Veterans and Shoe Trees: A Ride To Remember
February 13, 2011
The morning was cool and foggy as I left the house. My destination was the site of the Highway 50 shoe tree near Middlegate, Nevada. This stately old cottonwood was a famous local landmark, because it was laden with hundreds of pairs of discarded shoes. The story goes that the first pair was thrown up into the tree in the midst of a lovers’ quarrel. Over time other people added their own contributions, until eventually the tree was more shoes than branches. I remember the first time I rode past it in 1997. It took a few seconds for my mind to register what I’d just seen, and I turned around and went back for a closer look. I thought it was funny and cool to see this tree out in the middle of nowhere, that had obviously been visited by lots of people. Since then, every time I rode that road I stopped for a break at the shoe tree. Yet every time I stopped, I was the only one there. (The marketing slogan for the Nevada segment of US 50 is The Loneliest Road in America. I’ve found lonelier, but 50 is definitely isolated.) The shoe tree has been a bonus on at least two endurance rallies. It’s a classic landmark of roadside Americana.
Or it WAS, until some mindless vandals chopped it down late last year. When the news came out I was angry and sad. What was the point in such an act? The tree was loved by many, and didn’t hurt anybody. People like that make me sick. Now another piece of the landscape, something whimsical and important at the same time, is gone. For nothing, no reason at all other than to destroy. Our society is sick. Sick, I tell you!
Shortly after the incident, it was announced that a memorial service for the tree would be held on February 13. I marked my calendar and hoped the weather would cooperate for a motorcycle ride. I figured the event would have a good assortment of Nevada oddballs and California treehuggers, I’d get a good day trip, and, yes, I could stand up against vandalism and pay my respects to the tree. My hopes for good weather were answered, as the weeks leading up to yesterday were dry and warm, unseasonable for this time of year. I made my plan.
Included in the plan was to stop at two Veterans Memorials that are part of the Tour of Honor. This event has locations in California and Nevada, as well as other states throughout the country. I’m hoping to get all the CA and NV sites before the year is over. So far I’ve already been to the USS Hornet in Alameda (twice actually, but that’s another story.)
Back to the present. I rode out of the Bay Area under overcast skies and occasional dense fog. As the sun got higher, the fog burned off and I was under sunny skies by the time I reached Placerville, the first TOH stop. The town is on Highway 50 a few miles east of Sacramento, in the Sierra foothills. The monument is on the grounds of the Eldorado County administration building. What a magnificent monument it is, too. There are many flagpoles and stone monuments with bronze plaques honoring all branches of service. After I took my photos for the TOH, I gave a moment of thanks for all those who have served our country. I stood and silently saluted in a surprisingly emotional moment. This is what the Tour is all about, remembering and honoring those who have served our country in the military. As the saying goes, all gave some and some gave all. Thank you.
Next on the agenda, a ride to the elevations of Lake Tahoe. I was excited to be riding through the snowy Sierras. I was prepared, with all my heated gear plugged in and cranked up. My riding attitude was combat mode, as I was ever vigilant for sand and runoff hiding in the shadows that mottled the road surface.
But all my vigilance was in vain. The road was as smooth and dry as it would be in August. The weather was sunny and cool but not cold. Most disappointing of all, there wasn’t much snow. I expected mountains of snow, piles of snow, snow covering every rock and tree. But the month-long drought has had its impact in the Sierras. The ride was totally uneventful. Bummer.
I could have taken the Pioneer Trail shortcut but I wanted to see the lake as much as possible, so I stayed on 50 all the way through South Tahoe and Stateline. I stopped in Zephyr Cove, Nevada, for a photo at the lakeshore.
The ride down from the lake to the high desert was fantastic fun, a series of high speed banked sweepers. At the bottom I turned north on 395 and headed for the Carson City TOH monument. My GPS led me through a residential neighborhood and tried to have me drive through someone’s yard to the monument. I could see on the map where the entrance to the park really was, so I detoured around. This kind of 5 minute mistake in a rally is to be avoided, but yesterday I was just flower sniffing and it didn’t matter.
