Every year before Christmas, Loop 360 becomes the site of a uniquely Austin holiday tradition: The junipers along the highway are transformed into colorful Christmas trees.
People have strong opinions about the custom. Some say it’s a heartwarming expression of holiday spirit; others consider it a flagrant violation of Texas' anti-littering laws. But one thing no one really knows is how the tradition got started.
That's a question Gabriel Piedra wanted answered.
Piedra said he first noticed the trees when he was in high school in the mid-1990s. He and his family even joined in to decorate.
“We were teenage kids,” he said. “We’d do it because we saw other people do it. I just thought it was something us Austinites do.”
Now that he’s older, he has questions. So, he asked our ATXplained project:
“Is this something that we just started? Is there some organization or someone out there that actually knows why ... or is it just 'Keep Austin Weird'?”
Two roadside vendors didn't have answers.
“It’s a mystery,” said Jimmy Rhymes, who has been selling firewood off 360 for 10 years.
So, I hit the city archives, put out a call for answers on social media and reviewed old newspapers.
A search of newspaper articles suggested the tradition is pretty recent. The Austin American-Statesman did a story about it in 2005. It quoted a family who said they saw other people decorating and decided to join in. I sent them a message on Facebook and kept digging.
Early reports said that the tradition started in secret, and that people would dress in black to avoid detection while decorating trees at night.
There's a reason for that: It's not legal.
But, while it is a violation of Texas' anti-littering laws, Chris Bishop, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation, says police don't ticket decorators for littering.
“We just prefer people not do it," Bishop said. "The problem is many people do."
He said the agency worries about people’s safety as they park by the roadside and views the decorations as a distraction for drivers. But Bishop also seemed resigned to the fact that people will decorate the trees each year.
“We simply ask that they do a good job, attach the decorations firmly and then when the season's over, come back and remove them," he said. "So that it doesn’t become litter."
I thought that official prohibition might explain why I was getting nowhere with my search. After some initial contact, the family from the newspaper article went silent.
By the end of the year, all my leads had dried up.
Every January the group Keep Austin Beautiful hosts a cleanup on Highway 360. By that time, many of the trees are beginning to look ragged, and the cleanup keeps the decorations from harming the environment, hurting wildlife and becoming an eyesore.
For me, it was also a last chance to figure out how the custom got started. Hundreds of people, some in reflective vests, lined up for garbage bags. Here, I thought, someone must have an answer.
At first I asked people individually if they knew who started decorating the trees. Each time I got an identical answer: “I have no idea.”
Strangely, only one of the dozen or so people I asked even admitted to decorating a tree.
“I think people want to keep quiet that they decorated trees in this group,” Myrriah Gossett with Keep Austin Beautiful said. “You know, these are folks who ... see it as litter and want to make sure it comes down.”
Gossett said last year volunteers filled a U-Haul truck with decorations to send to Goodwill, and 50 trash bags with stuff to send to the landfill.
I borrowed her PA system so I could reach more people with my question. Still, no one came to me with an answer.
But Rich DePalma had an idea.
DePalma leads the board of the nonprofit TreeFolks, a group that plants and preserves trees. He thought some of his members might have an answer, so we broadcast live on its Facebook page.
And we got some answers.
According to replies on his post, the tradition did not start on Highway 360; it started with a single tree off Red Bud Trail. From there, it spread to the highway in the early 2000s.
But that doesn’t jibe with our question-asker's memory. Piedra said he saw the trees on the highway in the mid-90s when he was in high school.
So, what does it mean? Either Piedra is misremembering, or he was among the first people to start the tradition.
“Unbeknownst to me, I was part of something that had just started, that was kind of unique to Austin," he mused at our first meeting. "How was I supposed to know?"
That means maybe, even if he didn’t start it, Piedra was among the first people to spread the custom.
It’s not a full answer, but maybe it’s something close – and it had been staring Piedra in the face the whole time.