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
IN THE BEGINNING, MY QUEST FOR shoe trees—otherwise normal trees into which people have taken to throwing shoes—was less an exercise in running down something fresh (for I had never heard of such things until my friend Mary Ann told me about them) than in running from something stale. It had been a mild, puling winter in Missoula, Montana, where I live, and its incessant lack of drama had become unbearable. The day I headed out, the place was in an entr'acte: homicide season just ending, tycoon season many weeks off. I was seriously bored with the mumpy cloud-cover, with the dusty, wormholed snowbanks that lingered like they were fighting extradition, and especially with the usual cast of dozens: failing llama ranchers, pan-flute buskers, foaming nihilists, soccer trash, microbrew snobs, emu speculators, and optometrists down from Lethbridge looking to abuse our speed limits.

So off I went. It was a tolerably blithe journey, though not without small perils. Had I traveled in a straight line, I would have made it to Miami. Instead, I described a giant loop, from Montana through Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho again, and back to Montana. For a while I was close enough to Wyoming to see it. I went something like 3,200 miles— all but 120 of them on two-lanes.

At times I traveled fast as a scalded ape; at others, slow as a mule cart. I climbed serpentine grades, descended their glassy far sides, crossed lonely, ancient basins. I bucked winds that hit like sacks of late mail, rolled past church marquees reading God Is Still on the Throne, motel marquees touting Horse Corrals and Direct Dial Phones, bar plaques reading Free Beer Tomorrow, rest room signs reading Quiet! Genius at Work, and mini-mart signs reading I Woke Up This Morning with One Nerve Left and Damned but You Just Got on It.

The West, I feel, is a forthright and humorous land.

I hit a three wood at a golf course with no grass. I spoke with strangers who determined me crazy, others who found me admirable and wise. A man offered to sell me a town. Another asked why, if runaway children's pictures were on milk cartons, runaway trucks' weren't on oil cans. Ha ha ha, he said, poking me hard in the chest.

I broke calf-deep into a thin-iced highland fresh. I tore my wrist deep on bramble; ruined my sharpest chinos slipping down a gulch wall of gumbo. Once, screaming for unspecific joy and rattling east at 85 per, I lost a baseball cap out the car window.

I gave liars credit and disbelieved truth-tellers. I crosshatched counties large as states in states large as countries. I followed scars posing as roads and faded tracks not shown on any map yet drawn. I passed a school whose teams are nicknamed the Tarantulas.

I drove into a sunset so glorious I thought God deserved a raise.

MARY ANN had shown me photos of shoe trees. She's an artist. She thought shoe trees interesting. Populist objets d'art. Some damn thing.

Claptrap, I said. You're twisted, I said. Lay off the cadmium yellow, I said.

To me the trees were jimcracked, disheveled, tacky. Especially tacky, even by the standards of the intermountain West—America's fertile crescent of "'n' Things" shops, wooden lawn whirligigs, and teenage blond homeys in shants, copping attitude in Orem.

And nothing—not the bracing elixir of the open road nor my up-close encounters with the trees themselves—changed that opinion. But an odd thing happened: I became fond of the ugly buggers. And very protective of them. So, though I may drop the odd hint, I'm not going to reveal their locations. Partly it's because I feel a profound sadness when reading accounts by recently-returned-from-somewhere tattletales, accounts that turn "new" into "used," and "untrammeled" into "overrun." We seek adventure, novelty, but we demand they be acquired efficiently. We are, many of us, too busy or unwilling to search things out, get lost, fail. Thanks in part to magazines like this one, things have become too easy. The world's nooks and crannies, and the people and things occupying those nooks and crannies, it seems to me, are too accessible, and the coin of happenstance, of serendipity, has become debased.

Shoe trees grow in nondescript, desperate land—"starvation places," as one rancher told me. No one, best as I can tell, owns shoe trees, or wants to, particularly. They are, as yet, mercifully unexploited. There are no shoe tree bumper stickers, or coffee mugs, or T-shirts, or baseball caps. They aren't historical landmarks. They aren't touted by chambers of commerce or tourist boards. There aren't shoe tree chat groups. Or shoe tree clubs. Or shoe tree lobbyists. There isn't a National Shoe Tree Day or a Save the Shoe Trees movement. Ben & Jerry's doesn't have a Shoe Tree flavor. There aren't, as far as I know, any rock-and-roll bands named Shoe Tree. Shoe trees aren't on maps or billboards or Dateline NBC or National Public Radio. There aren't ads for Shoe Tree Expeditions at the back of this magazine. Or lists of the ten best shoe trees. There aren't shoe tree experts.

Shoe trees aren't metaphors. They aren't even similes: They couldn't bear the weight. They are vulnerable, fragile, humble, silly, ungrand things. They don't matter a whit. What a relief.

The one activity shoe trees encourage—throwing shoes into them—is, at most, little more than a spontaneous and giggly one, a minor, fleeting pleasure: like blowing bubbles, making armpit fart noises, calling people up to ask if they have Prince Albert in a can, carving pumpkins, or spinning in place and getting so dizzy you tell your friends you're gonna barf and they all believe you and run away shrieking. There the shoe trees stand: dippy and pure; curiosities; daisies, not orchids. The best ways to find a shoe tree are luck, accident, or word of mouth. They are best happened-by. Side-glanced, not studied. Discovered, not mapped. Stumbled on—perhaps with a little help, as I got—not guided to.

Mary Ann's shoe tree directions were vague—off, at times, by a couple of states. She had lied to me, she confessed later. It was for my own good, she said. She had been right. It was thrilling to find something the old-fashioned way, to track it down, to follow my nose and ears and eyes. To, you know, explore.

And so, for your own good . . . Fly blind, amigos.