Previously: The Mystery Soda Machine Of Capital Hill, Seattle.
The stretch of I-17 in Arizona between Sunset Point and Cordes Junction is rather barren; there’s not much lining the highway but scrubby grass, road signs, and the occasional pylon. But if you drive that stretch of road in December, you’ll see a colorful addition to the landscape: What’s known as the I-17 Mystery Christmas Tree — a large, bushy conifer decked out in all sorts of holiday finery. The annual decorating of the Mystery Christmas Tree has become something of a tradition for many living in the region, largely for two highly specific reasons: One, it’s been happening for decades, and two, no one knows who is responsible for it.
That’s right: In all the years the Mystery Christmas Tree has been receiving its yearly holiday makeover, not once has anyone been actually caught in the act decking its proverbial halls.
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I-17 runs between Phoenix on the southern end and Flagstaff on the northern one. Made up of a series of older state routes, it wasn’t fully completed to interstate standard until 1978 — and not too long after that is when the Mystery Christmas Tree seems to have begun its reign. No one has been able to peg a solid date to its inaugural appearance (indeed, at this juncture, it would likely be impossible to do so), but those who have witnessed it since its early years recall it popping up at around that time.
“My memory goes back to either the late ‘70s or the early ‘80s,” Doug Nintzel, the spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Transportation, told Arizona public radio station KJZZ in 2013. “I was a student at [Northern Arizona University], and I have memories of coming by and seeing the tree with decorations not as elaborate as you see nowadays.”
The tree itself is believed to be a one-seed juniper, or Juniperus monosperma. The one-seed juniper is native to the area; it thrives in the western portions of North America, including — beyond Arizona, of course — New Mexico, southern Colorado, the Oklahoma panhandle, western Texas, and in the northernmost of bits of Chihuahua, Mexico. It likes steep slopes, rocky ledges, arroyos, dry plains, and hills. The shrub’s colloquial moniker comes from the fact that its cones, which are berry-like in appearance, typically contain just one seed apiece, although very rarely, there might be two or three inside.
One-seed junipers tend to grow to heights between six and 20 feet. The I-17 Mystery Christmas Tree hovers around the upper end of that range; as old as it is, it’s had plenty of time to reach its full height. However, it’s less… well, tree-like in appearance than the typical Christmas tree. More of a giant shrub than anything else, it’s a bit rotund and with no discernible point — it spreads out rather than up, in stark contrast to the ramrod-straight spruce, pine, or fir trees that are frequently used as Christmas trees.
But honestly, that just adds to its charm. As the Arizona Republic put it in 2011, it’s “shaped more like a huge tumbleweed than a pointy-topped holiday pine” — which, y’know, makes sense, given where it’s located. And besides, its decorations provide more than enough holiday cheer: Huge paper snowflakes; big, red bows; oversized red-and-white-striped candy canes; and brightly-colored baubles fill the shrub’s branches, with a huge, sparkly star topping the whole thing off. These decorations usually appear towards the end of November and stay up until just after New Year’s.
Some time ago, a watering system involving a series of plastic pipes and water storage barrels was installed at the base of the tree’s trunk. As is the case with the decorations, it isn’t publicly known who put the system in place; most people, however, assume it’s the same folks behind the tinsel and stars.
As for who this mystery person or people might be? They’ve never stepped forward — and although several others have either guesses about their identity or claim flat out to know who it is, they’re not talking, either.
One theory is that it’s the ADOT itself. Another is that it’s the Arizona Highway Patrol. Neither has taken the credit, though — and to be fair, it’s unlikely that either organization really is responsible for it. Officials for the ADOT have said, though, that even though they “normally [frown] on displays in freeway medians,” they’re usually willing to look the other way with regards to this particular one. Said Greg Gentsch, then the ADOT’s district engineer for the area in and around Prescott, to the Arizona Republic in 2011, “I think we treat this a little bit as a special case.”
Another theory: Is it elves? Maybe; that’s what Tom Foster, who was the Prescott district engineer prior to Gentsch (he held the position from 1966 to 2005), has suggested in the past.
It’s a joke of course — but even as Foster archly told numerous news outlets that elves were, in fact, a possibility, he subsequently said more seriously that he does know who’s behind it. Or at least, he knows who began the tradition: “I know who started it, but I’m not going to go into that,” he told the Daily Courier according to a 2011 issue of Transend, the magazine aimed at stakeholders and past and present employees of the ADOT.
The choice of phrasing here is interesting, because it underlines the fact that the folks decorating the tree now aren’t necessarily the same ones who were decorating it back in the ‘80s. Heck, it’s possible that the position of Decorator of the I-17 Mystery Christmas Tree has been filled by many people over the years, each passing down the title to a successor as their time in the role has drawn to a close.
There’s something about that idea that I find very appealing. I hope it’s true. And I hope the tree continues to have a long line of guardians in the years to come.
Indeed, it will likely need guardians if it’s to continue to thrive: The tree has found itself in danger several times over the years due to the highly hazardous threat of brush fires. Close calls came in both August of 2011 and August of 2019, with fires ranging around the tree and laying waste to the landscape — and yet, the tree itself manage to survive each time. In 2011, the fire burned in such close proximity to it that the pipes belonging to the watering system rigged at its base actually melted. But, whether by miracle or by human intervention, the tree was saved in each instance — if left a little charred.
Nor are those the only times the tree has been literally under fire and, somehow, escaped severe damage: Said ADOT Highway Operations Supervisor Randy Skinner in a piece published at the ADOT blog after the 2011 fire, “In the 15 years I’ve been with ADOT, we’ve had fires three or four times a year and the tree never gets touched by the fire. For some reason,” he added,” this tree doesn’t burn.”
That’s perhaps pushing it a little — building the mythology of the tree, so to speak. The tree, obviously, can burn, and will burn, if fires around it are left to blaze unchecked. But it’s still around right now, apparently — although it’s perhaps worth noting that, according to a June 2020 update on Atlas Obscura’s page devoted to the Mystery Christmas Tree, it was “badly burned in a brush fire” sometime this year. (I haven’t been able to verify that tidbit — all the news coverage of brush fires involving the tree I dug up date back to the 2019 and 2011 incidents — but, y’know, just… putting that out there, in case it’s true.)
But the mythology is interesting all the same. In fact, the tree has become so iconic in the state of Arizona that the state’s official balladeer, Dolan Ellis, wrote a song about it not too long ago. (And yes, Arizona has an official state balladeer. Ellis has held title since 1966.) He named the song “Scrubby,” because, well… the tree itself is a little bit scrubby. You can listen to it here.
If you’re interested in finding the tree yourself, it’s about 55 miles north of downtown Phoenix, just past milepost 254. According to the ADOT magazine Transend, it’s on the median just north of the Sunset Point rest stop. Don’t stop your car or get out to view it up close — that’s quite dangerous and not recommended or condoned by the ADOT — but feel free to bask in its light as you drive by.
It might not be an actual holiday miracle, but it’s fun all the same.
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[Photo via Bill Morrow/Flickr, available under a CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons license.]