Posted on October 25 2017
Anyone can lose a sock. I don't know where they go or what happens to them, they just go. I don't care about socks though, its shoes that get me.
Speaking of shoes, I drive a lot. Most of the time it's wandering random highways throughout New England as I navigate my way to my next big hike. These drives, these hikes, they are all done alone. My friends seem to like the idea of being outside and like the idea or thought of themselves hiking. They can visualize themselves hiking, but they don't do it, at least not with me. So I go alone.
When I drive alone, to the trail I will be hiking alone, I start to think. My mind wanders. Early in the morning there isn't much else to do while driving, my body - as far as driving skills, is on autopilot. Except for the random turn, the highways are endless and mindless, albeit pretty and haunting, but I don't need to think to appreciate them. And when I start my hike, to do however many miles and peaks I have set out to do, my mind is on autopilot. This leaves me with alone time, thinking alone time.
I tell people that's why I go hiking, to be alone with my thoughts. To be honest though, I don't get much thinking done. That's not true. I do a lot of thinking, I just don't think it is productive or worthwhile. My mind wanders in all directions, no laser focus on topics like curing cancer or figuring out how the New York City traffic lights are timed perfectly to let you cross an empty street. I'm never going to figure any of that out.
Mt Manchester, Moosilauke, Bond, West Bond, Bondcliff, Zealand, Passaconaway, Whiteface, Mansfield, are just a few of the peaks I have done solo. The only requirement is they be above 4,000' and they are hard to get to.
Every once in a great while, if I get lucky, I spot a lone shoe on the side of the highway. Its like seeing a rainbow, a celebrity, or a moose, it doesnt happen often but you get excited when it does. In the middle of nowhere, removed from everywhere, and I wonder "how did that shoe get there?". Losing a shoe is not a fun thing, it isnt pleasant. More so, if you lose it so far from nowhere. Were they walking? In a car? If they were walking did they take the other one off to even themselves out, even if it meant walking barefoot along a breakdown lane covered in ice, glass, or rotting roadkill carcass? I don't get it. If they were driving, how did it fly out the window?
How do you lose a shoe? They don't just come off.
To break up the boredom, the monotony of the drives I make up back-stories about the owners of those shoes. The 8 inch stiletto heal that belonged to the stripper with a heart of gold and a prosthetic leg of wood. She moved to Vermont to escape her abusive boyfriend and nasty heroin habit only to end up in the same dirty "gentleman's" club. The name, owner and location may be different, but they are the same anywhere you go. One cold December night she was offered a ride from one of the long time patrons of The Sugar Shack, and halfway home the guy figured her for an easy lay, she fought, got out, and lost a shoe in the scuffle. I caught aglimpse of that one perched atop a snow bank on the side of route 83 on my way to Bond Mt, a 18 mile death march where I ran out of water halfway down.
Or the steel-toed construction boot. Left where it landed in the terrifying moments after a road crew was sideswiped by a UHaul rented by two Dartmouth freshman from Jersey. It was the beginning of September, the start of a new fall semester and the leaves had already started dropping from the oaks and sugar maples along the windy side roads. Heavy rains assisted the leaves demise and created a slick covering over the black top. By the time the freshman turned the corner and saw the blinking construction lights - it was too late. In the rush to get the three men into the ambulances and off to the ER, the shoe was left at the scene.
Not all my back stories are sad, some are upbeat enough I wish I was there. Flip flops that simply fly out of a convertible by girls kicking their feet up in the air, excited to be out of school and on their way to Hampton Beach. I imagine myself in the backseat right there with them, the sun beating down and wind in our hair. Quickly I revert back to the cold, dark, desolate highways in the middle of a Maine winter. Those stories don't make me smile, but they feel better to create and discover what happened next. It is the somber mood of the stories that reflect into my hiking. I enjoy hiking or I would not push myself to some of the physical pain I feel during and a few days after. I wouldn't spend the money on backpacks, water filtration kits, poles, tents, knives and all the other little gadgets I love. The mood allows me to take stock of things, even if they are trivial.
