Friday, December 18, 2009

MYSTERY CHRISTMAS TREE IN THE MIDDLE-OF-NOWHERE, ARIZONA

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[Looking West from The Middle-Of-Nowhere, Arizona.]

“Writing is your forte, STM,” my Pa told me over and over again. When other folks thought I should try pursuing a career in art, my Pa would tell me, “Writing is your forte, STM.” And even through those years when I was sure that acting was the gig I was created for, and I studied that craft with a single-minded purpose and even began to receive a little professional encouragement, my Pa would always insist that writing was my forte.

He was always telling me to get my stories down on paper and try selling them. But it wasn’t only fiction he wanted me to write; Pa also wanted to see me exercising my ability to bitch by writing nasty letters to businesses and corporations that had done something to upset him. Everytime someone gave us a bit of trouble, Pa would say, “STM, I want you to write them a letter of complaint. You got that?”
“OK,” I’d say.
“Are you going to do it?” he’d ask me with suspicion in his voice.
“Sure,” I’d casually answer – both of us knowing that I had not the slightest intention of writing a letter of complaint.
“No, I mean it. I want you to write that letter this time,” he’d insist.
“I know. I will, I will!” I’d blatantly lie.
But he didn’t forget easily, and every once in awhile he’d ask again, “Have you gotten on that letter yet?”
“No, but I’m workin’ on it.”

If I tried writing every letter Pa had insisted upon, I’d still be writing them today with no end yet in sight.

Now, it’s true that I did on a few occasions write Letters O’Bitch. For instance, when the Los Angeles Dodgers unloaded pitcher Fernando Valenzuela and some maroons in L.A. publicly stated that it was due to a racist attitude on the part of the Dodger organization, I did fire off a letter defending the Dodgers' decision - a letter which the Los Angeles Times printed. And I did write a couple nasty letters to Prescott, Arizona's newspaper while I was living there, and those got printed also. I had one letter printed in the Phoenix newspaper regarding the terribly misunderstood subject of “Separation of Church and State.” But I just didn’t feel I had the time and the anger necessary to compose a lot of Letters O’Bitch.

Prior to 1994, there were some long stretches of Interstate 17 between Phoenix and Cordes Junction that were just one lane in each direction. Making that drive as many times as we did, it seemed almost inevitable that at some point, out of seemingly nowhere, some geriatric driver would turn onto the highway in front of us and bring all the traffic to a frustrating crawl. We’d be making pretty good time when suddenly we’d find ourselves behind some grey-headed driver going well under the speed limit. Here we are with no way of passing for miles and miles and feeling like we’re aging in dog years! Aaarrrgh!

Well, this happened so often that it became quite predictable, and my Pa began to insist that these old battle-axes were “organized” with the intent to slow down the traffic on Interstate 17. We would even begin watching for the old slowpoke. “Well, she should be along any minute now.” And turning onto the highway in front of us from some unpaved rural road came the car we were expecting. “There she is. Two minutes late.” This became a running joke with us, and on several occasions my Pa told me, “I want you to write this story, STM.”

Well, to everyone’s surprise – not least of all my own – in 1994, after moving back home to Los Angeles from Airheadzona, I actually did write that story and sent it to my Pa. In fact, I had envisioned the story two different ways, and when I couldn’t decide which way was best, I wrote two versions of the story which I titled ‘The Legend Of Cordes Junction’ and I mailed them to my Pa who was still in Arizona. He couldn’t believe it! I had finally followed through on a story idea. And it was made all the better because Pa really enjoyed BOTH of the ways I wrote it. I entered it in an Airheadzona short story contest once, but like Yukon Cornelius, I was rewarded with “Nuthin’.” However, my Pa liked the story and that was reward enough. (Maybe someday I’ll post one or both versions of ‘The Legend Of Cordes Junction’ on this Blog O’Mine.)

