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, 2000
Outside Magazine
I SPENT MY FIRST night out in Burns, Oregon. I found my first shoe tree two days later. I found the second shoe tree a day after that, and the third one three days after that.

Only one of the dozen people I asked in Burns had ever heard of shoe trees—a truck driver who thought they had something to do with the Burning Man festival. A girl at a grocery store told me she had never been to Lakeview, the next town south, but she knew how to get there: "Drive 30 miles and turn left."

All in all, I talked to 100 or so people. Eight knew of the trees, but only three admitted to having thrown shoes in them. They did it "Because," "Because," and "Because it's cool, because I wonder what someone who doesn't know the tree is there says when they see it at first. Probably, 'What the crap!'"

THE FIRST TREE WAS A cottonwood in a horizon-huge scoop of high desert. The tree was behind a shallow turnout, beside the cinder-block shell of a former roadhouse a mile south of a former town and 40 miles south of a 113-mile stretch of highway along which I met all of six cars and three trucks. It was a disappointment: a tree with shoes in it. Period.

The day was sunless, bitter, snow-spitting. Other trees were visible only through binoculars. Using shoelaces, I tied together a pair of broken-down Flojos—one of three pairs of thongs I had brought for throwing purposes. I drew back 20 feet from the trunk, swung my arm in big underhand arcs, and let fly, like I was lobbing a new paintbrush to someone up a real tall ladder. The shoes rose, fell. Slipped past one branch; caught the next.

Well, I thought. There we are.

I hadn't said, "What the crap!" on spying the tree, and now, squinting eyes watering from the wind, the only person in the world, staring at some shoes I had sacrificed in a tree, I didn't feel particularly cool. I didn't feel particularly anything. It beat hitting a three-point wastebasket jumper, for sure, but it didn't hold a candle to, say, catching ten consecutive green lights driving someplace fun.

I left. Then, and I don't know why, truly, I turned around and drove back. I hitched up a brown pair of thongs I had loathed since the day I bought them. I tried an overhead helicopter spin. Brought heat.

I must say, those dudes flew. They landed four branches above the Flojos on the south side of the tree.

I started laughing out loud. I couldn't help it.

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