DRY FORK CANYON, Uintah County — Randy Merrell grips the fresh-out-of-the-box Cabela's hiking boot firmly in his hand and pushes its unblemished sole against the whirring blade of the bandsaw.
Less than a minute later, the lug sole has been cut away and Merrell is walking back to his work bench.
"For most people it borders on sacrilege to take a bandsaw to a new boot," Merrell admitted.
But for the man who will wear the boot once Merrell is finished with it, what happens next will determine "whether he can navigate in life or not."
"The secret is the sculpting of it, to get the tip of the boot right and the rock of the boot right," said Merrell, who will customize the boot to accommodate a 3-inch difference between the length of the wearer's legs.
"It's not just adding three inches on the bottom," he said. "It's adding three inches that mechanically work in an advantageous way."
If Merrell's last name — placed in the context of shoes and boots — doesn't sound familiar, it should. Backpacker Magazine once called his handiwork "the most comfortable and functional boots in North America."
In 1981, Merrell helped found the outdoor shoe company that still bears his last name with partners John Schweizer and Clark Matis. The company, now a subsidiary of Wolverine World Wide, earned $500 million in 2010 from footwear and clothing sales.
Merrell served as president until 1986, when he decided to return to making orthotics and high-end custom boots.
It was a personal choice.
"Life was crazy," he said. "The last year I was there, I traveled a full 100,000 miles-plus in one year.
"The relationship between my wife and I was strained," Merrell added. "My four boys would wonder who was the stranger who occasionally walked in the door. I didn't enjoy corporate life."
Merrell, who opened his first custom shop 38 years ago in an outbuilding on his father's ranch, soon opened Merrell FootLab in Dry Fork Canyon, northwest of Vernal. His out-of-the-way location, though, hasn't kept people from seeking out his help for their painful feet.
Last week, a Pennsylvania woman who plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro this summer traveled to Utah intent on having Merrell build her a pair of custom hiking boots. Those can cost between $2,000 and $3,000 a pair.
After meeting with her and analyzing her biomechanics, Merrell recommended a pair of custom orthotics instead.
"That's a $400 or $500 item," said Merrell, who acknowledged that he doesn't get many orders anymore for fully custom boots.
"The time commitment is huge, the (cost of) materials has gone out of sight and I find that by dealing with the biomechanics" it fixes most foot problems, he said.
Merrell's customers aren't just from far-off places.
Michael Durrant lives in the nearby community of Maeser and said he's more than a believer in Merrell's work.
"A believer is somebody who thinks something helps," Durrant said. "I know this helps. It's empirical. It's verifiable. It's demonstrable."
Durrant began having problems with his feet during his junior year in high school. The pain was so severe he couldn't compete in cross-country as a senior. Eventually it spread to his knees and his back.
Merrell convinced Durrant to give his custom orthotics a try.
"I don't have any knee pain anymore; no back pain anymore," Durrant said. "I can do pretty much whatever I want to do."
Now he enjoys running with his 9-year-old son.
"We've shared a lot of time together — running and training — and some beautiful experiences that I would not have been able to do side-by-side with him," he said, adding that Merrell has "blessed a lot of people's lives."1 comment on this story
Merrell said helping people like Durrant is the reason he loves going to work every day.
"To me, that is a payday," he said.