Paul Newman wore them well in "Hud." Clint Eastwood looked like he was born wearing them in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." It made sense to have Mel Gibson wear them in "Lethal Weapon," really just a buddy western set in 1980s Los Angeles.

I've always wanted cowboy boots, but would they look as cool on me as they do on those Hollywood tough guys, or would I look like Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis on "Peewee's Playhouse"?

There was no better place to find out than in Santa Fe last week, where my wife, Betty, and I were on vacation.

As we drove around northern New Mexico, I half expected to see Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and the rest of the Magnificent Seven galloping across the horizon.

The snow-capped southern range of the Rocky Mountains provides a stunning backdrop for tricolored mesas, cliffs and assorted rock formations that look like the planets Buster Crabbe explored on the old "Flash Gordon" show. Other areas look like the sprawling, pine-infested Ponderosa on which Little Joe, Hoss and Adam Cartwright used to roam. In that environment, the call of the Santa Fe Boot Co. was too loud to ignore.

The shop, smaller than my classroom, was crammed with boots from floor to ceiling for "cowgirls" and "cowboys." The only clerk was a smallish man in his 60s, a Willie Nelson sound-alike from West Texas.

His western garb was no costume. He began his professional life as a cowpuncher, but now spends much of his time singing with the Santa Fe Opera Co. Between boot customers, he studies his script for "La Traviata," his next assignment, or embroiders Indian bead designs on denim jackets.

Early on, I realized the pointy, high-heeled variety weren't for me. They pinched my feet. But I did learn that cowboy boots are of a utilitarian design. They're pointy so that when John Wayne mounted his horse, he could slip his feet into the stirrups without looking, and the high heels made sure his feet stayed put. The height of the upper boot kept the brush and chaparral at bay when Matt Dillon chased the bad guys out of Dodge.

I settled on a "ropin' boot," far less pointy and with a "walkin' heel." The Dijon mustard-colored ostrich skin is soft and supple. They make a statement without screaming, "Howdy, I'm a yahoo from New Hampshire. Wanna play Cowboys and Indians?"

I wore my new purchase out the door, and spent much of the afternoon catching my reflection in Santa Fe shop windows. But after walking and driving around for several hours, I went back to the boot store to ask what to do about the red irritation forming on my right upper calf.

The pony-tailed tenor in the black Stetson pulled up his jeans and declared, "See, you gotta wear really high socks."

So then it was off to Wal-Mart to buy the kind of knee-high white socks Julius Erving used to wear when his 76ers battled Larry Bird's Celtics. Instant relief. I wondered if Gary Cooper had to solve a similar problem during the filming of "High Noon."

My boots elicited compliments later that week from shopkeepers in Santa Fe and Taos. But what will the ladies in the deli department at the Londonderry Shaw's think? My sixth-grade students? My mother-in-law?

Who cares? I'll stop worrying and wear my boots with pride, assuming an air of confidence and steely resolve, like the heartless gunslinger Henry Fonda played in "Once Upon a Time in the West."

John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead. His column appears Wednesdays in the Derry News.

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