Anyway . . . I told you all that to get you HERE: Take a map of the state of Arizona and put your finger right where you estimate the center to be. Now slide your finger just slightly to the left until it makes contact with Interstate 17. I’ll bet your finger is now very close to touching a wide spot in the road called Cordes Junction (pronounced “Cor-dess”). Well, about a five minute drive south from Cordes Junction is The Middle-Of-Nowhere. It’s not officially called that by anyone but I refer to it that way. But every December there is one particular tree in the middle-of-the-highway in The Middle-Of-Nowhere which mysteriously gets decorated for Christmas. And just about every year the Phoenix newspaper, The Arizona Republic, runs at least one column about it. This tree which is anonymous and nearly invisible from mid-January until the tail of November, has become well known during the Christmas season. In other words, it gets 15 minutes of fame every year beginning just after Thanksgiving and continuing through New Year’s Day.

Below are a couple of pieces that the Phoenix newspaper ran about this mystery tradition during Christmas seasons past:

UNEXPECTED GIFT
“THE JUNIPER”

~ The Arizona Republic
1997, December 13.

It is a most forgettable tree.
It disappears into the growth in the middle of the median on Interstate 17. It is unexceptional, socializing only with a holly bush and cactus in the desert about 70 miles north of Phoenix. Automobiles and trucks roll by, ignoring the juniper and its austere life along the highway.

But when the sun drops in the sky, and December seizes the desert floor, this most forgettable tree blossoms with a harvest of color and clutter.

Ornaments.
Stuffed animals.
Streamers.
A Christmas star.
The strange annual blossoms radiate on the branches in mystical bounty.

Those who live nearby say the tree is especially attractive this year though they do not understand the mystery of the juniper.

Who caused the embellishments, who nurtured the man-made blossoms is a desert enigma, left for those with analytical endurance.

For others, this most forgettable tree is another unexpected gift for December travelers along a desert path.

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[The Mystery Christmas Tree in the Middle-Of-Nowhere, Arizona.]

Here’s another article about the tree, printed in The Arizona Republic on December 3, 2000:

MYSTERY TREE A WONDERFUL GIFT FOR CHRISTMAS
by David Leibowitz

You drive north on Interstate 17, and the Phoenix core begins to disintegrate. Four lanes of highway narrow to two. The asphalt lightens, and the strip malls give way to buttes. You catalogue these changes with a destination in mind, a goal. To make the city vanish.

Every city resident needs this break occasioanlly, especially these days, during the commercial crush in the run-up to Christmas, when all the Valley feels like one parking lot beside one mall.

This year annoys more than most, mainly because the soundtrack to the holiday isn’t ‘Jingle Bells’ but a stentorian radio voice reporting “breaking news from Florida.”

The voice sounds again as you pass Dead Man Wash: “We take you now to Tallahassee and a press conference. …”

This droning binds you to the city, to the everyday. You nudge the accelerator nearer the floor as you recall the destination: a small plot of ground in the middle of nowwhere. Hallowed ground.

The hills come now as you pass Little Squaw Creek and wind through Black Canyon City. Now come the Arizona names every resident should treasure – Bumble Bee, Crown King, Horsethief Basin.

You whip past Sunset Point, then start counting the mile posts: 253, 254. Another few hundred yards.

There. In the median strip, standing tall and colorful. As it does every year. A juniper tree, perhaps 15, 20 feet high, fully decorated for Christmas – from the ground to the gold-and-white star at the pinnacle.

The tree dwarfs you as you jog across the interstate. There are no cars in sight, no sound save the wind. The city is gone.

This makes the I-17 juniper Arizona’s finest Christmas gift. And Arizona’s biggest Christmas mystery. See, no one who knows will tell who decorates this tree every year. It started happening about 15 years ago, the legend goes. They – whoever they are – come in the dead of night on the weekend after Thanksgiving and leave behind a tree full of homemade ornaments. This year, you will find candy canes the size of hockey sticks and glittery pie tins and bulbs as big as bowling balls. There’s Santa’s face, a snowman or two, white doves and spray-painted wooden stars.

