By Suzanne Waring
As an adult college student living in a new area, Margie was broke. Regardless, she wanted to have a memorable Christmas for her three children. When she heard that the general public could go to the mountains to get a “free” Christmas tree, she decided that such an experience would be an event that her preteens would enjoy and remember.
To prepare, she borrowed a saw and some rope because she would have to tie the tree to the top of her beater of a two-door sedan. They were on their way one Saturday morning in early December. As they climbed into the mountains, the landscape became snowy, and the slick road caused the worn tires to slip and slide, but Margie managed to stay in her lane.
A small creek running beside the highway had glistening sheets of ice that were broken by the force of the stream that continued to careen down the mountainside. With the snow- tipped evergreens framing the creek, the surroundings became a crystal fairyland that the children pointed at and marveled over. Yes, this was a Christmas activity they wouldn’t forget.
When the family stopped at the ranger station to get a permit, they climbed out of the driver’s door because the door on the passenger side no longer opened. Margie admitted to the ranger that she had never looked for a tree, never cut one down, and really didn’t know how to tie one to the top of her car. When the ranger learned that she had rope and a saw, he told her that everything would come “naturally” and gave her a map showing where she might easily find a tree.
The family piled back into the car and headed up the mountain highway, following the map. The parking lot had cars with families coming and going, walking about, and loading trees onto their vehicles; so, Margie didn’t feel like she and her children would be alone in the dense forest.
One child carried the rope, and the older ones took turns carrying the saw. Walking along a snowmobile trail, the children argued about who was going to carry the tree down the mountain. When they stepped off the compressed trail into a grove of young evergreens, they were surprised at the snow depth. Finding it difficult to wade in the deep snow from tree to tree, they slowly trudged along. They spied trees that seemed to be right for their house, and then one of them would point out a brown bough, a flat side, or multiple tree tips. Scattering, one of them would call to the others that they had found the perfect tree only to decide it was too short or too tall. At last, they found what they thought would be the almost perfect tree. Margie stepped down into a hollowed-out area around the tree and cut the soft wood as close to the ground as she could. So far everything was happening “naturally.”
Instead of carrying the tree down the mountainside, they tied the rope to the trunk of the tree, and the children took turns dragging the tree along the snowmobile trail. The sun would pop out of the clouds one minute; next they would be showered with a burst of large snowflakes drifting out of a gray sky. Yes, the day was turning out to be absolutely perfect.
Back at the car, they ate their cold lunches and relished the hot cocoa from a thermos. Finally, they tied the tree onto the car by wrapping the rope around the tree and fastening it to the roof rack. Once they had finished, the ropes seemed tight. It was time to take their tree home.
Within minutes of the trip back to town, the appearance of some evergreen needles on the driver’s window was the first indication that something was awry. Then a few evergreen boughs slid down over the windshield. When a whole branch was visible at her door, Margie thought she should stop if she could find a pullout. By then the tree was obscuring her vision. Coming around a corner, Margie heard a swish, and the whole tree slid down and was being held to the driver’s side of the car by the rope. Its top branches covered the windshield. She could hardly see the sign indicating the ranger station where they had stopped earlier. Margie swung into the drive and stopped the car, but she couldn’t get out. The Christmas tree had become a brace keeping them from opening the car door.
Margie honked, but no one seemed to be around. She honked again—and again. After what seemed an eternity, the branches at the side window parted, and the ranger’s nose pushed up against the window. When he recognized Margie, he stifled a laugh, but she could see the twitch of a smile that he was unable to repress. “It looks like you have a problem here,” he yelled through the tree.
Margie pointed to the driver’s door. “This is the only door that works. With the tree barring the way, we can’t get out!” she yelled.
Pulling off gloves, the ranger worked at undoing the knots that Margie had made. When he removed the tree, the family shot out of the car as if they had been imprisoned for hours. Next the ranger patiently helped Margie tie the tree to the roof rack so that it would stay in place for the rest of the trip back to town.
It’s all how you look at it whether it turned out to be a perfect day. When Margie looked at her children sound asleep, felt the warm air whirling from the heater, and listened to Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” on the radio as they journeyed home, she was certain her children would always remember their adventures of going to the mountains to get a “free” Christmas tree.
The core of this story is true. One of my adult students wrote about it in a composition over thirty years ago when permits for Christmas trees in Lewis and Clark National Forest were free. (Now permits are $5 for each tree.) I have lost track of the student and her name, but the incident that she shared has remained with me. Of course, I returned the composition to her, so this version is not exactly as she wrote it. In telling this story, I have incorporated my own family’s experiences when we also went to the mountains for a “free” Christmas tree.