The Literal Landscape
Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Brother!
— W. Somerset Maugham
The Lodgepole Pine. Pinus contorta latifolia. Mainstay of the timber industry in the Rocky Mountain West. King of the Western mountainside known for its straight smooth trunk and unequaled ability to withstand the onslaught of wildfire. Home to many a native wildlife species, including hawk, tanager, and lynx. Patron of the fur trapper. Compass to the mountainman. Deity to the Indian.
And our mission: To search out the first, straightest specimen—even branched, full canopied, pyramidal—and cut it at its base: the perfect Christmas tree.
Or so my wife Billie and I thought. But it ends up that Stan and Susan, the friends we unwittingly went Christmas tree hunting with one early December, didn’t really want the lodgepole pine, the most abundant species of conifer in the U.S. Forest Service cutting territory a hundred miles west of our Denver home. No, they wanted a Colorado blue spruce or a Fraser fir. The lodgepole, they claimed, is too yellow, not wide enough, not even enough.
Are you telling me that half a million years of natural history and countless stances against raging mountain storms and blazing wildfire is not good enough for you?!
Oh Christmas tree, oh brother!
Perhaps we don’t quite have the full story: In late November, Stan and Susan asked if we would like to go to the forest and cut a Christmas tree with them. Though Billie and I already have an artificial tree, we said yes because at the time we thought it would be a fun little adventure.
The night before setting out, Stan called to confirm our appointment and said they’d be bringing Tarin, their eleven-month old Golden Retriever. I said we’d be ready at their departure time—7:00 am sharp. Then I told Billie the details.
Putting our heads together, we should have known then that things were going to be, well, challenging. After all, there was no mention previously of Tarin. But since we were taking their SUV, we thought it not so bad because Tarin would logically ride in the back.
Billie and I awoke at 6:15 the next morning, rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, and proceeded to get ready for a few hours of Christmas treeing. We were dressed and ready to go when 7:00 am came and passed. At 7:20—my tolerance in the morning is greatly diminished—I called Stan, who said that they would be on their way shortly. They were just finishing up breakfast. Breakfast? Billie and I were waiting on breakfast so we could be ready by 7:00 am sharp.
When they finally showed up, just after 8:00, Tarin was not in the back of the vehicle as expected, but rather in the back seat, where Billie and I were to sit. In fact, the back was so filled up with a jumble of gear that Tarin couldn’t fit back there even if she wanted to, which she clearly didn’t. After all, we were new people to lick. What fun!
On the way to Frasier, a small mountain town two hours from Denver, we were able to stop for some munchies, though we had to wolf them down so Tarin wouldn’t do the same.
When we finally reached the forest, our bellies were full and Billie and I were in better spirits. The crystalline snow was magnificent, as were the light sunrays fingering through the trees.
We pulled up to the ranger checkpoint to pay the $10 permit for the tree, and I asked about the logistics of cutting a tree. My vision was that the Forest Service planted the trees for cutting, all in relatively the same area. Not so. Christmas tree hunters are allowed to cut naturally regenerated trees in flagged areas. Those areas are not planted specifically for cutting, nor are they by any means flat. My vision was wrong. Very wrong.
After driving past a half-dozen seemingly fine areas to look for a tree, we pulled into a sloped, snow-packed lot and prepared ourselves for the search.
At that time, I didn’t have any snow boots, just leather hiking boots, and poor ones at that. Billie forgot her snow boots, so was footed only with running shoes and thick socks. If my original vision had been correct, this wouldn’t be a problem because all of the trees would be planted in the same area, easily accessible by flatlanders such as ourselves. But alas, my vision was dead. Buried.
After releasing the beast Tarin—who consequently jumped on everyone in the lot—Stan, Susan, Tarin, Billie, and I trodded off into the depths of the vast forest. Immediately Stan scrambled up a snow-crusted hill and called us to follow. The snow was mid calf on me, which meant above the knees on Billie. Because we’re troopers, however, we followed our fearless leader until he decided that the trees were not good enough, and we went back the way we came. He was correct—the trees weren’t Christmas tree quality, which Susan, Billie, and I had pointed out well before climbing the hill.
The tromping continued down a fire line, past good stand after good stand. Granted, the trees grew close together, so their canopies were thin, but it looked as if this was indicative of the entire area. And, after three more hours of searching, we discovered that indeed it was.
