Rants from the Hill: Harvesting the Desert Shoe Tree
"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.
On the west side of my home mountain, whose rocky crest delineates the invisible line separating the Silver and Golden states, there is a curiosity that has long puzzled and charmed me. Out along a lonely stretch of two-lane not far from Hallelujah Junction—so named because it is the only place in this long valley where we desert rats can load up on gasoline, water, and whiskey—there stands a strikingly tall and graceful Utah juniper. This unusual tree rises in a grand, angular gesture from a sandy island of sage and rabbit brush, without another tree in sight. Its height, open structure, and twisting musculature distinguish it from the low, bushy junipers up and down the valley, making it a kind of natural monument. Any southbounder rolling in from the Lassen lavalands can feel in the dark just where this tree stands: past Red Rock canyon, beyond the mule deer migration tunnels, not far from the Hallelujah resupply. But what makes this tree so special is something a good bit stranger: it is festooned with hundreds of pairs of shoes.
I have long wondered why the desert shoe tree possesses such monumental appeal. How did this tree become a celebrated landmark, one we always stop at even though we aren’t sure why? Why do my young daughters consider it such a treat to visit the tree? Why don’t we see the shoe tree as an abomination, a site of litter at best, and desecration at worst? One possibility is that, excepting the road itself, the desert shoe tree is the only sign of human culture along this remote stretch of the Fremont Highway. Perhaps the loneliness we feel out on the empty road is diminished by this strange reminder that we aren’t as alone as this valley’s isolation leads us to believe. Or maybe it’s pure novelty that attracts us. If every tree in the valley were full of shoes, would we instead pull over to photograph the one tree that lacked them? Sometimes it seems to me the tree represents a kind of freedom, an unburdening that occurs when we not only throw something away, but throw it with all our might, flinging some discarded fragment of our lives away forever. Or are we compelled by the pure aesthetic beauty of the form: a giant, graceful, organic structure, etched against the desert sky, with hundreds of parti-colored blossoms dangling and twirling in the sweep of Washoe Zephyr? Or do we simply crave the thrill of doing something so playful, so unfettered? Wouldn’t it be more responsible to keep those shoes a little longer, or give them to someone less fortunate? Absolutely. And that is why we bust a gut trying to sling them into the very highest outstretched branches.
Of one thing, however, I’m absolutely certain. These shoes tell stories. Some do so literally, because their hurlers have inscribed them with a dizzying variety of names, dates, messages, and odd pearls of wisdom. My daughters notice that “Jenny” has explained on the bottom of her flip flops that she is on her way home to Portland from a fantastic week in Yosemite. “William” has shed an expensive pair of wingtips, leaving a note on the sole to tell us that he has just married “Maria” up in Feather River country. The recent date on a low-hanging baby shoe celebrates the birth of “Cezar,” while a pair of deck shoes whose rubber soul is inscribed “For Great Grandma” may commemorate a passage in the other direction. And here we discover a pair of dangling boots fully annotated with their story. They were worn in a faraway warzone by “Ansaldo,” who is at last home safely to the western Great Basin, and who reminds passersby that “Freedom is Not Free.” Welcome home, Ansaldo, wherever and whoever you are.
The less storied shoes provoke us to read narratives that remain unwritten, as we are drawn into meaning making by their type, condition, and placement. Could those dangling cleats indicate that some champion stopped by to toss them in celebration, or do the castoff spikes mark the unfortunate conclusion of a career ended by injury? Do those high heels mean that a newlywed passed by on her way to a new life, or did she lose them to celebrate retirement from a cubicle that she waited thirty years to escape? Do the work boots symbolize a flight from a lifetime of hard labor, or does the weight of their steel-toed construction simply make them satisfying to launch? The girls and I take turns pointing out different shoes and guessing the stories of their wearers and slingers. We make a great deal more of the shoes’ narratives than the scant evidence will support, but that may be why we love the desert shoe tree so much. It is a strange field for the imagination—one in which we discern our own memories, anxieties, and hopes. Each time we return to the tree it bears new fruit, and we pause to collect and invent its stories.
Last Sunday our family made a pilgrimage to the desert shoe tree, for two very important reasons. Our nine-year-old, Hannah, had at last outgrown her sparkly, high-top chucks, and it was time for me to keep my promise that she could attempt to bola whip them into the arms of the celebrated tree. The second reason for our mission was even more important, and involved five-year-old Caroline, who is the kind of kid for whom one plans not college savings but rather bail money. At age three Caroline had resolved to root for the L.A. Dodgers, which she did only to perturb the rest of the family, since we are, like all sensible people, devoted San Francisco Giants fans. Although I found this mindless act of rebellion troubling, I rationalized that Caroline would soon return from the dark side—that she would outgrow this foolishness, just as Hannah had outgrown her sneakers. As the season wore on, however, I was reminded that Caroline’s rebelliousness is matched only by her stubbornness; she is part cute little blonde girl and part cross-eyed mule. First she saved her allowance money, bought a Dodgers cap, and refused to take it off, even in bed. When she adopted Dodger blue as her wardrobe color of choice and continued to cheer loudly for L.A. into the next season I explained, as clearly and patiently as a loving father can, what it means to be “disowned.” She remained unfazed, carrying her poor behavior into a third season, at which point I felt obliged to describe in imaginative detail the terrible “kiddie prison” awaiting her if she failed to change her ways. She replied that there were probably TVs in kiddie prison, which would be convenient because she could “chillax and watch the Dodgers kick some Giant butt.”
Eventually I relented, told her she could be a Dodgers fan so long as she legally changed her last name, and announced that I would cease resistance. And that was the magic moment in which five-year-old Caroline, having bested me, became a Giants fan. My act of reverse psychology was as effective as it was accidental, and suddenly she joined the family in rooting for the correct team. “Mom and I are so relieved!” I exclaimed. “What can we do to celebrate this great day in our family?” Caroline had already thought this through. “Take me to the shoe tree,” she said, “and I’ll climb up it and leave this stinky Dodgers hat up there with those stinky shoes.”
We had a nice visit to the desert shoe tree that day. We saw a few pronghorn in flight, heard a few croaking ravens, caught the pungent smell that crests from the shimmering waves of the sagebrush ocean. Hannah discovered through repeated attempts that it is quite challenging to whip a pair of shoes high into the air. It requires just the right backswing, timing, and follow through. Eventually she got the hang of it, though, and managed to lodge her sparkly chucks at a respectable height. Next came the main event. Little Caroline wrote her initials on the brim of her Dodgers cap, and Hannah added “GO GIANTS!!!” for good measure. Then Caroline—who of course was wearing a Giants ball cap—climbed up into the shoe tree and, smiling widely, hung her Dodgers cap up in the juniper. “I’m the first one who ever put a hat in the shoe tree and since nobody ever did that before it’s a hat tree now and I thought that up.” I wonder if that’s how the first person to toss their shoes into the tree must have felt.
If you’re ever driving at dusk down a lonely road in the western Great Basin desert, out on the California line, past the red canyon and before Hallelujah, and you see carved into the sky a giant tree full of hats, my kid thought that up. And if there’s still a Dodgers cap in it, you’ll know just what it means to harvest the blue fruit of its small story. It means that people who unburden here have found some way to leave their past behind.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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