I have wondered who else shares my hobby? Not of hiking of course, there are already too many of those, but single shoe back-story creators. Long haul truckers, salesmen, solo adventurists? Do they do this stuff? No real way to find out, not something you bring up in line at the gas station line while buying Vitamin Water, Slim Jims, Red Bull and and pizza flavored Combos. "Hey scary looking trucker dude, do you create back stories for lost shoes you see on the side of the road?"
I didn't only think about shoes while hiking, but it filled the time, and I was getting good at it. If they were memorable enough I jotted the idea down when I got back to my car or in the tent at night. Later I would flesh them out with the owners of those shoes getting thier own back-stories.
As time past, I started noticing a disturbing trend. The single lonely shoes were disappearing. Were the street crews stepping up and picking up the stragglers, or were there less people in the world prone to losing shoes? Once again, no way to find out, no one to ask - possibly the Department of Transportation, but those guys are able to laugh, taunt and tease. Not something my psyche can deal with right now.
It was sad, I was sad, my time waster, brain teaser, back-story pastime was fading. Maybe I should find some friends to go hiking with? Fill those extended solitary drives with some companionship. Maybe I could get a dog, or stop hiking all together. I could find a different hobby, one that didn't require me to spend precious weekends driving 700 miles to hike 18. Maybe I could move closer to the mountains I love to hike. New York City is not the ideal spot to work if you live in Connecticut and have a passion for hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It doesn't work.
There was only solution I could come up with, the only one that made sense, the one that became more clear the more I obsessed over it, the practical one. I needed to scatter the highway with my own shoes.
Not mine of course, junk ones from thrift stores. I could find pairs for $2 at some shops- worth every penny in my mind. Chuck Taylors, bridal party one-timers, tennis shoes, moon boots, whatever, it came to the point where I had a trunk full of them, actually a full back seat and trunk. Whenever I felt the urge, I would reach around and toss one out. I had a grey 1999 Audi A6 wagon, good on gas, great in the snow and terrible in the shop. The back seats folded down and created a ton of cubic space to fit gear, or in my case - shoes. I acquired massive amounts of used shoes.
I started visiting the towns along my routes where I went hiking, then expanded out in non-concentric random circles. I didn't know where I was going, I only knew what I wanted. There were some great little towns around Lake Winnipesaukee to find shoes. Second hand stores, "gently loved" as some higher-end places called them. I didn't go in there, I didn't need gently loved, I didn't think. The summer resort towns seemed to be teeming with shoes that rich kids apparently grew out of during summer vacation. Baby shoes were always a nice find, and what could be more sad than a tiny little baby shoe carelessly discarded on the side of the road? Those things are supposed to be bronzed or dipped in gold or something.
I went for the old, beat up shoes, something that could provide a back-story worth re-telling. The more battered and bruised the better, however, many Salvation Army and Thrift stores don't sell the really soiled shoes - they toss them out. I learned this from the street people of NYC. I didn't like to call them bums, so i called them street people, not to their faces, but in my mind. I bribed them with tupperware containers filled with food. "tell me where the shoe treasure is and all this food is yours" i would say. Things got weird. I got on a first name basis with a few of them, some of them are not as insane as I had originally thought, most of them are completely and hopelessly out of their minds. Scary weird.
I dove into the dumpsters, crawled into the subway tunnels, inched along alleys, all in my quest for terrible shoes. Shoes that looked as bad as some of the people I was following around at night. I carried my large backpack into the city with me everyday. Co-workers would ask why, I made up so many random excuses the questions finally ceased, as did all other questions and conversations. They left me alone. I think I was starting to smell.
After amassing a dirty shoe collection Imelda Marcos would have been proud of, I changed tactics and started hunting new shoes. Hunting wasn't what I was doing so I switched to calling it shoeing. Obviously I told no one else about what I was up to, so that word was for me. My thinking was a brand new shoe on the side of the highway with one strategically placed scuff is more sad than an old beat up shoe. Old shoes can be tossed out the window, or left behind without too many cares. A new shoe, shiny and bright should not be relegated to the side of the road unless some unknown horrific tragedy occurred.
