MIDDLEGATE - When traveling Highway 50 just east of Middlegate, it's hard to miss the Shoe Tree.
Cowboy boots, tennis shoes, golf spikes, sandals, high heels, flip flops and even a deer leg are gobbed together in tangles throughout the tree's numerous crooks and branches.
But not all think tossing discarded footwear on this curious yet living roadside monument is whimsical fun.
Andrée Gill, a local desert cleanup activist who has led numerous trash removal groups in Churchill County, says Middlegate's Shoe Tree is an example of human activity damaging one of the few sources of greenery and shade to spring up from the desert landscape.
She claims the weight from the hundreds of pairs of footwear is taking a toll on the more than 75-foot-tall cottonwood which reaches out from a gully east of Middlegate on the Loneliest Road in America.
"I know that it's killing the tree because the weight of the shoes is literally breaking the branches of the tree," Gill said.
Gill and a group of volunteers went to the roadside shrine Sept. 22 to clean up. Their efforts removed numerous pairs of shoes that fell from the tree, tires, dirty diapers, bottles and cans, an old water heater and bags of trash, she said.
The Nevada Department of Transportation provided a dump truck and an employee to haul away the refuse. The Shoe Tree is within NDOT right-of-way and includes a pull-off and unpaved parking area for visitors.
The volunteers left the shoes on the tree, but Gill contacted NDOT and requested a boom truck to retrieve the many shoes from each limb.
"Any tree or shrub that wants to live in this country should be preserved as much as it can be," she said.
Middlegate resident Fredda Stevenson thinks otherwise. Stevenson, an owner of the Old Middlegate Station, a cafe/motel/mini mart/gas station a couple miles west of the Shoe Tree, said it appears perfectly healthy and has weathered wind and floods for decades.
Middlegate Station, originally a Pony Express post, offers Shoe Tree postcards and an explanation of the oddity's history to curious travelers.
Though the details vary by version, the tale generally goes that a young couple stopped at the tree and got into a tiff. The young woman intended to walk home, but her beau insisted that if she must leave, she would do so barefoot. He threw her shoes into the tree, and the rest is history.
Stevenson said the Shoe Tree is not merely a roadside oddity, but a unique attraction for rural Nevada. An article on the tree appeared in the New York Times on May 18, 2004.
"I think it's a landmark and point of interest for people," Stevenson said. "Why mess up everyone's pleasure because one person thinks it's hurting the tree? If it ever needs saving, I'll be the first one to call and let (Gill) know."
NDOT has no plans to alter the highway landmark.
- Contact reporter Josh Johnson firstname.lastname@example.org