A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do you always see just one shoe by the side of the road?

May 29, 1992

Dear Cecil:

Can you solve a mystery for us? Why is it that every so often as you're driving along there's just one shoe lying there on the road? There's never the other shoe in the pair, just that one shoe. Does someone throw their shoe out the window in disgust? Do kids throw their parents' shoes out the back of the station wagon? Do they sprout from seeds sewn by bird droppings in the pavement? This is a worldwide phenomenon: I've seen road shoes sit there, dusty and flattened, in India, Europe, and Mexico and on many highways and byways of North America. Any advice will be appreciated.

Cecil replies:

Well, we can nix the sprout-from-seeds hypothesis right off the bat. You're undoubtedly thinking of shoe trees. (Haw!) Many great and not-so-great minds have wrestled with this phenomenon without arriving at any firm conclusions. I note, for instance, that my fellow investigator David Feldman devotes seven pages to the topic in his book When Do Fish Sleep, in the course of which he elucidates 13 theories on lone shoe origin. Clearly, what Dave needs is to meet a nice girl. It's high time I settled matters once and for all.

First a few observations from the field. As usual in the case of your more inscrutable questions, Cecil and his minions have been prospecting for tips on the radio. So far we've come up with the following:

  • Peak shoe spotting season is summer through fall.
  • There's disagreement on how widespread the phenomenon is. Contrary to your report, some say it's confined to North America, and that you never see shoes on, say, the German autobahn.
  • There's no single explanation for the lone shoes. One woman said she placed an extra pair of shoes on the roof of the car while she loaded some stuff, then forgot about them and pulled off. When she checked a while later they were gone. Another said a passenger had his feet up on the dash when the car hit a pothole, whereupon he became unshoed. Unshod. You know what I mean. Yet another claimed he personally had gone around the country strategically depositing shoes in order to sow panic amongst the populace. There's one in every crowd.

None of this really gets at the heart of the matter, however. Cecil and his dedicated research team, including two short and irrepressible members who several times came perilously close to contributing personally to the lost shoe population, recently conducted a 1,500-mile cross-country car trip, traveling on everything from interstates to gravel roads. En route we passed thousands of identifiable items of roadside debris, chiefly pieces of retread tire on the interstates (how anybody can stand to drive on those things I'll never know) and food packaging (mostly cans and bottles) everywhere else. Total shoe count: four, including one each in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, and two on the road into Chicago.

Granted this was in May, not (to hear some tell it) the height of shoe season. And I probably missed a few, such as when one of the little researchers was screaming at the top of her lungs. Still, considering the vast quantity of roadside junk, we're talking about a tiny number of shoes.  I venture to say people have the idea that the highways are littered with shoes because (1) a roadside shoe is an ineffably memorable sight, and (2) virtually all other trash on the road is either anonymous or numbingly commonplace.  As to why you always see one shoe, never a pair, what do you expect? Assuming most of the shoes are lost by accident, the chances of two randomly ejected shoes landing together is vanishingly small.

That's the way I see it, anyway. But I'll concede the topic has unplumbed depths. Further insight from the Teeming Millions is cordially solicited.

Testimony

Dear Cecil:

At last you took on that great mystery of the universe, the single shoe phenomenon, about which the scientific community has been suspiciously silent. As a life-long observer of the one-shoe enigma, I can offer several observations:

(1) A few weeks ago while driving on the main Seattle freeway I noticed that the passenger of the car in front of me was holding a shoe out the window. Accelerating to investigate, I saw that the shoe in question appeared to be covered with some foul substance (canine in origin, I suspect).  As I continued to follow this car, the passenger lost his hold on the ill-fated Nike. They slowed down, but then appeared to give up and drove on, leaving the shoe to help carry on the legend.

(2) A neighbor of mine arrived home disgruntled. She had taken her children to the beach and had inadvertently left a pair of the kids' sandals on top of her car. Unlike the aforementioned owner of the befouled shoe, she tried to rescue them upon hearing them clump down the back of the Volvo, but the highway was too busy and the sandals had already been run over multiple times. During the next few days I traversed that stretch of road and saw Noel's sandals (in flattened state).  Now the clincher: a week later I drove down that road once again, and ONLY ONE SHOE WAS LEFT.

