From the Pennsylvania coalmines to the Oklahoma cattle pastures to the Texas oil refineries to the Louisiana wetlands, these boots have carried me.
I wore them the night I covered my first hurricane alone. Prowling Gulfport Beach, awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Gustav for TIME, I knew that come hell or high water, my feet would be dry.
I wore them the day I stood in Pearlington, Mississippi for Christian Science Monitor. With my keys locked in my trunk, staring two water moccasins in the eyes, I was glad I’d listened to my editor and traded the tennis shoes for something more substantial.
I gleefully stomped them across a dawn-streaked wharf in Pensacola, hours before witnessing the scuttling of the U.S.S. Oriskany — and subsequently throwing up from the deck of my chartered boat as a pair of French journalists held my head up and laughed at me.
I covered Hurricane Katrina in these boots. Ivan, Gustav, Ike, and a half-dozen lesser storms. I stood knee-deep in BP oil and mud on Biloxi Beach and cried, knowing the Gulf Coast was forever changed. I wore them to Logan International, Philly International, Detroit, Charlotte, and a half-dozen airports in between.
I got blood on my boots in Baton Rouge. Catfish guts in Grand Isle. Motorcycle grease in Irving, Texas. Manure in Stockyards City, Oklahoma. Flood waters in Nashville. Mud in Memphis. Snow in Kentucky. Tequila in Tulsa (followed by vomit in Tulsa.)
I painted my house in these boots, and every fine splatter is a happy testament to a time in my life when the world seemed mine, conquerable with nothing more than a pen, a paintbrush, a camera, and a pair of Timberland boots.
Two weeks ago, I laced up my boots and went to Smithville, Mississippi to cover an EF5 tornado. The devastation was like nothing I had ever seen. The heartbreak was overwhelming. I walked on broken glass, children’s toys, pieces of roofs, cars, sheet metal, and things so mangled I couldn’t identify them.
I didn’t notice my boots, because this is the beauty of a good pair. They keep your feet dry, protect you, and quietly do their job. When I got home that night, I realized that my trusty companions were shredded. But they kept my feet safe so I could concentrate on my images.
A normal person would buy a new pair of boots, and maybe I will. But for now, these are held together with duct tape and memories.
Music: Remember the Name by Fort Minor (lyrics)