Warning: Don't tread on Park City's 'Shoe Tree'
Attempt to clean up beloved 'funky' icon got Parkites fired up.
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Park City • Warning to newcomers: Don't mess with this town's funk.

Janet Koal was unaware of that unwritten caveat when she visited the Park City Council recently to exercise what she thought was her civic responsibility. The growing number of shoes hanging from several trees along Deer Valley Drive was becoming unsightly, she told the elected officials.

Koal had no idea that her description of the "Shoe Tree" as "three-dimensional graffiti" would unleash a firestorm of emotion. Parkites came out of the woodwork to defend the beloved Shoe Tree ­— a little-known symbol of this once-funky town turned glitzy stopover for the glitterati.

The tree along Deer Valley Drive near Heber Avenue harks back to the 1970s. It has been, for more than three decades, a place where locals — and some visitors, too — have tossed footwear in hedonistic homage to the mountain spirits, or the snow gods or who knows what.

The Shoe Tree is even marked by a plaque that tells of its origin, something vague about "boys" from Easy Street sitting around a campfire drinking who began throwing their shoes in a tree.

Letters to The Park Record newspaper, as well as posts on a Facebook page called "Keep the P.C. Shoe Tree," reveal a deep connection to the community totem ­­and what it represents ­— the Park City not reflected in travel brochures or ski magazines.

One post read: "Shove off Shoe-Tree hater."

Another said: "Lady who just moved here, go back to wherever you came."

Others were even less kind.

Koal, who has lived in Park City for less than two years, concedes she didn't recognize the importance the Shoe Tree holds for many residents.

"I was more than surprised," Koal said of the outpouring. "I encountered some negative reaction from people. I feel like I've awakened a sleeping dragon."

The tree near the Marriott hotel is reminiscent of the mostly forgotten little mountain town that collected characters during a raucous time before Park City was discovered, explained Mayor Dana Williams.

"We look on it as an iconic message to our funk," he said. "As much as we are a world-class resort, we still are a funky town and the Shoe Tree is part of it."

The tree ­— which actually is several trees with interlacing branches — represents a deep sense of community for people who live and work in Park City, said City Councilwoman Liza Simpson.

"It's something that has always made us smile," she said. "And it's something more than a few of us have participated in after a few adult beverages on Main Street."

For Parkites like Candice Chaney, the words "Clean up the Shoe Tree" were too much.

"I'm sick and tired of people coming to town and complaining about things," she said, referring to newcomers and vacation-home owners. "But I've never seen the local community come together so strong and say, 'No, you're not doing anything to that tree.' "

After Koal's comments were reported in The Park Record, the Park City Parks Department removed 26 large trash bags of shoes from the trees, according to supervisor Clint Dayley. Nonetheless, dozens of pairs remain.

The trees are thinned of shoes each fall to keep them healthy, he said. The footwear is donated to St. Mary's Church.

For Koal, the issue can't quiet down soon enough. Although she and her husband moved to Park City in 2009, they have owned property in town for a decade and really like the place. And now, as much as ever, they would like to fit in.

"I think people in Park City are proud of their town and it has a wonderful character," she said. "I just don't want to be known as that Shoe Tree lady."

csmart@sltrib.com