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Drive Time

When Stray Shoes Take a Detour on the Nation's Roadsides

March 14, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I've always wondered about the shoes. Whether navigating the raging lanes of the Baltimore Beltway or skating atop I-70 as it connects the hills of West Virginia with the plains of Kansas or zigzagging along the freeways that lattice California, there are always shoes lying along the side of the road. Tennis shoes and suede saddles, red stilettos, army boots, penny loafers and clogs. Sometimes they are accompanied by a smear of unidentifiable clothing, or tangled in a streamer of trash, but most often it is just the shoe, on its side on the shoulder, or peeking out of the underbrush.

Certain shoes stay in my mind--a lace-up, glam-rocker boot valiantly red in the pouring rain just outside Terre Haute; a thick-soled black workman's shoe on I-40 between Ashville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn.; a Shaq-sized sneaker sizzling under the sun on the 134 heading into Pasadena.

Where do these shoes come from? How did they get there?

A pile of shoes would make sense--an accident involving a truck on the way from Kenneth Cole, perhaps, although such a thing would no doubt result in gridlock and a piranha-like frenzy. A pair of shoes, I also might understand. For years now, when I have noticed a shoe, I have kept my eyes peeled for its mate and I have never seen one. Neither have I ever noticed a matching bag or belt.

These are not children's shoes, which might make sense, or even crummy shoes--although a solitary shoe looks waifish under the best of circumstances, and life on the road is notoriously hard. Representing the endless spectrum of footwear fashion, they are ubiquitous and mysterious, scattered from sea to shining sea.

The folks at Caltrans don't have an answer handy, although the men and women who keep the freeways clean have seen it all--shoes, drugs, money, corpses. Along with the more predictable driving detritus--strips of rubber, twisted metal, the odd hubcap--highway maintenance crews routinely find luggage-rack items--suitcases, bicycle tires, skis and other things that were not attached securely--as well as rooftop goofs--the purses, wallets, coffee mugs, jackets that people put on the roof of their car "just for a minute" and forget.

These are the things that make sense. Then there are the things that don't. The wedding rings, the engagement rings, the watches, the money.

"We always wonder about the rings," says Caltrans spokesperson James Deno. "Especially the wedding rings and the diamonds. What, are they having a fight and she just throws her ring out the window? I guess it happens."

Among the crews, stories circulate of the big finds--the bank robber's loot, the hot jewelry box, the dealer's stash, pitched during some high-speed chase. When something of this nature is found, maintenance workers are instructed to call the police. And sometimes, says Deno, they do. But it would be hard, he admits, to turn in a bag full of Franklins that no one seems to be missing.

Deno worked the roads for 20 years, and though he never found a suitcase full of cash, he has picked up "quite a bit" of stray cash--20s and 50s and singles that somehow got away.

"One time we had an over-turned Brinks truck," he says. "And about $7,000 worth of quarters got spilled. The police were all over it, but we were finding quarters for weeks afterward."

Sometimes people will call Caltrans if they have a pretty good idea where their hubcap popped off or where they tossed that ring, and the department tries to locate the owner of things they find. But in most cases, there is no identification, so "finders keepers" rules. Deno himself has a fine collection of baseball caps. "My wife thinks I'm crazy," he says, "but some of these were practically new."

But even a seasoned crew member like Deno is baffled by the shoes. Sometimes, he says, they're simply part of a suitcase that hit the ground, or even the unsettling remains of an accident. But neither scenario accounts for their number or their solitary nature.

Perhaps the shoes are the leavings of a secret sport--an automotive dodge ball, using shoes. Maybe they're the work of an underground artist, a la Cristo. Or perhaps they are simply a reminder, a symbol of what the American road once was--a footpath, a track traversed by sole and hoof. Where once there was not even a wooden wheel.

*

Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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