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When Randy Merrell was in college in the late 1960s, he got interested in the outdoors. And like others who discovered hiking at the time, Merrell had to make do with the only footwear available. “They were mountaineering boots,” he recalls. “They were heavy and stiff.” Unlike others, Merrell decided to do something about it.
After stints at shoemaking schools in Massachusetts and Oklahoma, Merrell started crafting custom boots in 1975. At first he made Western boots—he grew up on a ranch, and that’s what he thought would sell—but he also began creating boots for hikers. The all-leather shoes that he made in his Utah workshop were more comfortable than most of the other footwear on the trail at the time, and durable too. At one point, he had a four-year waiting list. Still, the original Merrell might have remained a niche custom boot but for a coincidence. Actually, two of them. And BACKPACKER played a role in both of them.
First, BACKPACKER’s founding editor, Bill Kemsley, decided to invite readers on a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. Merrell, a subscriber, saw the article and decided to join, as the Grand Canyon was not far from his home. After the trek, recalls Merrell, “Bill bought a pair of my boots for himself, plus two others.”
Subsequently, BACKPACKER invited Merrell to write a story about boots and how to choose them. The 1981 article called Merrell “The Bootmaster.” And then came the second coincidence. A ski industry veteran named Clark Matis read the story and reached out to Merrell: Would he be interested in bringing his designs to the masses?
At first, the answer was no. “I was seven or so years into it by then,” explains Merrell. “I was finally feeling some breathing room. I liked making boots.”
But Clark spent three days in Utah, and by the end Merrell was convinced to join forces. “My wife played a part,” he says.
The Merrell Boot Company (with help from a third partner, John Schweizer) grew fast, and the Wilderness, as the brand’s flagship boot was called, became ubiquitous on trails in the 1980s. But Randy Merrell was traveling to Europe four times a year, working with factories and bootmakers in Italy and Germany, and spending too much time away from his four sons. “It was too much,” he says. “I wanted to return to making boots and teaching bootmaking and helping people with their feet.” After five years, he parted way with his namesake company and devoted himself to the Merrell Foot Lab, where he could do just that.
Randy Merrell is now semi-retired, but he still makes custom boots and offers pedorthic services. And recently, he went back to his workshop to craft a new version of the original Wilderness. It’s called the Wilderness Legend ($400), and its upper is made with full-grain Horween leather and a sheepskin lining. It’s nothing like today’s high-tech footwear, which is exactly what Merrell intended.