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Requiem for a cottonwood

By Terry Roorda

It’s because I rued the vanishing of roadside America and its quirky Americana that I first instituted the Church of the American Road Experience, which I’ve explained at length in this column in the past, emphasizing our Holy Trinity of the Road: Shoe Trees, Mystery Spots, and Two-Headed Calves. To elaborate even further here, among the tenets of the Church is the dictum that at least once in the lifetime of the religion’s adherents, they must make a pilgrimage to the Middlegate Shoe Tree on a remote stretch of the oh-so-loneliest road in America, U.S. 50 through central Nevada. In the past I’ve described my original discovery of that holy place thusly:

There it stood, not just the biggest tree in view, but virtually the only tree in view, and from it dangled thousands of shoes; thousands more were spread on the ground around it and strewn up the wide desert gully where the cottonwood had rooted and thrived to a circumference of a good dozen feet. This shoe tree is reputed to be the grandest and most isolated example of its species, though there are others spread around the country and known to the holy rollers of the back road. These are shrines, are what they are; uniquely American altars, where worshippers come but never congregate, pulling in off the highway alone or in small hammered groups to lose their shoes, slinging their soles heavenward for the pure frivolous humorous hell of it, loading up the limbs and creating what we of the Church of the American Road Experience refer to piously as “a hell of a damn thing.”

And so there I was last month on yet another hajj to Middlegate, riding west from Austin, Nevada, on my way home from the Harley press launch in Park City, Utah. In the distance I saw the silhouette of a tree, and as I got closer I could make out the silhouettes of dangling shoes, but my gut began to sour as I closed on the sight and realized that something was terribly, horribly, sickeningly amiss.

When I arrived at the site my worst fears were confirmed. The shoe-festooned tree I’d spotted from up the highway was a modest young cottonwood only a few years old, and the revered Shoe Tree was nowhere in sight. I dismounted and hurried over to the gully where the Shoe Tree had sprouted and thrived all those years ago, and saw the huge stump, the felled and dismembered tree, and the thousands of shoes it had once worn so whimsically.

What the hell?
How exactly the Middlegate Shoe Tree came to be is an unsettled matter in local lore, but the competing tales of its birth share a common theme, that of a quarrel between newlyweds traveling on the lonely highway. In these tellings, one or the other of the lovebirds gets miffed enough about something to toss the other’s shoes out at the tree—either to tick the other off or prevent them from storming off into the desert—and in each the couple reconciles before driving off, but the shoes remain stuck up the tree. And so it began.

Romantic, no? You bet it is, and so it’s no surprise that over time the Shoe Tree became associated with affairs of the heart.

That, alas, proved its undoing.

Bewildered by what I beheld in the gully, I hied off to the bar at the nearby and woebegone Middlegate Station to find out what in hell had happened, and it was there that I learned that, although no culprit had been officially called to account for the atrocity, the local rumor mill fingered him as a man who’d proposed to his gal at the tree some years previously. They’d wed, and as the story continues, the gal got the wandering eye and chose the Shoe Tree as the rendezvous point for her assignations, and when the cuckolded husband discovered the betrayal he rented an industrial chain saw and, in the dark of night on December 30 of last year, had his bitter revenge—but not on his faithless bride, or her fancy man. He took it out on a tree. And in so doing, he took it out on all of us, too.

I don’t mind telling you that I got all emotional staring down at the butchered remains of what, after all, was just a cottonwood. Yet going deeper, it wasn’t just the physical Shoe Tree that sorrowed me so, it was what its felling bespoke of the times we live in and the ease with which a beloved and marvelously daffy roadside shrine can be erased by one disgruntled crypto-sociopath with a big chainsaw and an ax to grind.

Few things are more personal, more individual, more human than one’s kicks, and the act of commingling them with the kicks of your fellow travelers whom you don’t know, and likely never will, is a transcendent embrace of humanity—both your own and everyone else’s. A people capable of spontaneously, joyfully, comically, romantically, and (doubtless) drunkenly decorating the boughs of a lonesome cottonwood with their damn shoes is a people worth being a part of.

We can take some solace in the fact that the Shoe Tree was properly memorialized in a ceremony that drew hundreds of mourners, some from many hours away. And on a post in the ground at the edge of the gully, where people have scrawled their messages of bereavement, the words that appear most prominently are these: “Shoe Tree lives on in our soles.”

Ah, lovable humanity.

It’s all right here in the diaries.

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