OVANDO — The back roads of Montana offer any number of oh-my moments best served up by surprise. So we’re not going to say too much about the Boot Tree on Boot Tree Road off Highway 200, .71 miles or so east of Trixi‘s Antler Saloon.
It should be noted, however, that there are more than just boots hanging from the old Ponderosa pine.
A baby’s red sandals. Rubber-soled tenny runners. Bogs and Crocs. Gold-sequined flats and canvas low-tops. Orvis felt-sole wading shoes in reasonable condition. New Balance makes an appearance on the crowded south side branches.
This is art, maybe in its purest form. Approach the Boot Tree on a dark and ominous evening and it can go all Alfred Hitchcocky on you. A bright winter day and you expect to find gifts underneath.
No single person is responsible for the masterpiece, though an anonymous logger from the 1960s or '70s is said to deserve credit for first putting brush to palette.
The scene begs imagination: sawing season in the woods over, or maybe just a work week, and ol’ Boots Bunyan is heading to town in his beater of a 4-by-4.
Perhaps nature calls under this tree. Maybe he has already liberated his tired dogs from their steel-toed caulks (mothers, please say "corks.") Worn to the tread, they beg to be set free, too. Boots ties his boots together by the laces and flings them heavenward. Once? Twice? A dozen times before paint sticks to canvas?
Others follow suit, and the Boot Tree becomes a thing.
All those boots are gone now. Word is that after Plum Creek bought out Champion Timberlands in 1993, adding to holdings that made it the largest private landowner in America, the company kept the tree but removed the boots.
Maybe Plum Creek didn’t want some rambling screwball writing about it in the newspaper, even if said Rambler pledged to keep details of the Boot Tree, located roughly 1.93 miles up Boot Tree Road (Mollet Road on Google maps), to a minimum.
While that eliminated the original sets of boots, it didn’t subdue the spirit.
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This Rambler last made an official visit to the Boot Tree — i.e., stayed long enough to count shoes — in 2008. At that time there were roughly 35 pair. Now it’s 125 to 130.
The lowest, fittingly, are two sad and stately loggers that would come close to brushing a high-profile diesel truck. The highest are boots, too, though their former purpose is undefinable from the ground. They hang a good 40 feet above the road inside a canopy of branches. How they got there is a mystery. Surely aliens were involved.
Boots still represent the preponderance of footwear ornaments. Lots of them were built for hiking. At least one pair has lost its soles. In mid-June a lady’s hiking shoe lay on the forest floor at the base of the tree, its partner nowhere to be found. Inside, a chipmunk had made a cozy cache of pinecone bits and other chipmunk delicacies.
There must be legends about the Boot Tree, and this is as good a place as any to start one.
It could have to do with the bluebird that flits around the aspen grove across the road. Its body looks frail but the heart is strong. Let’s pair it with, say, a grizzly bear, of the type that populates no fewer than four warning posters on the roadside kiosk beneath the Boot Tree.
The Blackfoot Challenge’s Blackfoot Community Conservation Area Council created the kiosk, with maps and descriptions of nearby biking and hiking choices. The whole rolling Ovando Valley — Meriwether Lewis’ Prairie of the Knobs — is a mostly undiscovered haven for bicyclists. Also for grizzlies. Bring bear spray and know how to use it is the message on one of the posters.
Ms. Bluebird, in a time long ago, was happily cruising a wild rose patch above Helmville when she came beak to snout with the monster of your choice. To keep this story regionally appropriate, please don’t go with a Chupacabra. We imagine a snarling, dark-hearted wolverine named Mae Belle.
The chase is on, up and down the Blackfoot, from Cadotte Pass to Scotty Brown Bridge, around the timeless blue-eyed fiberglass steer at Clearwater Junction and back up to Monture Creek. Ms. Bluebird is fast, elusive. Mae Belle just keeps on coming.
From his throne on Ovando Mountain, Master Grizzly watches the pursuit. He intercepts it down here at the Boot Tree. What happens next is the stuff of legend.
But that would be too much information, wouldn’t it?