Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Meeting Mr. Merrell

This past weekend Colin and I blasted out to the East Desert (went west last time, going south this coming weekend) to shred the growing-in-popularity Vernal area trails.  And that we did:

Colin rippin' the dez singletrack

Where's Waldo?
It's hard to believe spandex can almost be camo'd in the desert....
It's not quite the same pristine mountain bike environment as some of the other, more famous areas, since we had to share some of the trails with these guys:
but I guess they are better than motos....or are they?  
We did the requisite stuff:  rode a lot, camped, drank beer, etc.  I was also able to fit in a quick run:
Fully embracing my inner dork as I do the activity transition.....
Vernal riding seems to be ever-so-slowly emerging as an mtb destination, but the likes of Fruita, Moab, St. George, and Park City still overshadow it, though not due to any lesser-quality riding.  

We did have the opportunity for an interesting chance meeting. I've had the good fortune of working with Merrell Footwear for the past 10+ years helping them with product testing and design and watched them grow from a fairly niche brand to a major player in a very competitive market.  Today they arguably rule the outdoor hiking/multisport/casual market, and have recently made a big splash with their minimal shoes.  What may be forgotten is that they started out as a classic Boot Brand, and helped define modern telemark skiing with the landmark Merrell SuperComp:

I knew that Merrell was founded by three guys:  John Schweitzer (the president of Garmont USA until about 2009), Clark Matis (still a product developer for Merrell), and a guy by the name of Randy Merrell, whom legend had it hailed from Vernal, Utah.  I have worked closely with both Clark and John, but had never met Randy, who was long gone by the time I came around and  - being from Vernal - seemed to be a bit out of the loop, since Merrell the brand was part of the Karhu team in Burlington, VT before being sold to Wolverine World Wide in Michigan.   I always thought it was a bit odd that an Italian/American boot company had its roots in eastern Utah, but I sorta forgot about it as the years went by.  

That is, until this weekend, when on the way up towards the Uintas to ride the Flume Trail we passed by this sign:

Even though it was Sunday evening, and the fine print at the bottom of the sign says "by appointment please" I told Colin to swing in there.  And sho nuff, there was the man himself:

He's a super nice guy, and invited us into his shop, where - not surprisingly - he still makes boots, though now - as he did in the beginning, before getting caught up in the global footwear market - they are custom. It's kind of a long, rambling story, but basically John and Clark were footwear guys looking for a brand to build, found this wacky dude in Eastern Utah who was a shoe dog's Shoe Dog doing highly-regarded boots, found factories to make them on a larger scale, and built a brand.  

It took a few years, but Randy got burned out on the globetrotting lifestyle of a branded footwear guy and somehow exited the brand that bears his name in order to get back to a mellower lifestyle back in Vernal.  He now has clients around the country who use him to build/modify footwear for their problem feet (hence his preferred title of "Pedorthist", and he says that many of his customers make the journey to visit him as part of getting the perfect footwear.  He was badly stymied a few years ago when he got a particularly virulent strain of West Nile Virus (which nearly killed him and left behind some permanent nerve damage; good reminder to put on mosquito repellent, even in the desert!) but he's back now and lives in a cool quasi-earthen home:

and has a shop with all the various shoemaking gizmos:

Where it began, and will end?  
And then we shredded more singletrack, and headed back home.....

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