Kevin Hansel is searching for shoes in the desert. They are scattered everywhere: bowling shoes, Nikes, Converse, flip-flops and hiking boots – some caked with mud, encrusted into the ground like rubbery, plastic pieces of hidden treasure waiting to be discovered, and others still managing to hang on from the dry, lifeless limbs of a tamarix tree. Many are inscribed with messages written by everyone from geology clubs and U.S. army veterans to people traveling from Wisconsin to Japan.
Only the sound of earth crunching beneath Hansel’s feet as he makes his way down the side of the road can be heard. There is nothing else to see, and no one to speak to for miles, but the desert is littered with soles.
Hansel takes photos of the shoes – it’s the first time he’s been down this far and he’s clearly enjoying being a tourist in his own town. In a ghost town with a population of four, including Hansel, it can get pretty lonely in Amboy, California.
“You gotta find ways to entertain yourself,” Hansel says. “That’s the biggest thing – you gotta tell yourself you can do it, keep your mind strong, because if you don’t, you’re not going to make it.”
Not counting Roy’s Motel and Café — California’s most iconic attraction on Route 66, it’s now a gas station and bare-bones convenience store selling chips and other snacks — the tree was the only natural, shade-giving site in all of Amboy. Located between Barstow and Needles, this dusty town is the place Hansel has called home for the last two years. The tree once stood tall and green, reigning over this stretch of the Mojave Desert on historic Route 66 for years.
That is, until the shoes came. No one seems to know who threw the first shoe, but it began at least a decade ago. One by one, travelers taking Steinbeck’s “Mother Road” from Chicago to Los Angeles and back again began throwing their shoes onto the tree. Some tied laces together, forming pairs into impromptu lassos that looped around branches. Others hooked them onto shoes already hanging from the tree’s branches. Like a strange desert Christmas tree, the Amboy Shoe Tree was born.
Roadside attraction websites began tracking the tree, with enthusiasts sending in field reports of its growth. With every photo that was added, it appeared the shoe tree kept growing, with no signs of slowing down. Observations and photos came in via residents of everywhere from the Philippines to Slovenia and Colorado. “Alive and flourishing!” wrote one traveler. “This great old shoe tree barely clings to the edge of a wash now but still holds its own,” wrote another. On RoadTrip America, Linda Brothwell of Sheffield, England, commented that it was a “marvelous specimen” and the “first of this phenomenon” that she had seen.
Then, in 2010, the weight of the shoes were too much for the old tamarix to bear. Down it came, embedding itself into the desert, its ornaments strewn around like a chalk outline made of laces and leather.
As the tourist season was winding down this September, Amboy, where temperatures have been known to reach over 120 degrees, saw it rain heavily for seven hours. Several sections of Route 66 nearby still remain closed. By the time the deluge had finished, shoes were scattered all the way down to the train tracks, about a quarter mile away. The stump of the tree still stood, dry and brittle as ever, but no matter how much life and height it lost, new shoes never ceased to appear. The more the tree decayed, the more visitors were determined to keep it alive, filling it with the memories of their epic trip, marked by a pair of old, worn shoes.
Down the road another tamarix tree, this one full and plushy green like the other once had been, stood tall. It too, began amassing shoes. As travelers entered California from Arizona on the final leg of their trip, it wasn’t so much about getting your kicks on Route 66 as it was about leaving them.
No one can say for sure why the Amboy Shoe Tree came into existence. Legend has it that a husband fighting with his new bride on their honeymoon took her belongings, including several pairs of shoes, and chucked them in the tree in a fit of frustration. Another rumor claims the origins of the shoe tree stems from military recruits training in the Mojave who threw their boots in the tree. The Amboy Shoe Tree has no verifiable beginning, nor end. It is anonymous and spontaneous. Unlike other commercial roadside attractions, it exists for the traveler, by the traveler. No one gets to decide its demise, not even nature.
Of course, it’s not exactly one of a kind. Several shoe trees exist across America, usually in middle-of-nowhere places like Cherokee, Alabama; Woodstock, Illinois; and Priest Lake, Washington. Many of them are tracked by sites like Roadside America, an online guide to offbeat tourist attractions. The site currently has information on thirty-six shoe trees, twenty or more of which have fallen down.
Roadside America author Doug Kirby, who runs the website with a small team, calls shoe trees the “unnatural, natural wonder.”
“There is no set rule on why the shoe tree is out there and continuing to grow,” he says, adding a crucial point about the phenomenon that perhaps gets to the heart of why they exist in the first place. “The shoes will survive the weathering effect longer than the tree usually will.”
The Amboy Shoe Tree is perfect evidence of this. In a place as barren as “The Ghost Town That Ain’t Dead Yet” people still want to leave their mark, their personal statement, a physical, tangible piece of their existence stamped on the American landscape.
No one knows this better than Hansel, who is used to living in a place where practically nothing exists.
