shop for good sandals. Yes, I’ve looked online but I could never conclusively find anything met the criteria.

So after many disappointing sandal shopping excursions and after buying lots of pairs over the years I’d come to that opinion that the perfect pair just didn’t exist and so consequently I kind of fell into settling for wearing sandals that didn’t make me happy.

I had a foot injury, which I’ll explain later, that made me realize how a simple thing like foot wear can make the difference in the whole happiness equation.

After some simple study I have discerned that the perfect pair of sandals has 3 characteristics: they have to be comfortable, they have to wear for years, and they have to get more beautiful over time.

I guess I really didn’t know till recently that I had been on the sandal quest for 30 years.

I had bought sandals all over the world – six continents and who knows how many countries – and most recently bought sandals for Sarah and me in Italy on the island of Capri. I loved the styles that I bought there but I found that they weren’t particularly comfortable and they didn’t like to stay on my feet. The pairs I bought in Colombia the year before were handsome but uncomfortable as hell. I just couldn’t reconcile myself to a lengthy break in period. And Washington, DC summers where I was living at the time might have had longer summers than Northern Michigan where I grew up; but not by that much. And it didn’t seem right that I should have to nurse a pair of knotty, stiff peasant sandals till they might someday possibly loosen up. I tried to make them work but in the end I just couldn’t get used to the uncomfortably thick toe thong..

So way back when, before I decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns, I considered different options. Buy local? Nope. Every shoe department in Washington, DC like most everywhere else in the United States sold pretty much the same thing. Sports sandals and flip fops; all invariably made in Asia and all out of the same cheap synthetic materials. I couldn’t really find anything that was a better value proposition so I settled for one of the Reef brand’s flip flops. That model had a comfortable leather upper but the sandal could only deliver a single summer’s service because like clockwork on September 15th the synthetic bottom that it was glued to wore out.

I got positively angry the 3rd time that happened. I do not like stuff that wears out. I have long subscribed to the notion ‘buy the best you can afford and cry only once.’ And I do not like it when some company perceives to play me for a fool. Nor do I like being part of a relationship that has me situated always on the losing end of the proposition. And I find the hypocrisy of making and selling shit that wears out to be positively appalling; 80% of everything we buy ends up in a landfill in a few months time.

And every company out there purports to be green but that is mostly their creative sales and marketing talking.

Historically I had long preconceived opinions about foot wear; some of which weren’t necessarily correct. I used to be a distance runner but injured my left foot 10 years ago and I thought that I never would run again as my foot just kept getting weaker. I found and read ‘Born To Run’ and after more study realized that the traditional treatment and therapy for foot problems like mine were totally upside down.
Born To Run inspired me and got me back on my feet and running once again; this time in the barefoot minimalist style (shoes w/o orthotics) and long story short, it wasn’t long before I was back to distance running again.

So what did that have to do with the sandals? Two significant points – first, as my feet got stronger I discovered that my feet loved that new minimalist structure. So much in fact that it wasn’t long before I couldn’t comfortably wear normal shoes anymore. My feet no longer needed things like arch support. Two – I, as a grumpy old man and persnickety old-school engineer, finally made up his mind not to buy anymore of those sandals that wore out after a single season. And furthermore, I vowed not to buy any company’s products that were created with a specific shelf-life; great for the economy (esp. China) but infuriating for someone me.

So I had a dilemma that was compounded by the fact that my side interest of running had somewhere along the way overtaken my career interests.

I was fortunate for the timing because the complete lifestyle overhaul I had done a few years earlier meant that I no longer needed to fund a lifestyle upkeep because at that point I didn’t really own anything anymore. I had gotten rid of my car years before and sold my last house in 2007. So it wasn’t hard to conclude that I could opt out of my present job of fetching shit for assholes (aka defense related engineering in Washington, DC) and follow those new found interests to see where they led.

So once I made up my mind it took all of about 30 days to give up both my small Capitol Hill apartment and my engineering career. I gave my daughter the last of my favorite stuff including all my books, the handmade bookcases, the matching pair of leather chairs, my Moroccan carpet, a few good pots and pans, and assorted odds and ends.

I packed my remaining stuff into two bags then boarded a plane the next day for Mexico City.

And in the end it was as simple as that; I was headed south to find the huarache trail.

Italianos

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