Like something in a horror movie or a dystopian sci-fi novel, the tree loomed out of the darkness on the side of the winding suburban road. The car’s headlights illuminated vibrant colors and odd shapes across the gray bark of the trunk and branches — shoes. All kinds of shoes. Boots. High heels. Sneakers. Flip-flops. Oxfords.
There was no indication what any of this represented, no plaque or memorial stating why so many shoes had been nailed to this tree on the outskirts of the neighborhood. But my mind started to race with all the possibilities.
Could this have been somebody’s idea of a joke?
Some strange art project?
An unorthodox tribute to victims of an accident?
By the next morning, my curiosity had still not yet wavered, so I did the only thing any sensible adult would do: I opened up Google and typed in “shoes nailed to a tree.”
And that was how I discovered the mystery of shoe trees.
Apparently, this phenomenon stretches across the world — shoe trees stand on nearly every continent, in rural communities and urban ones alike. The internet is full of pictures depicting trees covered from root to topmost branch with shoes, like some surreal image pulled from a Salvador Dali painting and brought to life.
But despite their ubiquity, nobody seems to have a straightforward explanation of what they represent. Theories range from boring to bizarre.
Maybe the practice started with soldiers returning home from battle, leaving their military boots hanging from a tree branch as a way to mark the life they left behind.
Or maybe it started as a practical joke, a prank that some men pulled on their friend who had too much at the bar one night, so they stole his shoes and hung them up on a tree for him to find the next day.
Or they’re left as a sort of offering by hopeful wishmakers seeking good luck, or by desperate women yearning for fertility.
One of the darker myths suggests that a shoe tree in Salem, Massachusetts—it would be Salem, Massachusetts, wouldn’t it?—was a place where a serial killer publicly displayed the shoes as trophies from each victim.
But while each explanation seems weirder than the next, what seems most obvious is that nobody actually knows why they start these shoe trees. They just do. And others follow suit.
Like a gum wall where people spit out their gum and stick it among the mass of other wads left there by people before them, these trees serve as a way for people to say, “I was here, and my shoes will be here forever.”
Maybe they leave a message written on them, a blessing spelled out with permanent marker along the outer edge of the sole. Maybe they’re marking a significant life event by leaving their shoes behind: the shoes they wore to their graduation ceremony, or to their wedding, or to the last day of their job before retirement. Maybe they’re leaving the shoes of a loved one who passed away, almost as a way of paying tribute.
Think about the stories that shoes could tell if they could talk: all the places they’ve journeyed, the accomplishments made while they were worn. These are the stories that are tacked onto these trees. Look at each of the shoes and try to determine what this special footwear might have meant to those who left them behind.
And if you’re so inclined—don’t be afraid to add your shoes to the tree and let your story join the others.
Dylan Roche is a Maryland-based writer who pens magazine features by day and YA fantasy novels by night. When he isn’t writing, he’s usually going on long-distance runs or taming his spoiled corgi. Follow his writing adventures on Twitter and Instagram at @dylaniswriting, or check out his website at www.dylanrochewriter.com.