“You’re traveling out in the desert, you see nothing for seventy to eighty miles,” Hansel says, as a freight train slowly cuts across the Mojave in the distance. “It’s the first sign of life.”
Hansel is originally from Downey, in southeast Los Angeles County, but he moved to Amboy to work at Roy’s Motel and Cafe just across the street from the Shoe Tree after a series of unexpected, somber turns in his life led him to seek a more peaceful existence in the desert. What he found were abandoned cemeteries and schools and shower water so highly concentrated with salt that he still can only take sponge baths. A past president of the California Route 66 association, Hansel has traveled the entire Route three times and lives for the history and nostalgia encompassed on this once-great highway. Wearing a Route 66 T-shirt, slicked-back salt and pepper hair and a contagious smile, Hansel belongs to the route the same way the route belongs to him. He isn’t just passing through, he’s living it every day.
Hansel looks up from the tree and turns to ask if I’ve brought shoes with me. I haven’t. “Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll find you some shoes to throw.”
Once a bustling railroad town on the highway that brought so many to the West, Amboy, like many other small towns, met its demise when Interstate 40 replaced Route 66 in the early ’70s. It didn’t take long for the population, which once numbered around 700, to all but disappear. The only things that are still functioning are Roy’s, a small post office and the office of Farrell Hastings, Amboy’s sheriff who lives just across from the café. The skeletal remnants of the abandoned Amboy school and church, as well an extinct volcano, the Amboy Crater, also pepper the landscape.
“There used to be a lot of life out here at one time,” Hansel says. “It is pretty much in ruins now.”
Albert Okura owns the town of Amboy. He bought it ten years ago from Bessie Burris, whose husband Herman “Buster” Burris owned and operated Amboy as well as Roy’s Motel and Café since the 1940s. There were higher offers, but Burris sold the town to Okura for $425,000 in cash because he promised to honor Amboy’s legacy. Along with his right hand man, Carlos “Charlie” Aceves, he is working to preserve and restore this famous stop on 66.
Okura is also the owner of a chain of Mexican chicken restaurants across Southern California’s Inland Empire called Juan Pollo. He is a shrewd businessman who realizes the power of marketing, which explains why he drives a van (often slowly) emblazoned with the Juan Pollo logo and parks a small trailer across from Roy’s advertising his chain. He calls his purchase of Amboy and the work he’s doing as a preservationist in the town his destiny. Okura and Aceves have worked on restoring the electricity and getting the vintage gas pumps in top shape. Hansel and his co-worker at Roy’s, Debbie Arbuckle, even take shifts to keep Amboy’s post office working. There’s a lot more work to be done, but Okura admits he couldn’t have willed the tree, which plays a part in so many trips to Amboy, into existence if he tried.
“You can’t make it,” he says, over ice-cold root beers outside Roy’s. “It just happens. If I knew how, I would have started it myself.”
Okura credits the rise of social media and the revival of Route 66 culture (especially thanks to Disney’s “Cars” franchise) as having contributed to just how popular the Amboy Shoe Tree has gotten.
Shane Sullivan, who lives in Oceanside, California, took a Route 66 trip in July 2013. He and his wife flew to Chicago and made their way back to California by car.
Sullivan, who works as a water treatment operator and says he goes through about a pair of new shoes every three months, knew before he even set off that making sure he had the opportunity to contribute to the shoe tree was a very important part of his trip.
So he brought along a pair of black FILA basketball shoes — his favorite pair — and left them in the Amboy Shoe Tree.
“I wasn’t going to throw just any shoe, it had to be something good,” he says. “It was definitely something I wanted to do, as a symbolic mark of ‘Hey, we did it. We were here.’”
The hundreds of travelers who have passed through here probably did it for the same reasons. The Amboy Shoe Tree tells the barren desert, “Yes, someone was here once.” The abandoned school in Amboy is decaying in the sun. The cemetery no longer has grave markers. Last year, the church even lost its steeple. But the Shoe Tree is here, feeding our compulsion to be heard and seen and talked about, even in a place as dead as this.
“We as Americans are bred to try,” Sullivan says. “We go out there and we do stupid stuff like build a café out in the middle of nowhere because we think about that nine percent chance that it’s going to happen to us, so we do it. And sometimes these things stick.”
And sometimes they don’t.
Before I leave Amboy, Hansel finds a pair of shoes for me to throw in the tree. The sun has started to set, giving way to a fiery magenta sky. A group of motorcyclists have just finished gassing up and rev out of the station onwards to Arizona. We walk over to the tree and find a pair of black men’s shoes, probably double the size of my actual feet. It takes two tries — swinging a pair of heavy shoes looks deceptively easy — but they finally go in and stay.
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Liana Aghajanian is a roving journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Mental Floss and Los Angeles Magazine, among others. In 2013, she was an International Reporting Project Fellow in Global Religion reporting on Iranian refugees in Germany. Follow her on Twitter @LianaAgh or visit her portfolio.