Less than two hours east of Carson City is Middlegate Junction Nevada.
Imagine what it would be like to stand slowly maturing in one spot for a lifetime of almost eighty years watching the changes taking place in all directions around you.
The quality of such circumstances would depend on three factors, location, location and location. The great cottonwood that would one day be named Shoe Tree lived such a life. Some might suggest that the location of her existence was troublesome and bleak, but the evolution of her species provided an ability to accommodate extreme hardship. Providence had assigned her kind to guide mankind toward water.
Growing from 60 to 100 feet tall and having a broad leafy canopy with the same dimensions, these cousins of willows and poplars have a lifespan comparable to man’s and like mankind they too lose their flexibility and upper foliage as they grow more brittle with age.
Shoe Tree’s life began when Nevada’s population was less than 90,000 residents. The great economic depression of that era had little effect on the Silver State’s primary mining and agriculture interests. Other occupations were incidental to those two, which would soon be augmented by quickie divorces and gambling.
Strong spring winds racing down the eastern slope of the Sierras uplifted the newly pollinated white fuzz covered seeds of the female cottonwoods. Wind eddies deposited most of them in great clumps wherever obstructions blocked passage. Some escaped. Shoe Tree was the product of a wind devil updraft. Her seed along with others were spiraled upward to be caught in the jet stream and carried eastward where providence determined that she be deposited on the north side of America’s first transcontinental artery, the Lincoln Highway, which later became U.S. Highway 50.
Spring rains followed the wind. Some years before, the road building crew had borrowed earth from the sagebrush covered north side of the highway to raise the road bed above the surrounding high desert plateau. Beaten into the mud of the borrow pit by hard driven rain, the isolated cottonwood seed came to life. Water was scarce, but the paved highway runoff from the infrequent rain along with the night-chilled frost of the high desert sustained the young sapling until she could send roots deep toward a more reliable source.
Some years there was little growth. She adjusted her life cycle to whatever sustenance nature provided. In the beginning her world was one of only sound and feeling. By year five she had risen above the surrounding sagebrush and could actually view across the highway. Vehicles passed by with some regularity. When strong rains came she looked forward to their tires splashing water toward the borrow pit.
The warmer months brought both shepherds and buckaroos moving stock around her rapidly thickening trunk. Sometimes these same animals would pass by in big trucks. Her favorite passersby were the freshly bailed hay trucks. In her innocence she envied them because, unlike being bound by a deep root structure, they appeared to be a form of mobile vegetation with a capacity to relocate from place to place.
Now and then a human would walk by, but they paid her no attention for her first 35 years. It was the summer of 1968. She had grown strong and tall. She could see for miles in all directions. Her bark was thick. It had been a dry year, so she did not have the thick crown of leaves that reflected availability of more water. Nevertheless, she was healthy and in full glory.
She saw the motorcycle coming from the west before she heard it. She was familiar with the sound and surprised when it pulled to the side of the road right in front of her. People had walked by and road crews had done things nearby, but a vehicle had never stopped so close to her trunk. A young man got off. He was bare headed, dressed in Levi’s and an olive drab tee shirt. Tied over the rear fender was a tightly packed army green barracks bag with a pair of cordura nylon jungle boots tied by their laces to the bag’s carry handle.
One of the boots had somehow dropped below the motorcycle’s rear fender and had been damaged by the rotating rear tire. The young man started to retie them then changed his mind. Walking toward the great tree holding the boots, still tied together by their laces, he whirled them underhanded high into the branches where they fastened themselves securely dangling downward. For twenty-one years the boots rode out the changing seasons. They had been designed for Viet Nam’s jungles, but were equally durable hanging from a tree in Northern Nevada’s high desert. The nylon laces were virtually indestructible.
In 1989 a pickup pulling a travel trailer pulled in front of the tree. One of the trailer tires had gone flat. As the driver changed it his wife and two children, a boy and a girl, moved under the shade of the tree. It had been a good winter and shade was plentiful. The boy sat and then laid back in the dry dirt surrounding the trunk. The tree had choked out much of the foliage at its base. “Mom, look up there. Someone’s boots are hanging on one of the limbs. That is neat!” Mom and sister looked and agreed that it was indeed “neat.”
The daughter, a bit older, went into the trailer and came out with two pair of ragged canvas sneakers. Without asking for permission the kids followed the motorcycle driver’s lead. Mom encouraged them. The boy had to toss his up twice before they attached. When dad finished changing the tire they invited him to inspect their work.
Not to be outdone by his kids, the father emerged from the trailer with a pair of beat up gym shoes and his wife’s Scotch plaid sneakers which had been a gift from him that she never appreciated. His shoes hung up on the first try. He had to retrieve hers from under the tree three times before she hooked up. They drove away happy with what they had accomplished. The tree was happy too. It now had a name and a destiny.
That fall, when the leaves fell away, the five pairs of footwear swaying from the tree branches called for others to join them. In late September of that year a westbound newlywed couple noted the suspended shoes as they drove by. About two miles later they stopped at the “watering hole” situated at the Middlegate Station junction which well over a hundred of years earlier had been a pony express stop.
There, while dining at the bar, they entered into their first disagreement as a married couple. In the spirit of compromise the two returned to the big Cottonwood. Knotting together both sets of their wedding shoes the husband tossed the coupled pair high into the waiting branches. Arms around each other they resumed their journey. As they say, “the rest is history.”
Some travelers deposited once. Others, becoming aware of the tree’s prominence, regularly lofted old footwear onto her branches as they passed the 44-mile point east of Fallon, Nevada.
For years the wind sang through the hundreds, perhaps thousands of shoes. The ground below also accumulated footwear that had fallen from the branches or had been poorly thrown by those unwilling to retrieve them and try again. The fame and popularity grew as travelers saluted and marked their passage while traversing by the shoe tree icon on the side of the loneliest road in America.
It was a welcome sight, respected and valued for its whimsy, which truly reflected the unique spirit of endurance, tenacity and accommodation that distinguishes the Great State of Nevada. Sadly, and apparently without regret the beloved Nevada Shoe Tree was chain sawed to death by malicious vandals December 30, 2010.
On Sunday, February 13, 2011, at 2:30 P.M., an armada of cars, trucks and motorcycles lined both sides of US Highway 50, three miles east of Middlegate Station, Nevada, to bid farewell to the prostrate corpse of the once tall and accommodating Shoe Tree.
As mourners watched and listened, members of Nevada’s Native American priesthood, in ancient tradition, bid a thank you and farewell to the gift that providence had shared with travelers passing by. The eulogy ended in English, “Lonely tree sister may your seeds blossom elsewhere.”
Such prayers are always answered. On February 21, 2018, Roadside America published that Shoe Tree has reestablished herself through a younger sister just west of the original attraction.
Baby need new shoes!