MIDDLEGATE -- Out here in the middle of nowhere, thousands of people have tied the laces together and tossed their shoes into an old cottonwood tree.
Not just a few shoes dangle from Nevada's shoe tree. There are several thousand hanging like apples.
Branches blossom with worn-out sneakers -- Converse, Adidas, New Balance and some Nikes are visible. But no Air Jordans. There also are a few dress shoes and old boots. Most of these rubbish shoes carry no brand. They look like they came off the 50-cent rack at the Goodwill.
Many thousands more have been blown off the tree and litter the bottom of a gully.
Let's not check the fallen footwear any closer. This is rattlesnake country, out here 47 miles east of Fallon, along U.S. Highway 50 near the junction with Nevada Route 361.
There are a couple of legends about the origin of Nevada's shoe tree. They go like this:
A couple had married in Reno in the 1940s, and the newlyweds were taking the long trip back home to Colorado. They started arguing. As their quarrel intensified, the bride demanded her groom stop the car. He parked under the cottonwood.
She shouted she was getting out and walking. "If you do, it will be without your shoes," he said. Then he pulled off her shoes, tied them together by the laces and threw the pair onto a branch on the tree.
The story ends there. No happy ending.
The more popular version is told by Fredda Stevenson, co-owner of the Middlegate Station, a bar-restaurant-campground-and-motel about a mile from the shoe tree. It's heaven for anyone running on empty since it offers the only gas for almost 50 miles.
Her version starts much same, except it occurs in 1987.
The bride had blown all their money gambling in Reno, and the groom was boiling mad. Tired of listening to his complaints, she told him she was going to walk home.
"Not without your shoes," said the groom, grabbing the pair and throwing them into the tree.
Then he drove down to the Middlegate Station for a beer to cool off and told Stevenson what happened. She gave him some advice:
"If you want to be happy the rest of your life, go back and say you are sorry. Learn now to forgive her."
So the groom returned to the tree and apologized. His wife agreed to put their quarrel in the past -- but only if he first threw his shoes into the tree. He did.
A year or so later, the couple returned to the Middlegate Station to tell Stevenson how happy they were and to show off their baby. They returned to the old cottonwood and threw a pair of the baby's shoes into the tree.
Before long, someone spied their shoes in the tree and threw up his pair. Someone else followed suit. Now it seems everybody stops at the shoe tree to toss up his or her worst old pair -- as well as several pairs of their friends'. Some people throw four or five pairs of shoes in the tree, Stevenson said. Limbs have broken because of the weight of the shoes.
"There are almost as many shoes on the ground as in the tree," she added. "Let's limit it to one pair per person."
The state road crew out of Fallon is responsible for cleaning up the right of way by the shoe tree, said Scott Magruder, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Transportation, and periodically hauls away a dump truck load of shoes that have fallen in the gully.
"We take it in stride," he said. "When shoes start falling down, we go out and pick them up. It is not a huge hassle."
Tossing shoes seems to be something of a global pastime. A man from Germany heard about the Nevada shoe tree and arrived to throw his pair up, and shoe trees have sprouted all over the world. Boot tossing is even a sport in New Zealand and Europe.
Shoes hang over utility wires in many cities, which urban legend attributes to everyone from bullies and recent graduates to gang members and drug dealers marking their turf.
But Americans, it seems, have a particular affection for shoe trees. More than 75 have been reported across the country. Two famously festooned tamarisks resided in desolate stretches of the California desert, south of Las Vegas. When the shoe tree on Highway 62, near Vidal Junction, burned, a fence full of shoes popped up to mark the spot. Another tree, near Amboy, fell almost to the ground earlier this year and can barely be seen from the old Route 66, according to travelers' notes on the RoadTrip America website.
Mainstream reporters discover shoe trees every couple of years. Most stories mention that Nevada's shoe tree probably has more shoes than any tree in the world. No Nevada travel guide is complete without mention of the shoe-logged old cottonwood outside Middlegate.
Kirk Robertson, a Fallon poet, sees the tree as pop art.
"It is a good little Nevada story," he said. "It fits the character of the state. It is one of the oddities, an acquired roadside attraction."
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.