I could not believe my eyes. There it was, on the side of the road. I blinked and blinked again.
May I read you this story? Click below on the audio track.
Whaaaaaaa? Of course I had to pull over. I thought I saw a tree with all kinds of hanging shoes spilling from old sun bleached branches. Wavy heat rose up from the highway. Is this a mirage?
I was driving on old Route 66, through Amboy, CA on my way to a music festival. Of course I had to pull over. Sometimes life has a way of jumping out at us, full tilt in stark daylight. I was the bug on the windshield, only this time, I was on the inside of the car. I came to a screeching halt and stumbled out. I stood in the desert, bewildered.
I don’t remember much about the festival. I’m sure it was great. Obviously I made enough money selling my hand crafted udu drums to get home. But something happened to me on that road. I had discovered a shoe tree.
The regular teacher was absent when the next writing class met. A wild woman took her place. I admit, she did look like the regular teacher but her words were electric. They exploded and wildly bounced off of the drab gray walls. This unsuspecting class hadn’t a clue what was about to happen…
“Shake and wake your sleepy selves! We have something to write about! I call to the sleeping dogs under the porch on a hot day. I call to the folks who are watching the same ‘ole movie they have seen endless times before. I call to those who tell me they have writers’ block and they talk about this in the hushed tones of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Yes! All of you….”
She calls again, her voice is so magical that it is carried in the sultry summer winds. There is nowhere to hide.
“Yes, she continues, “I know your old typewriters were left out in the desert to rust. You put away all your words. You say you cannot find them. Well, it’s time to call them out; we have an important story to write.”
And she hands out photos, one to each participant. “This, my friends, is a shoe tree.” They gaze upon the photo as if they are looking at specimens from a distant planet.
“Put your pens on the page and begin to write. Do not plan what you will say. Just let your words fill the page. Start with the line, ‘I am the Shoe Tree’… and just keep on writing. Do not stop until you are done.”
No one said a thing. The students lowered their pens and began to write. Time staggered and eventually closed down. The collective scratching voice of explosive pens, all writing well below the lines, was the only sound that filled the room. Eventually the first story was revealed.
I am the Shoe Tree
I used to be a tree, growing free. I was a desert tree on a stretch of land that covers many desolate miles. My limbs were sparse and long, I reached out into the hot air and stood, for many years, against the sun and the sand. Until that day…
It was May of 1970, I think. Trees don’t often think in terms of years, that’s a human thing. We think in other realms, in terms that don’t meet the word forms. We think in roots and branches instead. And so, it was a season of rain. I drank a long drink during the flooding time. And one day a woman stopped by my trunk, back in a time when many more travelers took Route 66 thru Amboy. Back before Amboy was a ghost town. Back when people drove the road that stretched past me much more slowly….
She was a young woman, as far as humans go. She stopped the Chevy she drove after pulling over to the side of the road. She got out, I remember it was a moon night; a light night and I heard her sobbing in the shadows. “I am so tired of walking this way,” she sobbed. Her cry penetrated my deep roots. “I am so tired.” And with that, she sat down on the side of the road, all alone, and took off her shoes.
“Tennies,” she said aloud to her shoes, “I am done with you.” And with that, she tied the laces together and flung the pair of white shoes into the air. I caught them and they landed high on my branches.
And then she began to laugh. It was a low little giggle at first. The sound began to escalate as the realization of what she just did began to sink it. The hilarity of throwing ones shoes into a tree, in the middle of the desert, began to rumble inside of her. “I’m free!” she whispered.
“I’m free!” She said aloud now to no one and to everyone.
“I’m shoeless! No more tight shoes to bind my feet!” She was dancing now… I will never forget the sight of her outstretched arms. She twirled on the empty highway, the road that stretched onward forever. She leapt and reached, higher and higher, each step an exclamation of glee.
And then, she was gone. The taillights became smaller and smaller in the dark distance.
But she didn’t really go. Not really. It turns out that this woman of the moonlight was a musician. She had become so weary of trying to stay in the prescribed songs when her music wanted so desperately to lilt and groove into new places. Her frustration became greater and more pronounced. Society requested one type of music only and she knew that if she spent her life, her only life, complying with that stifled request she would smash her guitar and weep when she opened her mouth to sing. This is how it was, at least, until that night when she stopped by the side of the road and threw away her shoes. I found out later, overhearing others talking, that she began singing a song she composed as she traveled on the road; a song about losing the shoes that bound her. It was a song about dancing barefoot on the highway that stretched on before her. She sang all about the Shoe Tree in Amboy, CA. And I became a place, a pilgrimage place, for all those who wore shoes that bound their feet.
Many have come and flung their shoes into my limbs. And I, once a deserted tree on Route 66, have become a tree of great freedom. The Shoe Tree, I am called, the place where travelers lose their ambitions and their iron clad lives as they learn to dance barefoot and uninhibited on the highway of the rest of their lives.
You could have heard a star blink when the first story was read. And each story held a different explanation. Each page was an awakening and a reclaiming of lost dreams.
Smiles began to spread across the faces of the class as the rust scattered and fears melted like butter on a hot sourdough roll. The class writers looked down at their work in disbelief. Under the table, they had quietly slipped off their shoes.
“The key is to let yourself go, the teacher purred. “Just write. Don’t try to capture words, just let them flow. Let the words breathe.”
Remember to keep your eyes open and look for wonder. I have actually stumbled across TWO Shoe Trees. Always be curious.
Ask the Shoe Trees and other roadside marvels for their stories. When they tell you, be sure to listen well. They might not be around next time you try to find them…
I hope you enjoyed The Shoe Tree. The Circle of Words classes opens the lost and left behind places within us. We learn to move towards our dreams and celebrate our lives with the magic of words. Join us! Click here to learn more.