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Gary’s Tree creates mystique on Montreat’s trails

Mimi Kates

With the holiday season approaching, Montreat hikers are discovering the spirit of celebration in an unexpected place.

Around the bend in one of many trails, a little hemlock stands alone under the towering canopy of older conifers. Reminiscent of the tiny tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” this scraggly specimen is bedecked with ornaments of all kinds.

A flat rock on the ground in front of it requests, “Please add to Gary’s Tree.” And the community has not disappointed.

Red bows, bells and glass balls suggest the decorating began with Christmas. But subsequent contributions indicate that the tree takes most travelers by surprise. They have draped it with such unlikely decorations as a plastic spoon, a Pez dispenser, a blue paper clip, a baby’s pacifier and a fabric butterfly. There are Mardi Gras beads, a pen - even a pair of ear buds.

Black Mountain resident Lindsey Barnett found it hilarious on a recent chilly day. She loves the concept of community participation and said she would search her pockets for something to add.

“The tree is a nice tribute to the guy who started it, I guess,” fellow hiker Philip Lane from Asheville said. “I thought it was somewhat of a memorial.”

Which begs the question, “Who the heck is Gary?”

“I met him once,” said one hiker who encountered Gary near the tree several years ago. Declining to give his name, he said Gary “seemed like a nice guy.”

Thad Ellett, a part-time Montreat resident from Atlanta who has been hiking the Montreat trails for 40 years, has mixed feelings about the tree.

“Good or bad,” Ellett said, “at least it’s just off the trail where people can notice, but not too deep into the woods where you really wouldn’t want to see it.”

His wife Rachael Ellett expressed curiosity about what prompted Gary to start the tradition. “Was it for the community, or an art installation … or what?” she said.

Scott Lake, along with daughters Grace and Rose, recently discovered the tree while visiting from Charleston, South Carolina. They all loved it.

“It’s beautiful,” said Lake, “We wish we knew who Gary was.”

“It’s cool,” 12-year-old Grace said. “Everybody can contribute.”

“I didn’t have anything with me,” younger sister Rose said. “I put a leaf on it, though.”

Gary’s Tree reminds the Lakes of geocaching, a worldwide treasure hunt requiring a sense of adventure and a GPS device. Organizers list clues and GPS locations for hidden containers on various websites. When a cache is found, items can be removed and/or added before the box is returned to its hiding spot.

One local hiker who declined to give his name first encountered Gary’s Tree in December 2012. “I thought it was a Christmas thing,” he remarked, “then the decorations never came off. I think it’s hurting the tree to have all that weight on it.”

Craig Fender of Asheville Arborists agrees. All those ornaments are putting pressure on the tree, he said, “and the damage could be even worse with added weight of snow or ice.”

While not quite in the same league as Gary’s Tree, a controversial large Aspen located near a chairlift at Vail Ski Resort in Colorado began to acquire a unique motif in the early 1980s. Panties, bras, and strings of Mardi Gras beads were tossed onto it by skiers riding the lift.

The Aspen, dubbed The Panty Tree, existed until the late 1990s when it was chopped down to make way for a new ski lift. Enthusiasts were not dissuaded, however, and a new Panty Tree was swiftly initiated.

Skinet.com consulted with Bill Josey, a licensed arborist in Idaho, who said the undergarments and beads could girdle the tree and strangle the branches. Birds and small animals might benefit, however, from the extra nesting material, he said.

A similar landmark with questionable artistic status is The Market Theater Gum Wall located near the Market Theater box office in Seattle, Washington. Started in the early 1990s, the brick wall has been covered with colorful, chewed chewing gum. While the project has not raised specific environmental concerns, it did make second place on the list of Top 5 Germiest Tourist Attractions in 2009 on TripAdvisor.com.

The desire to express beauty is a human phenomenon. Some works are created by individuals. Some invite collaboration. Observers may feel enamored or repulsed. Art, as they say, is completely subjective.

Is Gary’s Tree an act of inadvertent environmental destruction, thwarting natural beauty? Or is it a laudable artistic effort connecting a community? Any way you look at it, it certainly may be worth getting outside for some fresh air to hike the beautiful forests of Montreat in search of this local mystery.

SPOILER ALERT!!! Gary’s Tree is located on the stretch between the Harry H. Bryan Trail and the Julia Woodward Trail in Montreat, North Carolina.