Shoe Trees may be the greatest embodiment of the American Spirit you can find on the highway (free of admission charge, anyway). While cultural anthropologists trumpet the aggregated populist statement of the gum wall or the gob rock, we believe Shoe Trees soar to greater heights.
A shoe tree starts with one dreamer, tossing his or her footwear-of-old high into the sky, to catch on an out-of-reach branch. It usually end there, unseen and neglected by others. But on rare occasions, that first pair of shoes triggers a shoe tossing cascade. Soon, teens are gathering up their old Adidas and Sauconys, families are driving out after church with Dad's Reeboks and grandma's Keds. Many inscribe messages on the sneakers in permanent marker -- greetings, love poems and life accomplishments.
The shoe tree blooms with polymer beauty. A work of art like this may last for generations, tracing our history by our sneakers . . . as long as the tree doesn't die or get attacked by shoe tree murderers.
On Highway 50 near Middlegate, Nevada, a lone cottonwood stood, clotted with hundreds of shoes. One tipster told us the first pair was thrown during a wedding night argument by a young couple; later, their children's shoes were added to the bough. Whatever its origins, the tree seemed to suck up all the discarded footwear in the county. Sadly, the tree was cut down by vandals on New Year's Eve, 2010-2011.
The original Mud Flat Shoe Tree south of Altura, California was cut down in 1993, but second generation Shoe Trees sprouted along Highway 395. One of them, the Ravendale Shoe Tree (photo left), features scores of sneaker pairs dangling from branches, a strange ritual by bored locals. Not a fully developed shoe tree, but far from anywhere.
The Shoe Tree in Salem, Michigan even has a legend involving a serial killer and a quantity of small children dispatched for their footwear.
A shrunken old desert tree near Vidal, California , on Hwy 62 northest of the junction with Route 177, bore both shoes and a variety of shirts -- until some maniac burned it down in 2004.
Case Study: The Great Beaver Shoe Tree
The Shoe Tree in Beaver, Arkansas was on the road to Beaver Dam, a few miles from Dinosaur World. It was mysteriously chosen, one of many thousands of trees and woods lining an otherwise featureless highway. Hundreds of old sneakers and running shoes dangled, some over 30 feet off the ground. Why this particular tree instead of its scores of flanking arboreal brethren?
There was a dirt shoulder where tourists and contributors could pull off. Many of the shoes had names and messages scrawled on them in magic marker. Closer inspection revealed that shoes had started to spread to branches on adjacent trees, like sneaker kudzu. Eventually, this whole stretch of road might have been choked with shoe trees.
In 2000, disaster struck. A wind storm felled the Great Beaver Shoe Tree -- perhaps aided by the unnatural burden of hundreds of waterlogged hangers-on. The road department hauled off the branches and fallen footwear, and the mighty loss could be felt across all of Shoetreedom...
But something magical happened. In subsequent months, locals and visitors continued to bring their cast-offs, heaving into the trees surrounding the gap. A few trees contended as replacements for the Great Shoe Tree.
Then some people, recently arrived and living in fancy log cabins nearby, decided they didn't like the attention to their stretch of road. Persons unknown butchered the offending limbs from the trees, wood and rubber and laces tumbling in a shower of horror.
At last report, the shoe trees of Beaver had been severely diminished.
But others flourish in gentler communities. More have been sighted in Nordman, Idaho; Milltown, Indiana; Hodgdon, Maine; Atlanta and Owosso, Michigan; La Crescent, Minnesota; Lyndonville, New York; and elsewhere.