This feature was originally published in Black Press Media’s Smithers Interior News newspaper in April 2019.
Checking for spiders, scooping out stones, there are only so many reasons to look inside a shoe. Unless you drive up the dusty, winding Kitseguecla Lake Road 30 km west of Smithers to see the shoe house. There, you might wonder about the boot’s interior decorating or if the owner spends most of his time in the heel, toe or ankle.
Hundreds of people stop at the shoe house at 23135 Kitseguecla Lake Road every year—a Moroccan vacuum cleaner salesman based in Vancouver, a Buddhist monk, others from countless countries who owner Toby Walsh has at times greeted in Spanish, Mandarin or Arabic.
Other times, Walsh doesn’t feel so much like talking.
“People ask, ‘Why’d you build it like a shoe?’” said Walsh. “Instead of going into the whole rigamarole about it now I just say I’ve got a shoe fetish or a foot fetish, and they don’t ask any more questions.”
Inside the shoe house
Whether they get the real boot backstory—that one thing led to another after Walsh replaced a leaky roof for his trailer, curving it in the front—or the fetish farce, few visitors get to see inside. But 10 years after Interior News last wrote about the enchanting structure, the man who lives in a shoe waved a reporter over the toe welcome mat made of stone and granted a full tour.
Walsh used to sleep in the ankle, but at 73-years-old, the ladder up from the heel has gotten a bit tricky. Now he sleeps on a mattress in the toe.
Right where he lays his head he has a statue he refers to as “moose mother,” based on a beautifully adorned wedding dress he bought at a flea market in Kuwait. He fit the dress onto a mannequin, found a moose skull on the property and a wig at the dump. He used a pair of his work gloves for the hands.
The rest of the trailer is minimalist. He spends most of his time in the other structures that make up the 13-acre “small village” that surrounds the shoe, particularly in his workshop.
Surrounded by a “small village”
Walsh walks with a staff now and complains of sciatica pain, but he is also quick to describe what projects he’s working on. Currently in his shop he is painting compressed air tanks primary and secondary colours to make a larger-than-life wind chime. To get different tones from each tank, he is cutting off the bottoms to different degrees.
The walls of the active shop are lined with what was mostly missing from his house—stuff. A plaster of a Big Foot footprint he found in California, a model of an elephant house he was planning to build before he ran out of money, a photo of him dressed in Arab clothing that he made into a postage stamp, handheld science experiments like an hour glass with a magnet and iron filings that he let children play with when he was a teacher.
Walsh couldn’t build his elephant house, but the workshop was a dream of his, realized within the past decade.
When Walsh isn’t in his workshop, he’s likely in his library, another converted trailer donated by a neighbour within the last 10 years.
“There are times when I don’t have a clue what I should be doing with myself and when I get that lost feeling, I go over to the library,” he said. “Either read some of the books or rearrange things.”
Like the proposed culture centre in Smithers, the library structure is also an art gallery.
It is filled with etchings by Walsh and his sister, and other collected works: a prized Persian rug made of silk so that when you walk passed it, the colours change; ornate, animal-shaped locks from his travels in the Middle East; and multiples of souvenirs from other places around the world, which he gives to friends, along with an estimated 4,000 books.
“I find a volume I haven’t seen in a long time and I sit down, and I start reading and I get lost. About two hours, I leave,” he said. “Still don’t know what to do with myself, but I don’t feel bad about it anymore.”
Dodging the draft, the Middle East and escaping military action again
Originally from the Bay Area in California, Walsh first came to Canada in 1972.
He said he came “to see what a winter was like,” but truly, he was dodging the Selective Service System, the Vietnam War draft.
He had stayed in university for seven years, hoping the war would end, “but it just kept going.” So, he came to Smithers to squat.
“We lived in an old log cabin up on Hudson Bay Mountain, where you go up to the ski hill,” he said, referring to himself and a former female companion who now lives in Hazelton.
“There had been a log cabin, trapper’s cabin, and nobody was living in it, so we just moved in, fixed it up and that was our first place in Canada.”
After a few months, they ran out of money. Walsh went to Prince George to get a work permit and instead, he received landed immigrant status.
“Back then, it was quite easy to get your immigration into Canada,” he said.
He moved to what would become the shoe house in 1980. Then, in 1999, he was looking for work again.
A lawyer had helped him get his draft evasion charges dropped—the same lawyer who helped the husband of folk singer Joan Baez, he said—and he decided to cross the border to attend a job fair.
“I travel with my FBI file showing that they dropped the charge because I didn’t want to go to the war in Vietnam,” he said.
He got three interviews out of the fair and all of them were for teaching jobs in Kuwait. He taught for nine years in the Middle East, hunting in the desert for geodes and fossilized seashells, until the time came to evade military action again, when the United States invaded.
“The school closed down and they let the teachers skidaddle out because they didn’t know if the missiles were going to come in with nerve gas or not. I figured it was time to leave,” he said. “I don’t much like getting caught in the middle of a war, I mean, if you don’t have to.”
Retiring to the “never finished” shoe house
He came back to Smithers around 2009. With just one more year to work before he could retire, he got on the substitute teacher list and commuted to Hazelton, and was back to work on his shoe house.
He replaced the welcome toe mat because the original one rotted out in the rain. He replaced the laces with fire hose because the original rope wore out after 20 years.
After receiving an estimated cost of about $8 a foot for the same type of rope from a store in North Vancouver, Walsh “figured $800 for a shoe lace was going to be too much,” and a woman from Prince Rupert suggested fire hose. Lucky for Walsh, the fire chief in town was a fan of the shoe, so he donated two 50-foot rolls of old hose. The fire hose laces went up around when Walsh re-roofed the house, about four years ago.
This spring, he’ll be replacing the batteries in some of the 270 solar lights he’s hung from trees on both sides of his boot, inspired by gardens he saw in the Middle East.
“It’s like having the stars down at eye level,” he said.
He also plans to write to the Canada West Boots company regarding another trailer he’s acquired.
“One friend suggested that I paint the container to look like a shoebox,” he said, adding that he’ll offer the company free advertising if they agree to do the paint job.
“There is no container on the [inter]net painted to look like a shoebox,” he said. “I’m hoping that they’ll bite on it when I write to them and I get enough money to have paid for the container.”
Walsh may have started the shoe house in 1980, but he’s not finished yet.
“It’s never finished,” he said. “It’s a life-long endeavour.”