Sgt. Randy Sortor has patrolled this stretch of I-17 for the Arizona Department of Public Safety since 1981. He passes the juniper two, three, four times a day. “I think it’s great,” the sergeant says. “It kind of takes your mind off the stuff that’s going on around the counrty and makes you think about the season and what it means.”

At the state Department of Transportation, spokesman Doug Nintzel has been passing the tree since his college days at Northern Arizona University. He’s asked around about the mystery decorators with no luck. “I’ve heard all the rumors – about a group from Arcosanti, that it’s a local family that gets together. They do a great job keeping it a mystery though. … We do not have people sharing any secrets.” By the way: “It’s a mystery most of us hope is never solved,” Nintzel says. “It’s best that way. I think we need that kind of stuff, especially at this time of the year – something that continues as tradition without being spoiled. Every year, it’s a great surprise.”

You stand before the juniper with the city at your back, 50 miles distant, and you agree. In an age of hype and commercialism, a time where even the smallest good deed requires a standing ovation, this tree stands as a small, perfect gesture.

You stare into a mirrored ornament and catch your own reflection. When, you wonder, was the last time you smiled like that?

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[Mystery Tree with the northbound lanes of I-17 to the right. Next stop: Cordes Junction.]

Being the strange duck that I am, on January 1st, 1996 - known to you as “New Year’s Day” but known to my Pa and me as “Margarita Day” - I got the idea that I should drive up to this Mystery Tree and hang on it a copy of my short story, ‘The Legend Of Cordes Junction.’ My Pa liked the idea, and so we went together. Well, he WOULD like the idea. I mean, where do you think my weirdness came from? [Thanks for the Wackygenes, Pa!]

When we arrived at our destination – almost an hour north of Phoenix - we pulled off to the side of the highway, and I ran over to the median where the tree grows and I hung my story on it in a Ziploc bag. Then we drove the rest of the way to Prescott and each hoisted a margarita in celebration of the day. That was the last “Margarita Day” Pa and I got to celebrate together. He passed away on April 10th of that year.

In my Pa’s honor, I drove up to the Mystery Tree on “Margarita Day” the following year and again affixed a copy of my short story to it. And a tradition was born. Three or four years later, my brother Napoleon joined me in this tradition. And I continued this act of honoring my Pa for a decade. I believe it was the eleventh year when I finally grew tired of stopping at the tree and running across Interstate 17 to hang my story. So, that year, for the first time, I hung the longer, alternate version of ‘The Legend Of Cordes Junction’ on the tree and ended that part of the tradition. Although Nappy and I still make that drive past the Mystery Tree every “Margarita Day”, I haven’t decorated it with my story since then.

Yet still, the warm, glowing memory of my Pa’s friendship and his willingness to go along with my weird ideas, fills my heart and mind when I drive past the Mystery Tree at the speed limit or faster every January 1st. You see, in the mid-1990s, the state of Airheadzona finally widened Interstate 17, giving us a much needed passing lane. There’s no more getting stuck behind some organized group of geriatric Cordes Junctionites intent on slowing down life. Hallelujah! Give ‘er the gas! There’s a margarita with my name on it up around that next cactus-covered butte.

~ Stephen T. McCarthy
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6 comments:

Mr. Paulboy said...

Pa was right. You're a great writer, though I have never seen you act. Maybe you can act better than you write!? You should film a scene from Hamlet or Taxi Driver or something and post to your blog. We, your royal leaders - er, loyal readers - will vote!

You should post your two stories for us, also.

I think I have seen that tree once, though I live in WA. I have traveled a lot over the years and been in the area at least thrice around Christmastime. I vaguely recall seeing it, and thinking "WTF?" (Which stands for "What, tree finery?"