As time went by—minutes, hours, millennia—my feet became colder and colder. I tried wiggling my toes, stomping, and praying. All to no avail. Billie’s toes were getting cold, too. And, frankly, we were getting angry. There were dozens of trees that Billie and I would have gladly timbered and taken home. But if Stan liked it, then Susan didn’t. If Susan liked it, then Stan didn’t. If we liked it, then Tarin urinated on it. We marched farther and farther into the hilly depths of the forest, up and down, until finally we got vocal.
“Hey man,” I said as I pointed to one of the fuller lodgepole pines, “my feet are frozen and all of these trees look the same. There’s a decent one, let’s chop it down and haul it back to the truck. In fact, lets strap it to Tarin and use her as a sled dog!”
“Nope,” Stan replied as he feigned interest in my plan, “I’d like a blue spruce or a fir. There’s a stand over there.”
The problem was that all of the spruces and firs that Stan pointed to were 60 feet tall and weighed tons. It’s just that we could see them above the younger pines.
After uncountable seconds ticked slowly by, during which my feet became numb, Stan conceded that a lodgepole pine was probably the way to go. But Susan didn’t like any of them. They were either too thin on one side, or not wide enough, or too short.
Strikes three, four, and five.
I talked Stan into giving me the keys to the SUV, because Billie and I were ready to head back and seek medical attention for the frostbite.
Just then, a man trudged by with what appeared—to Stan and Susan anyway—to be the perfect Christmas tree. It was a Frasier fir, dark green blue and pyramidal. Billie halted the guy with a harsh yell, asked him where he got it, and finally let him pass. She should have mugged the guy and taken the tree, but at this point a small bit of civility remained.
He pointed down the hill from which he had just come. Hey now, we’ve been out here nearly forever but maybe we’re very near the end, I thought to myself. Stan, Susan, and I scooted down the hill while Billie guarded the ridge. She later told me that she had given us five minutes to find a tree, and then another three to bring it back, or she was going to pull out a can of whoop ass.
I found the right tree right away as I turned right down the hill. Stan came over and nodded, but then joyfully hopped further down the hill looking for a tree to compare. I stayed there, cursed him under my breath in languages I don’t even know, and waited. As Susan came strolling back up the hill, I heard Billie call to us, “Find a tree yet...?” And then mumbling. My best guess now is probably something like, “… you bunch of inconsiderate, fur-footed, tree discriminating lumberjacks.” But I'm not sure.
All I know is that when we finally chopped down the fir and hauled it back up the hill—another adventure in and of itself—my feet were seriously hurting now. After making an S&S-mandated stop for photos, we dragged and pushed and somehow connived the massive tree back to the SUV, finally dumping it by the side of the truck. Billie, Tarin, and I immediately pulled ourselves into the truck. The dog’s fur could be of use here I thought—though she was less certain and wouldn’t oblige.
My feet were on fire—that icy fire before your appendages fall off completely—so I pulled my ice-wrapped boots and socks off my blue feet and let Billie’s warm and magic hands slowly—oh so slowly—rub the life back into them. After twenty minutes I returned the favor. Her patience was much appreciated.
Meanwhile, Stan and Susan sawed the tree to a more preferred size, which was roughly half the length of the log we brought out of the forest. Our hosts also shut Tarin’s tail in the car door twice while managing to bungee the tree to the top of the vehicle with only minor damage to the SUV’s roof and windshield. Another hour had passed.
Finally we made the long trip home. It goes without saying, of course, that we returned almost three hours later than planned, missing the entire first half of the Southeastern Conference Championship football game (a near mortal sin to a Southerner such as myself). We wrestled our stuff from the vehicle while Tarin raced across the yard in search of our dogs. Susan was finally able to lure Tarin back into the truck, Billie and I gave our sincerest thanks, and they departed. Sweet freedom!
We were plum worn out, but I was able to catch the rest of the big game. While watching Florida sneak past Alabama to win the right to play in the Sugar Bowl, I figured out what the moral of the story is: Auburn returns a greatly improved squad next year, so all of you SECers out there better watch out! Er, um… wrong moral. Ahh, here it is: Christmas tree hunting is best left to the family that wants the tree. Next year, perhaps the $45 tree from the local grocery store? We’ll let somebody else have the adventure of getting that one.
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