The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

June 9, 2014

Treed soles along road are both a revelation and mystery

My eyes tried to make sense of the weird-looking tree growing closer as we sped along an Oregon highway.

Sunlight filtering through the bare branches silhouetted countless dark, irregular shapes.

The image didn’t fit in any mental picture I could reference.

The dark blobs weren’t leaves.

Were they large birds — a murder of crows, perhaps?

But, if so, why were some birds hanging in midair?

The thoughts crossed my mind in a split second.

The confusion quickly evaporated as our SUV passed what is a shoe tree along U.S. 97 between Bend and Redmond.

Dozens of pairs of athletic shoes have been tied together by their laces and flung into the tall tree, which seems dead.

I dismissed the U.S. 97 shoe tree as an oddity, a local tradition, perhaps of exuberant high-school students nearby. But when we stumbled across a second shoe tree, this one on U.S. 26 outside Dayville, I searched the Internet for an explanation.

Although new to me, shoe trees exist throughout the world. The United States has more than 30 trees festooned with shoes, according to the RoadsideAmerica website, which tracks offbeat travel destinations. Another site lists 78 around the world.

At least one is in Ohio, an unusual tree in Bainbridge that is branchless, so people nail shoes to the trunk rather than flinging them over limbs. The Midwest seems to have a high number of shoe trees, including 12 in Michigan.

What remains a mystery, however, is why people choose to pitch worn footwear into trees’ branches.

A British agency tried - and failed - to find the answer as part of a four-year, $400,000 study of special trees that included one shoe tree.

The tree in the study had been decorated with shoes for more than 30 years, but no reason surfaced.

A 2009 story in The Telegraph newspaper quoted one local man as saying: “There are so many stories about why the shoes appear in the branches. Some say it was a form of toll payment by travelers, or a fertility ritual, but I think it’s probably a hoax that just carries on. Whatever it is, new shoes keep appearing, even now.”

Many of the trees come with legends and lore.

One well-known tree, a cottonwood on U.S. 50 in Nevada, was said to have been started by a spatting couple who later added their children’s shoes. (Vandals cut down the tree in 2010.)

In Michigan, an oft-told legend centers on a serial killer who targeted children. The killer is said to have tied his victims’ shoes in the trees where their bodies were buried. (The killer is real; the shoe connection is not.)

Visitors to the Highland, Mich., shoe tree might be scared away by the wail of a teen who died there, bullied by others who stole his shoes and flung them out of his reach.

Whatever the reason, shoe trees are a phenomenon. Perhaps you will spot some of these lost soles on your travels.

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