The memorial lists the names of the Nevada Vietnam combat dead, arranged by year. It started in the late 50’s and went until the mid 70’s. 1967 and 1968 were the years with the most names. They were also the years when the war roiled the citizenship back home. I thought about the riots in Berkeley and Chicago over the war. What a time for our country. Unfortunately it was not a good time to be a returning veteran. I’m glad that now our citizens are thankful to the vets of Iraq and Afghanistan, even if they disagree with the premise of the war. Hate the war, not the soldiers.
From here it was a 90 minute ride out to the shoe tree site. Not much to do but enjoy the desert and pass slow Harleys. I arrived at the site about 20 minutes before the scheduled start of the event. Already there was a pretty good crowd gathered around. After parking the bike and taking a few minutes to tend to a minor mechanical issue, I took a few establishing shots to get an idea of the scale of the event. I'd guess maybe 100 to 150 people were there at the end.
I went down to take a look at the tree. It was shocking to see it down in the gully. I hadn’t realized just how large that tree was. The stump, neatly sawn in two, was two to three feet across. The tree has been down awhile, and it’s clearly dead. The leaves are dried up, the branches are starting to crack. It’s dead. And those stupid f---ing vandals killed it. I’m still angry about it, and the sadness is more palpable now that I’ve actually seen it.
In front of the crowd was a man setting up a sort of Native American altar or ceremonial blanket that was prepared for the memorial ceremony.
Off to the side was a small trailer with a PA sound system.
Between the trailer and the blanket were two news crews. One of them was a young guy with a big camera. The other was obviously some kind of news babe from the city. She didn’t fit in at all with her tight jeggings, fashion sunglasses, and fancy hairdo. I thought she was the “talent” and would have dragged a cameraman with her, but she did all her own camera work. Maybe she did the voiceover later. Both of them did their filming somewhat unobtrusively, that is, they were noticeable but didn’t get in the way. I staked out my spot right near the media folks.
Someone got on the microphone and announced the name of the older gentleman who would be leading the event. He started by blowing a bone like a whistle into the four corners. Then he lit an incense punk and went all around the circle, making sure everyone got some smoke and smell on them. I thought it smelled good. It smelled like the desert. He said some words. Then he had a young assistant climb out onto the tree and place a streamer on one of the branches. It had some kind of ceremonial meaning, but I didn't pay that close attention to the words. I just connected to the feeling of honor and loss.
Here’s a video taken during the ceremony. It gives you a good sense of how many people were there.Linky.
After his memorial was over, a woman got on the mic and started talking about how much the tree meant to her. I gather that she was one half of the couple that started the shoe tree years ago. The tree was obviously very important to her, and she teared up a couple of times as she read various things that others had written.
She also announced that the police have a suspect and will be making an arrest shortly. This was met with cheers. And also that the BLM took cuttings of the tree right after it was cut, and is trying to root new seedlings. If that works out, the tree may end up being planted all over Nevada. Yay again!
Lastly they unveiled a new sign that has been installed at the site. It's very nicely painted. I happened to be standing next to the newsbabe, right in front of it when they unveiled it, so here are the action shots.
Then they opened the mic to anyone who wanted to talk. This was my cue to leave, as it had the potential to drag on and on, like the “short” funeral I went to last week that lasted 90 minutes. I wanted to get back over the Sierras before it got too dark, cold, and possibly icy. So I left for home, right about the time that the Harleys arrived.
Last photo-worthy stop was the Rattlesnake Raceway near Fallon. Every time I see the sign I think of “the Rattlesnake Speedway in the Utah desert”, a line from a Springsteen song. I wonder if he really meant this place? Today I took the time to go find out what’s at the end of the road. It was a gravel road and a chained gate, but a cool sign. Behind the gate, a dirt oval. I bet they make a lot of noise out here on Saturday nights.
On the way home I realized that the whole day had been dedicated to memorials. First the Tour of Honor stops, then the Shoe Tree. The tag line of the TOH is “A Ride To Remember.” It has a double meaning, a memorable ride, and ride whose purpose is to remember those who have passed. That is a fitting description of today’s ride, think I’ll use it. Thanks for following along.