A spare prompt that caught my attention, finally yielded up it’s story: This is the real story behind those abandoned single shoes on the highway.
At first no one paid any attention. It was just a shoe on the side of the old two lane road. It could have belonged to anyone; a beaten, worn out, running shoe. People drove past every day, few saw it and fewer noticed. One day it was there, the next it was gone. It had been picked up by someone cleaning the side of the road, or maybe a hobo who needed a spare shoe.
A few days later another shoe appeared in the same area. This one laid there, baking in the desert sun, for several weeks before it also was picked up.
A third shoe appeared, then a forth and a fifth. When the sixth shoe appeared in the same area of the road people started to take notice. There were no houses in the immediate area. No one was believed to live within three miles of that stretch of road.
A local radio station got word of the lonely shoes and did a “human interest” spot. Where were they coming from, what, if anything did they mean?
The shoe would lay there for a few days, sometimes a couple of weeks, and then it would be picked up as trash. Always within a few days a new shoe would appear.
A young intern at the radio station started watching the area, driving by several times a day. During his trips he noticed that a few miles outside of town, another shoe was sitting on the side of the road. Something about the way the shoe was positioned caught his attention: it was set face away from the town. He noticed that the laces were tied in a neat bow, not lying jumbled at the side like most abandoned shoes. He drove down the road several miles to where the first shoe had been.
After scouting around for nearly an hour he found the shoe. This shoe was facing towards town and, like the second shoe, the laces were carefully tied. On a whim, he picked up the shoe and took it to his car. It was worn and faded as if the owner had been reluctant to replace it.
A couple of days later the next shoe appeared. Neatly tied and facing towards the distant town. He studied the shoe for a few minutes then put it down, but facing the other direction. When he went to check on the second shoe he realized that it was on the other side of the road. One shoe was facing in to town, the other was leaving.
The first shoe stayed facing the wrong way for a week then, overnight, was turned to face towards the town.
Next he picked up the outbound shoe and put it with the other shoe he’d found. A week later a replacement appeared.
Summer was coming to an end and with it his internship at the station. The young man wanted to know the story behind the shoes before he left so he grabbed some camping gear and set up camp near the site of the first shoe. He picked up the shoe and moved it to his tent.
Cars would drive by and wave at him. A few people would slow down and ask him if he need help. Some asked about the shoes; did he know anything.
He got up early on his last day to watch the sun rise. The shoe hadn’t been replaced, no one had offered an answer to the question of why. In the distance he spotted an old man slowly walking up the road. As the old man got closer the intern could see that he had a bag in one hand and what looked like a backpack across his shoulders.
The old man paused when he came near where the shoe had been and looked towards the tent.
“Hi, ah, sir.” The intern slowly walked towards the road. “You’re the first person I’ve seen walking along this road. Are you okay?”
The man nodded and looked past him at the tent then out into the desert.
“Do you know, can you tell me, about the shoes?” The intern held up the shoe he’d picked up. In the old man’s bag he could see a pair of shoes.
The old man’s eyes brightened for a moment. “Aye.” He reached for the shoe the intern held. “My boy, he lost his leg in the war. Lost more than that I recon.” He looked down at the shoe, his eyes turning red. “He walk these here road for day on end. In and out he go. Lived in a tent like that for a while. In and out any time he need something. Never would call and ask, just up and go.” The old man paused and looked around. “Till one day it got too much, he got tired, he just quit.
“They found him. Animals done got to him. Weren’t much left to bury. State gave him a nice marker.”
“Oh, some be Joe’s, some I find at hobo camp in town. I put them here to remember my boy. He walk this road many a time, pass right by here. He stop here to rest some time. I put it here to remember. Joe was a good boy, but it got too much.”
“Any now you walk this road?”
The old man nodded. “I goes into town to get a few things now and then. I bring along a shoe or two in case someone thowed out the last one.”
The intern carefully set down the shoe he’d picked up, pointing it towards town. “Can I offer you a ride today?”
The old man smiled and nodded. “That mighty kind of you.”
Before he went back to school the intern dropped off a short article. It told the story of an old man grieving his son and leaving tokens of his life along a lonely desert road.
The last shoe never moved. People would sometimes slow down as they passed and think, “it could have been us”. As spring crept across the desert someone came by in the night and left a pair of worn boots next to the shoe – facing in to town.