New shoes were just as easy to come by once you ask around and got into the circuit. Discount clothes stores like Marshalls would donate shoes that hung around on their shelves for too long. Talk to the right person, grease a palm or two with money, liquor or simple companionship for some of the more homely second-assistant managers and its new shoe galore time.
Brand, brand new shoes wouldn't work, they needed some jarring traumatic experience attached to them to portray a feeling of despair and tragedy. After work, at home and well into the night i would work meticulously on creating horrors to the shoes that almost no one would ever see. Flying past these shoes at 75MPH on the interstate you couldn't tell it there was a razor blade slice down the back heel, a dried blood stain on the toe, an aglet torn off or a shoelace broke on the third left eyelet from the bottom. But I knew.
One afternoon after exiting a Salvation Army in Barre, VT, I noticed a few kids looking into the back of the wagon. As i approached they sped off on their Huffys laughing and pointing. Getting closer to my rusting out grey wagon with one whitewall I realized what had the boys so curious. The entire back of my wagon, seats folded down, had become filled with shoes. How did I not notice this before? How much had I spent? Did someone else put them in the back? Seeing all those shoes did remind me of one thing, I was no longer hiking, i was...buying shoes. The reason I started the
backstories was because of the hiking, now I'm not doing that.
I knew i had to get rid of them, or at least cover them up. Over the past 3 months, my mission had grown more complicated, involved, detailed and I was starting to scare myself. I was getting off the train at 7:15 each weeknight and driving north to Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate NY simply to toss shoes on the sides of roads, routes I never took before and would never find or see again. It got to the point where I the only sleep I got was the hour and twenty minute train ride to and from the city each day.
Even though the shoes we free or close to free, the gas, tolls, street people food bribes in addition to the dinners and late night snacks consisting of Combos and Red Bull were taking their financial toll. I keep pushing the emotional toll to the back of my mind, behind other glaring facts that were telling me stop. I had begun to wonder if anyone was even noticing or caring, or more importantly creating back-stories as I had done. I had gone completely away from what I knew, and was turning strange and weird. I reassured myself that if I was aware that I was getting weird, then I couldn't really be. Its the ones who don't notice that are the ones with issues, not me. The original mission was for others to create, think, pass the boredom of the long open road by generating that interest spark.
All this work I had been doing, was all at night, I didn't know where I had been going, or how many shoes I was throwing out my windows. I had almost an endless supply, my car was full, my basement was full and I had a team of street people who I was feeding crock-pot beef stew providing me with more shoes than I could ever need.
I headed to my normal routes and highways to see if anything that had changed. Were people talking at the Oak Street Bistro in Alfred, ME, or at Cue Ball Club in Keene, NH?
What I saw caused profound emotional terror. Pit of the stomach sick. From that point on, I was not the same. All I saw were shoes. Lots of shoes. They were everywhere, hundreds of shoes on the highways, interstates and routes. Piled high, grouped in bunches. Clogging storm drains and blocking street signs. Piles of dirty, new, loved, worn and abused shoes. The snow was melting and there was a tip here, a heel there, poking out among the steep snowbanks.
Did I do this?
I had gone through, in my estimation over 3,500 pairs of shoes, which meant 7,000 single shoes for me to toss around - but I couldn't have done this. Were my calculations that far off? Was there a group of people following my lead or had others picked up the same idea and obsessive plan that I came up with at the exact same time? My plan and my idea. I was always under the impression my mind was unique, somewhat twisted and worked a bit differently than others. I felt a glimmer of hope that maybe I wasn't going mad. I realize the plan was to ultimately get others to create back stories about abandoned shoes, but were others taking that same idea and trying to get thought provoking back-stories like i was? Did they understand my end goal or just tossing shoes out because it had turned into what everyone else was doing.
I needed to stake out I-91, my most traveled highway to figure what was going on, and to pull me back. I needed to find the others doing what I had done. Confirming it wasn't just me. What if it was? I was willing and ready to stop anyone I see tossing shoes, detain and question them for their motives.
