A Recklessly Picaresque, Highly Philosophical, Gloriously Unmapped Road Trip in Search of Secret Places You'll Have to Find Yourself

Tracking the elusive Western Shoe Tree

May 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
I FOUND THREE shoe trees: a juniper and two cottonwoods.

I also found the sites of two former shoe trees felled by persons unknown but probably drunk. One chainsawed stump was four and a half feet tall, leading to speculation that the vandal had been "either quite tall or standing on something like the back of a pickup." I didn't find three other shoe trees people swore existed sure as dogs bark. I heard of a shoe tree two mountain ranges west, somewhere along the redwood-and-hash-pipe stretch of the California coast. I didn't investigate, as my source had proven himself a fabulist.

I met a guy who told me they don't make shoe trees like they used to.

Two of the trees held a couple of hundred pairs of shoes each. The third, a 90-foot-tall cottonwood, held about 700 pairs. Another few hundred lay by its foot. Shoe trees rarely contain single shoes—those are best found in borrow pits and cineplex parking lots. People commonly tie tree-shoes together with laces, but most anything will do: twine, rope, wire, lanyard. I saw clogs on a fan belt, Converse low-cuts on a leather belt, and cowboy boots tied through the backstraps to a bicycle chain.

This brings up the sole ecological downside to shoe trees—besides their breathtaking tawdriness. God, as best we know, did not intend trees to bear the extra weight of hundreds of shoes—especially snow-filled or rain-soggy shoes. Heavy-with-shoes tree branches snap prematurely. When wind catches shoes, they sway, and laces, wire, rope, and fan belts act like slow saw blades. All those shoes under the big cottonwood were still attached to three snapped branches—each big around as my shoulder at their base.

Most shoes in trees are athletic shoes. Call it 80 percent. Most are white. Most are low-tops. All those soles look funny from below: intricate as Beardsley illustrations, earnest as Methodists.

Then come boots--work, hiking, cowboy, and rubber. Then sandals of all sorts; then thongs, clogs, pumps, loafers, oxfords, baby shoes, and desert boots. Maybe brogans, but I'm not sure what they look like. I saw cleats, track spikes, wedding and prom-fancy pumps, reef walkers, scrubs, ballet slippers, figure skates, and one pair of Uggs. In one tree hung a pair of carefully oiled and well broken-in S.H.A.R.K. Ruggers; in another, a pair of pristine Air Jordans. I saw a pair of expensive loafers and dreamed myself, ineffably handsome, wearing them and sipping grappa at Caffe Sotto Il Mare. In that big cottonwood hung a pair of lie-to-me red high heels. Next to those was a pair of screamin' green Grinch slippers, nestled on a branch like Alice's caterpillar.

Humans can't help but accessorize. I saw two foot-tall stuffed Santas in branches, a headless pink flamingo, a broken ski, a Colorado Rockies baseball cap, a can of Bud hanging from its plastic collar, a bicycle-wheel rim, two pairs of sunglasses, a deer tibia, a butane lighter tied to a sock, and a bra large enough for a whole house of Alpha Phis. I was told of a prosthetic leg. Under the big cottonwood were two car tires and a busted-in microwave oven. I don't think they had been thrown into the tree. In general, though, shoes in shoe trees outnumber non-shoes like spaghetti outnumber meatballs.


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