One of the quoted news articles mentions Arcosanti, and I have wanted to ask you your thoughts about that place, which I have visited twice. Maybe email is a better method for that.

Good stuffs, and I am pleased to be the first comment on it. Unless I'm not.

arlee bird said...

Neat story. Over the years driving on interstates in different parts of the country at Christmastime, I have often seen trees decorated in a similar manner along the highways. It's kind of cheery to see these,but who takes the time and why.

Might be getting a massive snowstorm in NJ today -- hope it doesn't mess up my daughter's wedding.
Lee

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Thanks for the kind words, MR. PAULBOY 6MAN. Of course, if I were truly a "great writer", this Blog would be a lot more popular than it is. But... I appreciate the compliment, friend.

>>[You should film a scene from Hamlet or Taxi Driver or something and post to your blog. We, your royal leaders - er, loyal readers - will vote!]<<

Ha! Not gonna happen, #6. Save yer vote for USAP.

>>[I think I have seen that tree once ... I vaguely recall seeing it, and thinking "WTF?" Which stands for "What, tree finery?"]<<

Ha! again. Well, what else COULD it have stood for?

>>[One of the quoted news articles mentions Arcosanti, and I have wanted to ask you your thoughts about that place, which I have visited twice. Maybe email is a better method for that.]<<

I've never checked it out and don't know much about it. I have some vague idea that it's a bunch of old '60s hippies living together in peace and shared body odor and waiting for the release of Charles Manson. Although I could be mistaken.

>>[Good stuffs, and I am pleased to be the first comment on it. Unless I'm not.]<<

Thanks again. And you were.

~ Stephen
<"As a dog returns to his own vomit,
so a fool repeats his folly."
~ Proverbs 26:11>

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

Yes, rLEE-b, on the radio yesterday I heard a broadcast about the possibility of a massive snowstorm in Joisey and I thought about you. Good luck with that, Buddy! (Well, it won't cost nuttin' to chill the champagne.)

~"Lonesome Dogg" Stephen

Marie Helm said...

I drive by this tree all the time and have for years. It is decorated again this year, and I always wonder about it. I am a 4 gen. AZ native, but I have no clue what the story is behind this tree. I read this earlier:

"The mystery of the Christmas Tree on I-17 -

The tradition started several years ago by a woman who just wanted to do something nice for everyone to enjoy during their travels. The motivation is exactly that simple! Over the years, there have been many articles written and questions asked concerning the motivation behind the project. Reporters have attempted to get coverage and photograph the "elves" who decorate the tree each year. There has been much speculation, "It's a group of retired military people", "It's someone doing it as a memorial", etc., etc. Honestly, it's just a nice gesture and the person behind it prefers to have no recognition whatsoever and really does NOT want to be in the spotlight at all. So PLEASE, everyone, just enjoy the tree and remember the season for what it really is!"

but I have no idea if the person who wrote it knows what they are talking about.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!
Marie

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

MARIE ~
Hey, thank you very much for stopping by here and commenting. Not sure how you managed to locate this old post, but I'm glad you did.

Yes, I have heard all of the stories about the tree (except for the one you just told) and I have no idea which is the true one. Or even if ANY of the stories is the true one.

Decorating that tree seems like it would be quite a chore for just one woman to do, and the star at the top is pretty high. She hauls a large ladder out there? It's certainly possible, I suppose.

But I think there must be more than just one person involved in decorating that tree, otherwise it's a project that would consume a fair amount of hours. Ornaments can't just be "hung" on the branches or they'd blow off with the first good wind. The wires are wrapped repeatedly around the branches. And with the number of large objects attached to that tree - well... as I said, that's a real time-consuming project.

But whomever is responsible, and for whatever reason they do it, it's a great tradition and, like you, Marie, I look forward to seeing it every year.

Thanks again for stopping by, and A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS to you, too!

~ Stephen, Doggtor Xmasboy