I bought a blue flashing light, crappy police siren, an intercom for the wagon and a rent-a-cop uniform for my body. I set up shop under an overpass right around White River Junction and waited. And waited. From 10 - 3:30am on a Friday night, nothing doing. On Saturday I waited from 9 to 4am and right at the tail end of my "shift". An old school diesel Benz came flying by when what appeared to be a Reebok pump came flying out of the back window. I hit my flasher and siren and took off in hot pursuit. Knowing diesel Benz's this would not be much of a chase, but they did go for a few miles before pulling over.
This was getting risky, throwing shoes out of a window is one thing, but imitating a cop, unlawful restraint is another. Plus what if this punk starts messing with me, its my idea, I wasn't sure how far I was willing to take it. They were fucking up my goal of thought provoking single highway shoes. I had left too many on the side of the road myself, but my mission was clear, I had pure intentions, who knew what these guys were up to. As I approached the rough idling Benz I realized i had no weapon other than a locking leatherman with a three inch blade.
Through the megaphone I asked the driver to turn off the car and throw the keys out the window. They did neither. I approached with caution, shitting my pants. I turned on my imitation Mag light and shined it into the backseat, all the while keeping my hand on my hip covering my imaginary gun, just like every cop show I had seen. It was filled with three kids, none older than 16. All they had were beers, no shoes. Pissed off, tired and disappointed I told them to get lost. I told them it was their lucky night, no charges. They blew out out of there.
Getting my back to my car, sitting down and turning off the light is when I noticed sirens and flashing lights quickly approaching from the other side of the highway. The snow still too deep to cross the median, was going to give me some time. I wasn't sure if those lights were for me, but it didnt matter, they have too many things on me at this point to stick around. The wagon shot off, lights off, raging down the highway while a uniform, lights and a siren went flying out the window. I raged off the next exit, down a street, then down another, to another, killed the engine, threw snow on the hood and leaped into the woods, running through bushes and swinging on small sapplings, anything to hide tracks.
Fifty yards or so in, I crouched down and hid behind a tree. My heart racing like all those sprints up the last 50 feet to a peak. Sweat dripping, steam pouring it felt good, and it felt alive. I lost this feeling, the wild but sane side, pumping blood, senses heightened. Hours passed and I fell asleep then woke up with the sun.
I was tired, cold and wet, but shot to the wagon and took off. I found my way back to I-91 and headed south to Connecticut. It was Sunday night. From the amount of mail in my box and their postmarks it looked as if I hadn't been home in weeks. I waved to my neighbor while having going through the mail and having a smoke on my front porch. No looks weirder looks than usual from the neighbor, always a good sign. I threw the tv on and settled on the couch with a pile of mail and a Budweiser cracked and ready to go. I love going through and separating piles of back-up mail. You get so much, separating bad junk mail from the OK junk mail like cool catalogs. Putting special letters aside to save for last and savor. Putting bills in one pile and scary looking legal notices from Vermont in others.
Then you get the odd ones, large manila envelopes for documents or little boxes. Its this stuff I open after separating the piles, interesting enough, but not personal like letters that I like to spend time with. Catalogs and magazines distributed between the three bathrooms, junk mail goes in the super market brown paper bag for recycling.
I opened the oversized 8 1/2 X 11 manila envelope first, stripping off the tape and undoing the little brass thing I slid out a large glossy photo of, me. Me coming out of the Barre, VT Salvation Army. The little box package had 25 Polaroids of me with my New York City insane street people team. Another one had me through my basement window "working on shoes". Hundreds of pics in all. Polaroids, some film, printer quality photos, 8mm, everything, all of it. No notes, only photos.
A large box was waiting for me when I got home Monday night. Shoes. Many I recognized as my own handi-work. The hole in the sole, the tear of laces, dried blood splatter, MY blood splatter. I brought the box out back and lit it on fire. I went inside and grabbed the stack of pics from my bag. I had brought them with me to the city and poured over each one for clues. I tossed them on top of the burning shoes, they went up quickly and without complaint. Full circle.
I went inside, took two vicodens and went to bed. I can rest, sleep, be normal. It felt over, someone had helped end this for me.
Or were they provoking me?