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Missoula toes the line in its beloved Chacos. But what happens when you get cold feet?

Essay by Carli Krueger/ Photo Credits: © Meghan Nolt/Montana Kaimin

If every city is a shoe, then Nashville is a faithfully-worn cowboy boot with aspiration stitched into the conditioned leather.

New York City is a sexy, sleek Louboutin stiletto pump with a red sole and power in every clacking step. San Diego is any sturdy flip-flop that got you to the beach without burning your feet. 

But Missoula, Missoula is the thick-soled Chaco webbed with patterned, polyester straps and a yearning for adventure — definitely the Chaco. 

There’s a certain pride that seems to come inherently with owning a pair. Many people don’t just like Chacos or wear Chacos. They love them and live in them. They are Chaconians. They wear their striking foot tan lines like a badge of honor and could care less what you think about them. They usually go hand in hand with all varieties of Patagonia apparel, a Nalgene water bottle clad in bumper stickers, an off-leash but well-trained black Lab and a firm belief in organic food, but not always. Sometimes, comfort mixed with obsession means the multicolored straps shamelessly clash with a sundress. If Chacos are lucky enough to make it past date two, sometimes they get to go to the wedding — on the bride’s feet. 

The company embraces its customers like a community. (In Missoula, this community includes five stores where you can buy them.) You can sign up on chacos.com to be an official Chaconian. There was even a “Chacos Tan” photo contest this year with categories like “dirtiest feet” and “best in-action shot.” The company has ambassadors — eight adventurers from around the U.S. who test and blog about the shoes.  If anything, the Chaco culture is embracing all the times the shoes become a fashion don’t, which is just about anytime you aren’t actually on an outdoor adventure. 

To Chaconians, the shoes are not just a strapped-on pair of sandals. It’s not just a simple choice of color when picking out a new pair of Chacos. Which pattern do you want? (They all scream “I ate a CLIF Bar today.”) One strap, double strap? Toe strap, no toe strap? (No toe strap seems to be the preferred choice.) What webbing pattern do you want?  Do you want the heavy, traction-oriented Unaweep sole or the lighter weight Yampa sole? They might not be the shoes you use to boulder, climb or highline, but they are the shoes that get you to your adventure and patiently wait in your backpack until you’re finished. They’re the shoes that take you home. Chacos have been everywhere. They’ve clung to wet feet in the Bitterroot, the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot. They’ve hiked up Mount Sentinel, down Mount Jumbo and through Glacier. They’ve been on the north face, the south face and just about any face you could imagine. They’ve explored the peaks of Moab, Utah and traveled to Canada, Australia and even Bulgaria (the locals disapprove). They’ve guarded arches from glass and grime in subways around the world. They’ve been to music festivals, grocery stores and between your dog’s teeth. They’ve even taken a tumble in your washing machine to get the stench of feet and fish out.

In a world where we are encouraged to shove our feet into all sorts of painful contraptions for the sake of fashion, Chacos are a gift from the river gods via creator Mark Paigen. Made with a biocentric, polyurethane foot bed called the LUVSEAT, Chacos are meant to simulate walking on sand or soil barefoot. They keep your gait natural, prevent overpronation (when your foot rolls too far inward) and lengthen your stride. The aggressive arch support is better for you than most open-toed footwear, can improve your posture and help prevent injuries all over your body according to chacos.com.

Missoula podiatrist Karl Mangold recommends Chacos as a summer sandal because you don’t have to alter the way you walk to wear them and the straps keep them to your feet. The supportive sandals can help protect against what Mangold says are the most common foot issues he sees because of poor footwear: plantar fasciitis (pain in the arch) and stress fractures.

In the mid-’80s Chaco was just a couple prototypes that Paigen made from scrap materials, old tires and the like. Paigen, a fly-fishing and rafting guide, had his fellow guides test out the shoes in the canyons of western Colorado. In 1989 Chaco became a full-fledged company with the Elon as the first model. By 2009 the company sold $20 million worth of Chacos, building its own shoe cult. In the 2000s the company began outsourcing its manufacturing to China — which angered certain Chaconians’ national pride. In January 2009 Wolverine World Wide Inc. bought the Colorado-based business it moved to Rockford, Mich. (Most of the manufacturing process of custom Chacos is completed in Rockford — at least enough to market the shoes as “Made in the USA.”)     

Now, fall is here. Chaconians, beware.

The sun sets early, and the temperature drops. It’s time to surrender your strappy sandals for something warmer. Or, you can take a cue from Grandpa, slip a pair of socks on before you strap on your river shoes and accept your life sentence to Joan Rivers’ Fashion Correctional Facility. Chacos become “Sockos!” 

Please, don’t. Wearing them with your adorable sundress was already crime enough. 

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What's a Chaconian?

You are Chaco!

Chaconians are our pride and joy! They pound pavement, trails, and waves. They teach, reach, and perform. They're people who trust their Chacos, and we're honored to support them.