VIDEO: Arizona's official balladeer celebrates I-17 Mystery Tree

By Laurie Merrill / ADOT Communications

Anyone who’s driven on Interstate 17 near Sunset Point this time of year has witnessed the mystery of a scrub tree in the median suddenly decorated with holiday finery. 

Many refer to it as the Mystery Tree.

For more than 30 years, someone has secretly decorated it in the middle of the night. Like magic, the tree suddenly gleams with ornaments to the delight of those who pass.

How does this happen? Who decorates the tree? Why doesn’t anyone see them?

Perhaps no Arizonan has captured this mystery better than Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s official balladeer for more than 50 years. Ellis might look like a rough and tumble cowboy with his hat, boots and guitar, but this baritone sings from the bottom of his soul.

Ellis named the tree Scrubby and commemorates it in a song of the same name, which he performs in this video produced ADOT's video team.

The first verse:

Out in Arizona there’s a story to be told.
Of Scrubby, the little cedar tree that grows beside the road.
I-17 to Flagstaff, from the desert down below,
And a random act of kindness by some secret, caring soul.

It’s the idea that people care enough to bring joy to others that strikes a chord with Ellis, whose own generous spirit spreads across his face as he sings the song, sharing the joy still further.

It brings a smile to every face that passes by that sight.
Scrubby becomes a rock star, and for him this song I write.

The song is one of hundreds Ellis has written since crossing the Arizona state line with his pregnant wife in 1959. During his storied career he has performed before millions of people and won a Grammy Award while a member of the New Christy Minstrels.

He has sung songs for hundreds of thousands of Arizona schoolchildren and been inducted into the AZ Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, among many other career highlights.

He has logged countless miles across Arizona in four-wheel drive vehicles and explored every nook and cranny of culture and climate, guitar always at the ready.

Many of his songs are about Arizona highways and the places and sights that have led him into direct contact with the state, its people and its culture. 

Sights like Scrubby.

Scrubby is a cedar tree and no one knew his name.
Till someone decorated him, and gave him pride and fame.

You can learn more about Ellis, his performance schedule, history and songs at DolanEllis.com. You can also learn about the Arizona Folklore Preserve in Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains, which Ellis founded to preserve songs celebrating Arizona’s western heritage and culture, at ArizonaFolklore.com.