Shoes hang in the air, they dangle in silent harmony from power cables, trees, lanterns, bridges and not infrequently from traffic lights and street signs. For decades people all over the world have been observing the “flying footwear” and asking themselves the same questions: Who hangs up the shoes? Why are they being promoted there? And what do the authors want to achieve with it? We dedicate ourselves to the phenomenon of airy shoes.
About shoes, trees and resourceful rest area operators
I met them for the first time somewhere in the middle of the Australian outback. In the middle of the country road between the former opal town of Coober Pedy and the sleepy Alice Springs, hundreds of pairs of shoes suddenly dangle high above our heads in the bony branches of an old eucalyptus tree. Tied with shoelaces, randomly distributed in the bare branches of the blue rubber tree, the partly rotten sneakers, boots and sandals are exposed to wind and weather in the capricious Northern Territory’s. Even the friendly owner of the nearest gas station cannot say who threw the first pair of shoes into the air and why. But every year new shoes are added to this curious “shoe tree”.
Even after my return to Germany, I keep seeing her. In Berlin, Cologne or Hamburg they only hang sporadically in the treetops, but often from lanterns and street signs – in the USA, on the other hand, there are said to be around 80 pieces of the mysterious “shoe trees”. Probably the largest of its kind, it was still rooted on Highway 50 in Nevada until 2011. Around 170 kilometers from Reno, travelers have been decorating the 21-meter-high poplar with their footwear for decades and over the years shaped the so-called shoe tree into a unique landmark that became famous far beyond the state’s borders. But there is no tourist shoe tree without a sentimental story of its origins, and so the first pair of shoes is said to be the work of a couple in disputes in the 1990s.
On the drive to their honeymoon, a full-blown argument broke out between the newlyweds on Highway 50. When the woman wanted to get out of the car and run away furiously, the man grabbed her shoes and threw them – at least that’s what people say today – up into the poplar tree on the side. The wife stayed with her husband and the argument was forgotten. But all their attempts to free the shoes from the branches were unsuccessful and so they had to continue their journey without the good footwear. This episode does not seem to have harmed their marital happiness, because – as in every good story – the couple’s path led back to the place where it happened. How big was their surprise when they found out, on a trip they made a year later, that many others had followed suit. A single pair of shoes had meanwhile grown into hundreds of shoes. A really enchanting story, with which the resident gas station attendant charmed tourists for years and also successfully sold his postcards.
Two shoes make a corpse
Especially since the 1990s, the ominous shoe sculptures on trees, power lines, lanterns or optionally traffic lights increased all over the world. In 2003 the so-called “shoe tossing” or “shoefiti” spilled over to Germany and developed into a real trend. While many see the dangling shoes merely as a public nuisance, the proponents are still fighting over the authorship today, most bitterly the USA and Scotland.
The Scots swear that it is a well-known tradition among adolescents to hang their shoes in the window as soon as they lose their innocence. In the New York Bronx, shoes on power lines and houses are said to mark passage areas. The pastor of a small congregation in southern Los Angeles, where shoes can be found every 500 meters on the overhead lines, knows how to explain the phenomenon in a completely different way: Each pair of shoes stands for a person who has been killed. At the place where he or she died, the friends throw a pair of shoes over the power line, thus remembering the sad loss.
But the theories are by no means exhausted. Another reads: Soldiers discharged from the army would throw their shoes into the trees out of joy at the end of their service life. Still others believe those dangling shoes have miraculous powers and keep evil spirits away from them. Supporters of the last theory (and not least the talkative gas station attendant) had to cope with a bitter disappointment in 2011 when the magnificent poplar tree on Highway 50 fell victim to the ax of strangers one night and was felled unnoticed.
Ultimately, the riddle about the airy shoes is difficult to solve with a clear explanation, but as José N. Harris said: “Sometimes we need to do things we’d rather not do, in order to get the peace that we need. “
If you want to find out more about shoe tossing: The following short film gets to the bottom of the phenomenon: