Real-life Charlie Brown Tree

≈ For this fleeting winterlude, you kind of need to set up a bona fide late December ambiance before skimming through this. Imagine the Vince Guarldi Charlie Brown Christmas tune in the background. I'm serious. Then pour yourself a mug of rich, real hot chocolate on the cold winter night. That is my price of admission...

As a ghost town, Madrid wasn't really scary or mysterious; it had an ambiance more like an old run down hooker or something; maybe a bit tragic, maybe a bit from the wild side, where a quick buck was a part of the equation and people left once it was drained of anything of value. The harsh bright light of day only enhanced the feel of a place used cheaply and rough. This was December of 1977 on highway 14 between Santa Fe andAlbuquerque. The surrounding high desert landscape was nothing less than stunning, and I could swear that this quirky little place seemed to be trying to return back to the Earth.

While cruising through on that December afternoon all those years ago, what really stood out was the biting cold wind on a bright grey day. The starkness was palpable with skeletal shacks and even more desolate trees that seemed not only without leaves, but just plain dead. Shiny white tumbleweeds rolled mockingly across the road as if they were the dominant life force around here. It was as though they were saying ok, you can be here, just stay the fuck out of our way. Tough tumbleweeds.

It was also as if time had nearly sucked the color right out of this part of the world and certainly intriguing enough to stop the car and go see what this was all about. The air was remarkably clear, as if it got a degree more transparent. I poked my head in a couple of the shacks. There was junk littered about, the disjointed dregs of past lives. While nosing around in another abandoned shack I was startled to hear someone approaching. What's up, man?, said the scruffy looking guy who seemed to be about my age. We made small talk about how just plain empty the place felt, a subject he seemed to know quite well, even through his not-quite focused, eyes.

He asked if I wanted to see his house. We walked about a block down to the corner and he proudly showed me his place. The windows had worn out translucent plastic sheeting nailed over them and the inside had a ratty looking little wood stove with tufts of smoke coming out of its seams. But it was warm and there was a single chair by the light of the window next to a wooden crate used for a table with a single half burned candle. He was definitely way off the grid. There was a neat row of empty beer cans next to the door. It was clearly home.

Well, I've got to hit the road, I told him. Ok he said. While walking to my car, I noticed a little bare tree next to his shack. Dangling from its branches were what looked like a couple of six-packs of empty white and red beer cans, tied on with red string. I laughed out loud and he poked his head out the door, asking What? I like your tree I told him. And for some curious reason, I sincerely meant it. Maybe it was just his drunken remembrance of what the December holiday season was all about. The term intransigent came to mind; a plucky tenacity to just hold on, whatever that meant.

The tree was a spark of color in a drab town-scape, and nearly every December I think of it, and how it seemed like a real-life warped version of a Charlie Brown tree. I like to think that perhaps it was Charlie Brown as a young man on a journey of discovery that involved traveling by his wits and giving up his worldly possessions, who remembered something important about the holiday season. Of all the garish holiday decorations I'd seen in my travels that month, this one seemed a gritty, yet genuine manifestation of gratitude, or maybe even hope. Who knows?

Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved


*Author's Note: This is about photography. In December of 1977, I was a student at Brooks Institute in my Junior year. It was a grueling year and I was ready to just get the heck out of town. On impulse, loaded up my car and hit the road for Santa Fe. I brought a Hasselblad, film, my wits and not much else. This was the journey where I made the photograph titled Real Indians that was made at the Santo Domingo Pueblo south of Santa Fe. Here's to winging it on the road. Bottom's up, buddies.

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