Dear Cecil:

Regarding your recent column about the "one shoe in the road" mystery: I used to wonder about that too, but now I know.  It is a steamy night in August; you are wearing flip-flops; you are so drunk that you are crawling down Clark Street; you pass out, are picked up by an ambulance and taken to an emergency rehab facility; when you are released in the AM, you have only one flip-flop, the other being somewhere on Clark Street.

Cecil replies:

"Emergency rehab facility"? I'm going to have to remember that one next time they toss me in the drunk tank.  While we now have an explanation for the disgraceful situation on Clark Street, I stand by my view that the dimensions of the lone shoe phenomenon have been greatly exaggerated.

Dear Cecil:

Upon locating a parking place in the City this summer, I maneuvered into curbside position next to a bank of ice plant. Exiting the car, I could not help noticing what seemed to be a pair of shoes a couple feet up the bank.  Imagine my bewilderment when on closer inspection these turned out to be almost identical, quite well- used, phosphorescent pink pumps — both left foot.

Dear Cecil:

Having traveled behind station wagons with tailgate windows open, I have seen a lone shoe and other odd objects sucked out of the window while driving along. The people in the vehicles are apparently unaware of the loss, and probably are quite perplexed when the objects are discovered missing.

Dear Cecil:

When I lived in Houston, I noticed a large number of (single) shoes on the highway, on gravel back roads, etc., and was driven to start a Roadside Shoe Collection. Often it was quite a feat, retrieving those worn down items in traffic every day, but I did it — I was obsessed, I guess.  I started taking Polaroids of the shoes, titling them and noting exactly where they were found. This went on for the better part of a year. I found that late summer through winter was the best time for adding to the collection. Eventually I accumulated nearly 10 single shoes.

People thought I was weird, yes, but none thought so enough to make me abandon the hobby until a young lady came along, the friend of a friend — two friends removed — who discovered among my collection the missing mate to her favorite pair. She was really wasted when she lost the one I now had, and couldn't identify from the photograph anytime she had been in the location noted.  Reluctantly, I returned her shoe (she had kept the other one) and, either because of that turn of events or because a current love interest couldn't deal with such utter strangeness existing in the garage, I ceased my fetish. For the time being.

Years later I moved to New York and for a short time collected single gloves. Should I seek help?

Cecil replies:

Nah. Collecting gloves isn't that hard. In the interest of thoroughly beating the subject into the ground, I should mention that another reader has sent a column from Denver Post reporter Renate Robey, which reads in part:

Denver street sweeping crews report that they find more single shoes in areas where there are more homeless people. In some neighborhoods, people leave boxes of clothes and shoes in the alley for homeless people who rummage through the alleys. They say a homeless person might be more likely to toss out one worn shoe, but keep the other half of the pair if the shoe is not worn out.

Breakthrough!

Friend of science Ken Grabowski of Chicago's Field Museum has sent me a clipping from the American Geophysical Union journal that may help unravel the why-you-always-see-one-shoe-by-the- side-of-the-road conundrum once and for all.  It seems that on May 27, 1990, a storm struck the container ship Hansa Carrier in the north Pacific (48 degrees N, 161 W), resulting in — get ready for this — 80,000 Nike brand shoes being lost overboard. "Six months to a year later," the journal reports, "thousands of shoes washed ashore in North America from southern Oregon to the Queen Charlotte Islands."

Hmm, you're thinking, and you're not the only one. Ocean scientists immediately began investigating. So far, the report states, they've "gathered beachcomber reports and compared the inferred shoe drift with an oceanographic hindcast model and historical drift bottle returns." Such a joy to see professionals at work.

Yet to be explained is how one of the shoes got from the Pacific coast to Louisville, Kentucky, where it was transformed into the orange work boot spotted by the Straight Dope Field Survey Team last May.  As Cecil's editor observed: "But Kentucky is landlocked!" You've put your finger on it, kid. Much obviously remains to be learned. Maybe it was the seagulls. We'll keep you posted on further news.

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