Reporter's Note: President Obama remains on vacation and I remain committed to writing a letter every single day to the White House. However, in deference to the season, this week I am just writing little stories about Christmases past. Which, btw, is a lot more fun than nattering on about politics. What a surprise…
Tom Foreman | BIO
Dear Mr. President,
A few years after my wife and I moved to Colorado in the early 1990’s, as Christmas approached, I noticed a small item in the Rocky Mountain News, may it rest in peace. National Forest Service Christmas tree permits were going on sale the next day at their office on 6th Avenue. I thought it would make a great early gift to my wife, so I stopped by, paid my eight dollars for a little fluorescent pink tag and a map of the cutting area, and a couple of weeks later we were deep in the majestic Rockies, hiking through patches of snow to select a tree for our home.
The Forest Service used the program to thin smaller trees, letting the bigger ones grow more robustly, and simultaneously reducing the threat of a catastrophic forest fire, so it was pretty much a win, win, win. And that first season was simple enough. We wandered around for a half hour, enjoying the scenery and crisp, clear air; picked out a Charlie Brownish sapling, strapped it to our Subaru, and headed home.
By the next year, our tastes had refined a bit. We found ourselves pining (pun intended) for something that looked more like the cultivated trees that graced the lots back in town. That year we spent at least an hour searching the hillsides before making our pick, and even then we were not particularly happy with it.
And the next year, pure tree mania wrapped its bony fingers around us. Not only did we now want the best tree possible, but we also had a reason. Our first daughter had been born just months earlier, and certainly she deserved a great tree to start her Christmas memories. Yet, having embraced this ritual of trekking through the wilds to capture the spirit of Christmas in its natural state (many people think its natural state is a Walmart sales aisle, but they are mistaken) we were not about to give it up.
It was considerably colder that year, so we stuffed the baby into a fleece bunting, strapped her into a snuggly on my chest, and zipped it all inside my winter jacket, leaving just enough airflow at the top to keep her from smothering. After all, we’re kind of an outdoorsy family and we saw no reason to delay her education on this fact. And who knew? Perhaps a little frostbite would help build her character. (Oddly, my in-laws have never found much humor in comments like that. I once picked them up from the Denver airport in a blinding snowstorm. As we careened home on sheets of ice my mother-in-law said, “Tom, don’t you think the roads might be dangerous?” “I’m sure they are,” I responded. “That’s why I’m driving fast; so we can get off of them as soon as possible.” Not even a giggle. Go figure.)
We set off into the woods with a backpack full of water, cookies, Twizzlers, and diapers, and exceedingly high hopes that this year would produce if not a perfect tree, at least a magnificently close approximation. After all, we’d seen people in movies find nice trees in the forest, and there were seemingly millions of them here, how could we miss? And at first we had encouraging signs. As we made our way up each swale and over the next crag, perching on rock outcroppings, time and again we saw promising candidates, often only a short hundred yards away. Mind you, at 9,000 feet in the air, a hundred yard traverse of a steep slope with a rapidly growing baby on your chest is not exactly a stroll to the mailbox, but we felt good. Still, each time we reached a chosen spot, we found that either the tree we could see from “over there” was invisible “over here,” or that it was not nearly so pretty up close. (Not to be misogynistic, but I’ve noticed this same phenomenon with women on the beach.) Sometimes the back side would be a disaster; a barren expanse of dead branches behind a lovely front, not unlike some guys with hair plugs. Sometimes the tree would simply be in an unassailable position; poking out of a rock crevice on a high ledge, as safe from the bite of my saw as my grandfather’s wooden leg. (Just kidding…no wooden legs in the family as far as I know..)
As the hours passed, our optimism started dropping with the sun and the temperature. We chewed through our snacks, fed the baby in the snow, and keep trudging along. Up and down the slopes, sometimes crunching through fields of ice covered snow; sometimes, sliding on our rears on pine straw covered hillocks; all the way feeling a deepening ache in our legs.
Still, no tree. The sky was taking on the first hints of the purple that comes when dusk is flowing into the lowest valleys, and beginning to flood up the mountains. We no longer actually knew in which direction we’d have to head to find our car. We had a vague idea, in the same sense that Columbus figured if he kept going west he had to hit something, but that was about it. We had even started contemplating the unthinkable: Failure to tree.
