Sayonara, shoe tree

The ghostly apparition arose like a Kerouac-ian hallucination from the barren desert. It was Day 2 of a mega-slog from Colorado to California on what my newly betrothed had just informed me was “The Loneliest Road in America.”

Spanning from Salina, Utah, across Nevada’s empty Great Basin to Reno, U.S. Highway 50’s moniker is well deserved. With I-80 doing the heavy lifting a good hundred miles to the north, HWY 50 has literally been bypassed by modern times. Only a few small, shabby former boom towns remain along the desolate two-lane roadway, bearing hardscrabble names like “Ely” and “Eureka” harkening to a gilded era gone by.

The big excitement thus far on 50 was eating dinner in a former jail cell – nothing says ambience quite like cross bars – and blowing a couple Jacksons on the slots before retiring for the night in the retro chic of the Copper Queen motor lodge. The following morning, I assumed my shotgun position and prepared for another grueling day of look-alike mountain ranges and high desert solitude, where even mileage markers can seem exciting.

Thus, when the odd specter loomed larger, I briefly wondered if our trusty ’89 Loyale had sprung a leak in the exhaust system and I was succumbing to the early stages of carbon monoxide poisoning. Nothing for hundreds of miles – no people, animals or recognizable life forms – and now this?

“No way,” I muttered in disbelief as we passed, my face plastered to the window in order to get as close a gander as possible. “Did you see that? It was a … a ... ,” I struggled to come up with a word, or words, to explain the sheer bizarro-ness, “… a shoe tree.”

We whipped a u-turn and headed back to make sure that in fact, I had not been the victim of a drive-by dosing that morning at the Gas-Mart coffee urn.

Sure enough, there along the loneliest road in America, was one of the strangest sights in America: a 70-foot ancient cottonwood literally dripping in old and discarded shoes. Reeboks, stilettos, Air Jordans, ropers, Chuck Taylors – you name it – hung, thickly entwined, from the tree’s branches like a scene from a Hitchcock movie. We pulled off and jumped out of the car, just because when the biggest excitement for the day thus far has been a jack rabbit migration, a huge tree covered in old shoes is downright mind-blowing.

And a little creepy, in a Twin Peaks sort of way.

“This would be a good place for a murder,” the spouse said, eyes glued to the spectacle of dangling shoes above him.

As alarming as the statement was, he did have a point. The arroyo from which the tree arose was choked with thousands of old shoes that didn’t quite stick the landing. Now littering the ground, they would be the perfect place to hide a body, gangland style.

And then there was that smell – a heady mix of high desert sage, Odor Eaters and pent-up road-trip pee. But not even the smell could drive you away from stopping and staring in slackjaw awe at the shoe tree. Was it a Satanic ritual? The work of aliens? Imelda Marcos? Who was responsible for all these shoes? And didn’t they have anything better to do? Or were they road trippers much like ourselves,

driven to the brink of insanity by so many monotonous miles that they finally hucked their shoes in utter frustration. Except the only thing to huck them at happened to be this poor, unsuspecting tree which was unlucky enough to be within striking distance of the road.

I suddenly had a pang of guilt for the tree and tried not to think of what happens when it rains and the thousands of shoes fill with water, and its poor limbs sag with the weight of thousands of pounds of old rubber and leather. Indeed, the tree looked sturdy enough, and even was sporting a few leaves. I figured perhaps it was happy enough just to be alive in this godforsaken place – even if it meant being festooned with size 12 Rockports.

We snapped a few pictures for posterity that day, and over the years, returned during various road trips to pay homage (but never in footwear-flinging form, I might add) to the massive and noble tree. And with each trip, the tree seemed to somehow miraculously grow even more shoes.

When it came time to haul the offspring across that empty expanse known as the 36th state, during semi-regular pilgrimages to the West Coast, we dangled the shoe tree like a carrot. When “Sponge Bob” lost his luster, and the “alphabet game” came to a screeching halt (lack of material), the shoe tree was always there for us.

“Only 50 more miles to the shoe tree,” we would string them along. “Whoever sees it first, wins.”

And thus started what has become somewhat of a tradition for our family. Some have Disneyland, others have the beach. We have the shoe tree. Even the family mutt looked forward to what must be canine olfactory nirvana.

Alas, had we only known our most recent visit, Dec. 23, was to be our last, I gladly would have sacrificed my husband’s old Jack Purcell’s for the cause, maybe even the black crew socks, too.

See, last New Year’s Eve, the shoe tree was ruthlessly chopped down in the middle of the night by chainsaw-wielding cowards, taking with it all its wonderful, quirky, creepy weirdness. Saddened and sickened residents in the nearby burgs of Austin, Middlegate and Fallon, Nev., awoke to find their beloved landmark lying on the ground, drowned in its own memories and sawdust.

Seems somebody out there wasn’t as tickled at the thought of so many people’s feet commingling in the same place. Or perhaps it was a mercy kill for the bedraggled cottonwood. Or maybe they didn’t like a bunch of Colorado hippies stopping and gawking on their land (to which I say T-shirts and souvenirs = gold mine. Duh.)

For now, however, we can only speculate, mourn and wonder: If a shoe tree falls along the Loneliest Road in America, and no one’s around to hear it but a bunch of beer-swilling bubbas with power tools, does it make a sound?

I can only hope so – and a screeching one that will haunt their tree-murdering consciences for years to come.

As for the rest of us, may the shoe tree live on in our hearts. And rest assured, you can’t keep a good shoe tree down – in fact, word has it, socks are already springing up from a nearby bush.

– Missy Votel



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