Finding the perfect Christmas tree can be tough. Todd Gardiner knows this all too well.
“For about a year, I just drove really slowly, looking out the window,” said Gardiner, a silviculturist with the U.S. Forest Service. “Looking for that perfect tree.”
Not just any tree. Gardiner was looking for the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, also known as the People’s Tree. It’s Congress’ holiday centerpiece and sits on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. And this year the tree was coming from Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests in western Colorado. Finding a perfect tree took a lot of looking, but Gardiner found several contenders.
Usually, someone from the Architect of the Capitol’s office flies out from Washington to review all the towering finalists in person — the nation’s national forests take turns providing the tree — but this year was different because of the pandemic.
It was more like online dating.
Photos and videos were exchanged profiling the finalists. And the final pick was made over video chat — a statuesque, 55-foot Engelmann spruce that the rangers called the Beaver Dam tree. It was located in rough terrain about an hour from Montrose, far from just about everything except other trees.
When the time came in November to cut the tree, only a small group was invited to watch in person. One of them was forest spokesperson Kimberlee Phillips, who let out a happy yell as she watched a crane hoist the tree into the air. A cold front forced the tree cutting to be moved up a day.
“We were not canceling Christmas,” Phillips said. “We were going to figure out a way to do it, one way or the other.”
It’s one thing to find that perfect Christmas tree. Cutting down a five-story tree — undamaged — and loading it onto a flatbed truck that can make it up mountain roads can be a logistical nightmare.
But Harvey Gray, one of two loggers who sawed through the tree’s stump, said the process went smoothly.
Being chosen to make the cut was “a special thing, a real special thing,” said Gray, who has worked in the logging industry for more than 50 years and was born in a remote sawmill camp not far from where the tree stood. He thinks this year’s Capitol Christmas tree is special because of how perfectly formed and well filled out it is.
But not only that.
“You know, I’m getting kinda old, and sometimes I’ve found it’s real simple things that make big changes,” he said. Seeing all the cooperation that went into finding, cutting and transporting the tree, “it’s obvious that the tree has done a lot of good,” he said, adding that he hopes it brings “a lot of people together.”
That wish came true about a week later when it embarked on another key part of Capitol Christmas Tree tradition: a victory lap around its home state.
In the small town of Paonia, hundreds converged around the tree after it lumbered into town strapped to the back of the big rig — a rubber bladder full of water snug against its trunk. As the town’s middle school’s choir serenaded the crowd, little kids peered through the plexiglass for a peek at the tree. Seven-year-old Rainy Weber had a big smile on her face.
“Oh, it’s great!” she exclaimed.
Many folks signed their name on a banner on the truck’s side. Doris Richards, mom to five adopted children, was one of the people writing on the banner. But it wasn’t her name she put down; it was the names of her children.
“It’s just special because it came from our area,” she said. “I don’t know, it’s just roots. It’s our roots.”
For Lindi Mereness, it was what the tree symbolizes that drew her out.
“I just thought about all the peace and love and potential for respect, communication, goodwill toward men, Americans and the whole world,” she said. “And so I came to give it my prayers.”
People’s attachment to the tree doesn’t at all surprise former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell. The last two times the Capitol Christmas Tree came from his state, in 2000 and 2012, he was the one who drove it all the way to Washington.
“It’s quite an adventure,” Nighthorse Campbell said. When he first volunteered, he was the only senator with a commercial driver's license.
Decades before, he drove trucks to pay for college, but he said it was still a challenge to navigate the small mountain roads and back up the giant vehicle “all the time.”
For the trip, everything was donated, from his own time to the fuel. On his first chauffeuring trip, the Forest Service even gave him and his crew fresh roadkill to grill, which he thought was delicious.
“How often can you eat elk steaks every night?” he recalled, with a laugh.
The thing that really sticks with Nighthorse Campbell were the crowds, and not just in the towns. Sometimes, far between communities, flocks of people were waiting, eager to get a glimpse of the tree.
“There would be 15 or 20 cars with a whole bunch of kids standing by the crossroads,” he said fondly.
For the GMUG Forest Service employees with the job of keeping the tree healthy during the trip to Washington, D.C., seeing people wave from highway overpasses was one of the highlights of the trip.
“Everything this nation has gone through in the last nine months, I think people are just looking for some positive things. And I think they came out and really wanted to enjoy the tree,” said Forest Service employee Clay Speas.
As the tree rolled up to the Capitol — at the end of its almost 2,000-mile journey in November — it had a U.S. Capitol Police escort up to the West Lawn.
This year’s tree arrival ceremony was a subdued affair, owing in no small part to COVID-19.
It took a couple of hours to set up, but the tree looked none the worse for wear — straight, branches unfurled and full, a symbol of hope and promise — which has been in short supply this year.
It is also helping serve as a bridge, at least for one family. When Michelle Boyd of Fruita found out about the tree, a lightbulb went off. Her daughter, Delainey, works on Capitol Hill in Washington. Boyd and her husband decided to write messages to Delainey on the banner that surrounded the tree.
“I thought it would be sweet if she could go witness that beautiful tree in Washington D.C., and see little notes from home,” she said.
That’s especially meaningful because this is the first time the family will be apart for Christmas. Because of the pandemic, Michelle Boyd said Delainey will not travel home for the holidays.
“It’s painful, for a lack of a nice way to say it. It’s very painful,” Boyd said. “Yet we’re sticking to it. We’re going to do right by everyone including health care workers especially.”
Boyd wrote sweet messages, like “We’re proud of you, Lainey” in different places along the banner. She sent her daughter photos of the banner to give her clues for where she could find the messages — like a scavenger hunt. But like most of 2020, nothing went to plan.
The banner didn’t make the trip to D.C. Still, Delainey Boyd is excited that a little piece of home is with her at the nation’s capitol building.
“Even if we’re not together, we have both seen the same thing,” Delainey Boyd said. “And we’ve been a part of the same thing in some way.”
Michelle Boyd said it’s not necessarily the tree itself, but rather the people gathered around it, that makes it perfect. And this tree allowed the Boyd family to do just that, even though they’re far away.
Delainey Boyd is on the hunt for one thing that did make it from Fruita.
“They could put ornaments on it, so [my mom] put on an ornament. So I’m going to look for that.”
Delainey said she thinks she found her mother’s camper ornament on the tree, though she can’t be sure. Coloradans hand made about 9,800 ornaments to send to D.C. — 2,500 have been placed on the People’s Tree. The rest will be distributed — along with about 70 regular-sized companion Christmas trees from Colorado — to congressional and federal offices. GOP Rep. Ken Buck’s office received one of the trees, as well as ornaments and a handmade tree skirt.
It’s been a tough year for Colorado forests — drought, bugs and wildfires — have destroyed many trees. But just like the tree gives hope to some people who saw it, there is also some other hope.
Gardiner, who found the Capitol Christmas Tree, is in charge of planting about 90,000 new trees next summer for the Forest Service.
“And I will personally go plant the new baby tree, right where this Capitol Christmas tree was harvested,” he said.