Then, stepping out of another disappointing copse of spindly lodgepole pines, we spotted a spectacular, towering, sculpted, perfect natural wonder To say it was like that scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is not going too far. At the time, we had a cathedral ceiling that would permit a Goliath of a tree to join us for the holidays, and the moment we spotted this one, we knew we would need every inch of clearance. But it was so lovely, so well-formed, so “right,” we quickly felled it and prepared to race the failing light back to our waiting sedan.
As races go, the start was ignominious. I grabbed a lower branch, steadied the baby inside my jacket (who, I may note, snoozed pretty much the whole afternoon, and not to be testy about it, but contributed nothing to the work!) and heaved to. Despite a stomach bracing grunt, and a great surge of the big muscles in my legs, the tree did not even budge. It was lying on snow for crying out loud, and it did not move a centimeter! I dug my boots in and tried again. A faint shift. I called Linda to my side. She grabbed a branch as well. “On three..”
And with a great sigh and groan of its mass, the tree gave way and began moving. Looking at the tallest peaks for reference, and rapidly estimating our geographic progress over the course of the afternoon, we calculated between gasps the most likely course back to our car. We did not dare stop even for a moment, for fear that we’d never get our prize tree moving again. Our legs churned against the snow, the boughs sang in the icy channel of our footsteps, the darkness grew thicker, and we labored on. We triangulated the slopes with military precision (or perhaps it just seemed that way as our brains went into oxygen debt) carefully avoiding any that would force us to head up, because we were certain that would lead to a stall and doom. They would find our bodies collapsed around the trunk of our tree, fists still locked on the handholds; the baby would be raised by strangers and featured on the Maury Show as some sort of wolf-child. We could not, would not let that happen. The gloom thickened; the greenery faded into black and white, the cold bit into our necks and faces, while our legs burned as if branded. We were like cursed characters in a Russian novel, without the vodka.
Mind you, I had not the slightest idea how we would hoist this Titan of the forest onto our car if we ever found it, and my wife diplomatically avoided the subject. At least, I think she was being diplomatic. The cold had so frozen her mouth, when she spoke she sounded like the drive-through speaker at a McDonalds. I think she said something once about the Panama Canal, but who knows?
I do know this, however: I experienced a Christmas miracle that day. Just as we felt ourselves sinking into the snow for a final time, our legs finally spent, our gorgeous tree the Shakespearean pyre of nature for our little family tragedy, we heard the sound of singing. Not one voice. Not a heavenly choir. But the lusty, joyous, strong, beer-filled singing of many. As if by magic, we burst out of the tangle to find ourselves on the edge of the very parking lot we had stopped at hours ago when the sun was shining. We were mere steps from our car! And even better, a good dozen, drunken college students were gathered around an SUV nearby; strapping lads who were deep in the Christmas spirit and spirits, belting out a ribald rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. My wife, hearkening back to the survival skills of her own college days, dropped her hold on the tree, pushed me and the baby back into the woods, tossed her blonde hair and waded into their midst, blue eyes suddenly sparkling in the light of their makeshift bonfire.
“Hi guys,” she said, in the very voice and manner that undoubtedly let her mow down frat boys like a wheat thresher in her college days. “Can you maybe help me get that tree up onto my car, please?” She could have asked them to dig a tunnel back to Denver with their teeth. In an instant, they swarmed to the rescue, hoisting the centerpiece of our day’s struggle and dropping it down neatly atop our little car, crushing the shocks to oblivion. She graced them with a melodic, “Thank you so much!” her voice having miraculously thawed in the face of desperation. and then she flashed a mind-melting smile that glazed their eyes over as surely as if she’d executed a Vulcan Sleep Pinch. To this day, I am certain they never saw me and the baby emerge from the forest, slip into the car, and drive away with her. Last we saw, they were still there, slack jawed and staring at the spot where she had stood. I like to think they came around before they froze to death. Nice guys, really.
Anyway, we drove down the mountain in the dark, peering through the branches that arched over the windshield. The car was so completely covered it looked as if we were sneaking home. I was less afraid of hitting a deer than being invaded by squirrels.
We made it, however, and somehow managed to not only get the tree inside, but push it upright, watching as the tip grazed the ceiling a good fourteen feet overhead. We decorated it while balancing like Wallendas on the highest rung of our tallest ladder. And like their act, our tree was stupendous.
The baby, by the way, didn’t even notice.
Hope all is well with you.