On the way home from Truckee on Friday, I did something I've been meaning to do for awhile. I stopped to take photos of our local shoe tree. What's a shoe tree, you ask? Really? You mean, some of you don't have a local shoe tree?
Come to think of it, I guess I had never seen a shoe tree until we moved here twelve years ago. Oh, I'd seen the odd pair or two of shoes hanging from overhead telephone lines. But not the roadside community art project that is a shoe tree.
As you can see, this shoe tree is out in the middle of nowhere. Or at least it seems like it, specially to folks who are just traveling through the area. We have a lot of those people. Where we live is rarely someone's destination, but it's a lot of people's "we've been through there" route.
I still remember the comments of a friend, traveling up from the San Francisco Bay metropolitan area for the first time who, upon leaving Interstate 80 behind for the isolated north/south stretch of California's Highway 395, imagined some sort of Mad Max desert roamers and feared for her and her small son's safety. It's interesting how the known is more comforting than the unknown, even if the reality of it doesn't match our imaginings. I think that her busy city streets, filled with hordes of strangers, were probably a more dangerous place to break down in one's car. Out here I suspect the only one she'd meet if she got lost or stranded would be a rancher willing to go out of his way to drive her into town.
This tree is on Highway 395, just a dozen or so miles north of the Nevada border. (395 starts out in southern California way down in the middle of the desert, follows the eastern slopes of the Sierra Mountains, slips into Nevada just before Lake Tahoe and then after it cruises through Carson City, Reno and Sparks, it slides west back into California. Or rather, California slides east back across the highway. The highway continues north and slightly east, parting ways with the mountains after the Sierras give way to the Cascades, finishing up just before it hits the Oregon border.)
It's not the original local shoe tree. The original one was a grand old cottonwood that really WAS in the middle of nowhere, farther up 395 about an hour north of Susanville. It was cut down by vandals about the same time we arrived and I have never seen it except in photographs and one memorable poem read by a local woman during open mike of a evening's Words and Music program.
The community was really saddened by the loss of the local landmark and efforts began almost immediately to start a new shoe tree. Several different trees on assorted local highways were decorated with a half dozen pairs of sneakers and old boots, but after a few years all of them lost their shoes or were cut down, I assume by the landowners who didn't want the honor of hosting the next tree.
This new tree sprung up after a while and for some reason, probably location (on the busiest highway within a hundred miles and because the tree stands alone at a easy wayside pull off), it had the makings of a new legend. The shoe crop then began to bloom in earnest.
A number of years back the regional Caltrans District (California's Department of Transportation) got a new manager. He was not a lover of the arts. In fact, he ordered his crew to de-shoe the tree on a regular basis. This didn't rid the landscape of the shoe tree however. In fact, it seemed to have the reverse effect, making it more beloved of the population. Each time the tree was plucked bare, shoes soon flowered the tree again in even greater numbers.
The manager decided he would not lose his battle against what he saw as an eyesore on his kingdom and the tree selected to be cut down. Fortunately someone leaked the news to the community and a cry and a roar went up all over northern Nevada and northeastern California. The media covered it. The newspapers wrote passionate essays about the freedom of expression. A petition was created to save the tree and quickly signed with thousands of signatures. In the end, the people won. The tree was saved.
Not long after that a huge windstorm swept through the area and damaged the the shoe tree. It lost a substantial part of its center and most of it's smaller branches. Caltrans pruned it best they could and then, ironically, asked folks to stop putting shoes on it as they were afraid it would kill the tree in it's weakened state. Less shoes floated amongst it's branches for a time afterwards but that only seemed to make the tree look even more abandoned and sad. I think it missed it's visitors and it's creative purpose.
In recent years the tree, albeit a bit worse for wear, is again laden with a bumper crop of shoes and seems happy under it's burden. There are almost always people stopped under to switch drivers or check a map, sometimes even setting out a picnic or resting in the shade. Lately I've noticed more and more people stopping to photograph the tree. After everything it's gone through to survive, like it's predescessor, like it's fellow shoe trees scattered along roadsides far and wide, it deserves the homage.