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End of the road for the shoe tree

Fredda Stevenson sized up the despondent young man who'd slunk into her remote watering hole on U.S. Highway 50. He was thirsting for beer and, as Stevenson learned, advice.

His new bride, he grumbled, had blown all their cash on slot machines in Reno. Then they'd sped east through 100 miles of sagebrush and hills as dark and lumpy as mud pies. They camped down the road from Stevenson's bar, near a large cottonwood tree that had inexplicably thrived in Nevada's badlands. The couple started quarreling.

She threatened to walk home. He snatched her shoes, hurled them into the cottonwood's branches and said: Go ahead. Try. He stormed off with the car and ended up two miles away, at Old Middlegate Station. He polished off two beers before listening to Stevenson's sage counsel:

"You want to be married for the rest of your life? You better learn to say 'I'm sorry' now."

As Stevenson told it, the groom shuffled back and apologized. Then, at his bride's insistence, he hurled his own shoes into the tree.

That was in the late 1980s. Ever since, other passersby have pulled over and added their footwear — worn-out sneakers and too-tight pumps, ballet slippers and snowshoes. Horseshoes knotted with baling twine. Plastic stilettos from brothel courtesans (or so locals claim).

The roadside spectacle provided Middlegate — a 17-person cluster of RVs and modest homes — with an identity, and weary drivers with a rare and towering landmark on the 280-mile stretch of highway known as the "Loneliest Road in America."

The shoe tree was something in the middle of nothing, and perhaps that's why its destruction has been so deeply felt.

On Dec. 30, under an inky sky, one vandal, or maybe more, downed the tree with a chainsaw. The roughly 80-year-old cottonwood toppled into a gully, its branches jutting out like arms trying to flag down help.

Though shoe trees have sprouted in California, Oregon, Oklahoma and New York, the depth of the mourning for Nevada's cottonwood is remarkable. Facebook groups lamented the tree's "murder." "Middlegate Shoe Tree — Rest in Peace" has nearly 1,500 members. The group "The Shoe Tree Conspiracy" intends to create art, perhaps sculpture, from the cottonwood's Nikes and Keds.

The Churchill County history museum in Fallon scooped up cowboy boots and flippers to display alongside a chunk of the tree. Even Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval chimed in, telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "I was devastated, just devastated, that some vandals would cut down the shoe tree."

There's a kinship between man and tree that's not easily explained. Trees have starred in Greek mythology, Native American traditions, Christian parables and modern literature, often personifying wisdom and durability. A tree usually outlasts those who relish its beauty and shade. Chopping one down? Sacrilege.

Along Highway 50, locals marveled at the shoe tree's ability to withstand punishing environs where even tumbleweeds are rare. Wind is fierce and water scarce. Charles Brown, a 53-year-old truck driver who lives nearby, often winced at the footwear weighing down the cottonwood's branches.

"I felt sorry for the tree. It degraded it. Trees take a lifetime to grow out here," he said.

There were so many shoes in the tree that, every few months, state workers hauled off several truckloads' worth — as well as couches, bicycles and kitchen sinks that littered the ground nearby.

Neither Brown nor his fiancée, Cheryl Holokan, 53, ever added their shoes. (If anything, Holokan said, locals were more inclined to swipe the gently worn pairs that were sometimes discarded.) But when the couple learned of the tree's untimely end, the news landed like a gut punch.

"That tree deserved more respect," Holokan said.

In Middlegate, Stevenson cried. Her husband, Russ, did too. "It was like a good friend had just died," said Stevenson, who was startled by the intensity of her reaction. Why was she weeping for a tree? For weeks, she mulled the answer.

Stevenson, who declined to give her age, arrived at this former Pony Express stop in 1984, determined to revive a bar abandoned by previous caretakers. She nicknamed the roughly 70-foot-tall cottonwood down the highway "Mother Tree"; it towered over a few other cottonwoods nearby.

She eventually transformed the foreclosed bar's carcass into a homey, wood-paneled restaurant and bar with a small motel and two fuel pumps: one for diesel, one for regular gas. (Want premium? Keep driving. Fallon, the nearest city, is about 50 miles away.) Regulars included Gold Dust Bob, Drifter Dave and Sleeping Bag Bill, the last so named for the bedding strapped to his motorcycle.

For a time, Stevenson did without a phone — if she needed help, she flicked on a CB radio to call another bar, which called a brothel, which had a landline. These days, there's cell service, though a generator still keeps the place humming. As a sign outside the bar says, Middlegate remains "The Middle of Nowhere, Elevation 4,600 feet. Population: 17." That didn't include the shoe tree, but it might as well have.

In 1991, Stevenson married cowboy-hatted Russ, 64, who'd proposed over a dinner of "spamaroni" — macaroni and cheese with Spam and chili peppers. Over the years, the cottonwood bloomed with water skis and high heels, which the couple admired while exploring the desert.

"I think she enjoyed all the attention," Stevenson said of the tree. "She thrived. She seemed to become bigger, fluffier, more impressive."

Middlegate Station thrived too. Many patrons dropped by during shoe tree pilgrimages. They downed Miller High Life and hamburgers, tacked signed dollar bills to the ceiling, maybe bought a shoe tree postcard to remember the Loneliest Road. "Good thing shoes come in pairs," it says, "they can keep each other company!"

Once the shoe tree was chopped down, Stevenson was overwhelmed by calls and letters from fellow mourners. So she planned a memorial for Sunday, just before Valentine's Day, to acknowledge that the tree was so beloved. A friend who couldn't make it — she'd been hospitalized — sent Stevenson a poem to read:

Who did this dastardly, hateful thing?

We'll likely never know.

But, against society as a whole

He has struck a mighty blow.

The afternoon of the memorial, dozens of people crowded into a turnout off Highway 50, near the ditch where the shoe tree had pitched over: leather-clad bikers, dreadlocked artists, giggling children, retirees toting cameras and camping chairs. Dozens more peered across the two-lane road.

The sky was blue, the wind gentle. Native American activist Adam Fortunate Eagle, who lives nearby, burned sage and fanned it with an eagle feather. His wife's sneakers had been flung into the tree years ago.

He presented colorful scraps of cloth bound together and holding tobacco. A young man took the bundle, scurried into the ditch and fastened it to a tree branch that had been cleared of shoes. On the way back, he stepped over a rose someone had placed near the stump.

Stevenson, who'd hauled a microphone and speaker to the edge of the ditch, walked the crowd through various remembrances of the shoe tree. There were some photos. A wire stand bedecked with gold strappy heels. A sign at the turnout to commemorate the tree, and a sculpture to do the same at the bar. Also, a pair of dice — this is Nevada, after all — carved from a branch.

Down the gully, folks lobbed grimy footwear at a smaller cottonwood, where pranksters had unsuccessfully tried to start a "bra tree" years ago. Stevenson watched. She swallowed hard.

She'd snuck out here a few hours before the memorial. One glance at the felled cottonwood and, as she'd expected, her eyes welled with tears. She sat on the stump and thanked the Mother Tree for such fond memories. Then she whispered goodbye.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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