"What was that?" my oldest son said and pointed at something along the roadside. When you see something unexpectedly odd, it takes you a second to register it. That was the case for me a few weeks ago.
Travelling between Huntsville and Memphis on US 72 was a new experience for me. Although someone had warned me it was a dull road, I found it quite the opposite. The smooth pavement and light traffic made it an easy drive, and the charming Tennessee River farmland was a pleasant sight. I fell in love with the area instantly.
As we approached the Mississippi border and passed by Cherokee, my oldest son in the passenger seat drew my attention to something unusual. At first, I thought it was a strange fruit hanging from a roadside tree, but as we whizzed by, I realized that these were shoes suspended from the branches. I longed to stop, but we were pressed for time. "We'll check it out on our way back," I promised, and we carried on towards Memphis.
The following day, I kept my word. As we drove back towards Alabama in the mid-afternoon, I spotted the shoe tree and made a U-turn at the next crossover. I pulled over and grabbed my trusty Canon T-5, taking a few shots. The sun was high, and the air was fresh and cool after a major spring storm two nights before. The tree was beginning to bud with fresh shoots around the shoes. I managed to capture some shots despite the passing vehicles, and then we continued on with our journey.
Before stumbling upon the Cherokee Shoe Tree, I had no idea it existed. However, after a quick Google search, I discovered that it has been around for quite some time, though the exact number of years remains unknown. The earliest article I could find dates back to 2009, from the Tuscaloosa News. The article includes this quote: "... tree comes an unspoken rule: Need a pair, take a pair. But if you can spare a pair, then do it."
According to a 2018 article on OMGFacts, shoe trees may have originated during the Great Depression as a way for people to donate extra pairs of shoes to those in need. This theory makes sense on several levels. For instance, Cherokee is just one of at least a dozen shoe trees in the United States. Roadside America provides locations for many of them, and if you click on the link and examine the map, you'll notice that many are located along routes used by economic refugees during the Great Depression. These routes led from the Deep South and the Dust Bowl to places like California and Detroit, where jobs were available.
Why do shoe trees still exist today? Is it due to nostalgia, novelty, tradition, or tourism? Some sources suggest that spiritualism may be the root cause. As for the Cherokee Shoe Tree, there is an eerie and sacred quality to it that I find hard to describe. Though this feeling was somewhat subdued by the bright midday light and clear blue sky, which favors reason and logic over mysticism. Under different lighting conditions, such as dim light or murky mist, other aspects of the human psyche may hold sway. These are the moments when both my camera and I yearn for. Yet, even under the brightest sunlight, the primitive magic of this place seeps through. I could feel it, even though my camera failed to capture it fully.
Perhaps shoe trees tap into something deeply mystical and ancient that is rooted in our common humanity, reaching back to the dawn of our species.
"Trees have been regarded as the first temple of the gods, and sacred groves as the first places of worship.; they are held in the utmost reverence" - Hughes and Chandran.
The tree is a universal symbol of life and a life-giving force in nearly every culture and civilization on earth. In the Bible, trees are mentioned 525 times, second only to God and humans. Trees are present at the beginning of Genesis, with the Tree of Life and the Tree of Good and Evil. Christ referred to himself as a vine, and he died on a "tree" of sorts. Christians even have the tradition of the Christmas Tree, which has its roots in European paganism. Trees are also sacred to many other faiths. Tree planting as a sign of life is mentioned in the Koran, and Buddhism and Hinduism also revere trees in their unique ways. European pagans worshiped in tree groves and considered oaks and yews sacred.
The phenomenon of shoe trees taps into this ancient tradition. The shoes thrown across the limbs and scattered on the ground resemble a sacrifice, a gift, and a ritual all in one. It represents an interaction between two species, one ancient and one ephemeral. These shoe trees seem more at home in ancient druidic groves than beside a modern highway. If a druid were present, what would they say with each tossed sneaker or pair of high heels thrown into the branches?
"Great and Ancient One, these shoes are a gift to the future, for someone I will never know and who will never know me. Please hold them for me. Watch over and guard the shoes until needy hands pluck them from your branches, or until they fall from your limbs like rotting fruit. There, they will cover the ground among your roots, among the fallen leaves until the earth reclaims them like old bones. Remember us, Great and Ancient One, and whisper our names to the forest so that one day others might know we once walked here.
Articles About Shoe Trees and Tree Stuff
The Legend of the Shoe Tree Grows on America's Loneliest Highway.
Shoe Trees in Michigan and the Rumors That Surround Them.
Shoe Trees are Popping Up All Around The World.
Witness the Shoe Tree of Middlegate.
Alabama's Legendary Shoe Tree: Lost Soles of Just Old Sneakers Thrown Over A Limb?
A Few Youtube Videos on Shoe Trees.
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