By Jeff Hamblin
When I was a child the annual arrival of the Christmas tree was an enormously important event. This was the signal event of the Christmas season. The entry of the tree into the house marked the beginning of the Christmas music, the decorations, and the overall excitement of Christmas. It was a day I anticipated almost as much as Christmas Day; and one I remember as fondly.
Those days were not the simple days of removing tree parts from a hollow box, but rather complex days of planning and organizing the necessary tools for the job; the proper clothing to wear; and the right people to go.
Every year I would ask Dad, “Can I go this year? Please Dad, please!”
Sternly he would say, “No son, it’s too cold.”
“I won’t complain, Dad. I promise. Please can I go, please!”
For those left home the burden of waiting filled the day. The furniture would be moved and the spot cleaned and made ready. Boxes of gold, silver, and colorful gems were brought forth from places previously unknown, or forgotten. Meaningless play would fill those hours as thoughts could not focus on childish things.
How I longed to be part of the conquering party and march through the door of our home, triumphant. Carrying the banner of Christmas, as my sister had done the year prior.
“What is that?” I had asked my mother.
“It’s our Christmas tree,” she replied.
“It’s ugly.” I grunted. Despondent that she did not understand me.
“No, you don’t mean that.” She gazed at the tree as if it were already covered in ornaments. “It’s beautiful!”
“It doesn’t look right.”
“What do you mean, it doesn’t look right?” she asked.
“That’s not a Christmas tree,” I responded. “It doesn’t look right.”
“It’s a juniper tree. We’ve never had a juniper tree for Christmas.”
“I don’t think we ever should again” I said, with a distasteful tone I have never forgotten, nor forgiven myself for.
It was only one year later when my father would give me the opportunity I longed for.
It was an early morning in late November when the gentle touch of my mother’s hand woke me. Wearily I rolled over in bed, “There’s no school today, is there Mom?”
“No. Your father wants you to get up and help him get ready to go get the Christmas tree,” she said.
Excitedly, I sat up in bed and asked, “Do I get to go?”
“You’ll have to ask him for yourself,” she responded as she turned for the door, “And dress warm.”
Left alone, and awake, I sat motionless for a moment. There was a calmness to the world outside that told me it had snowed during the night. There were no birds chirping, leaves rustling, or cars humming on the road nearby. I climbed up to look out of the window. Below I saw the sagging branches of the chokecherry tree that appeared to be kissing the ground from the weight of the wet snow. The front yard and the field were quiet and soft, and I could not see very far up the canyon as the clouds had set in. There was a dull gray light, as the sun was rising over the mountains. I knew that it was, and could picture it in my mind as I had seen it so many times before, even though I could not see it now.
The quiet shock of the morning was broken by the noise of the day. The final words of my mother entered my mind. “Dress warm,” I repeated in my mind. “That could only mean one thing,” I thought. “I must be going!”
I jumped down and began to dress frantically. I put on a long sleeve shirt, my best pants (without holes), and two pairs of socks. I rushed downstairs to find a warm breakfast waiting for me – but no Dad. He was already outside preparing for the expedition.
About the time I was finished eating the door opened and in walked Dad. To me, he was a mountain of a man – and he looked the part. He wore cowboy boots, Levis, a woolen shirt, a Levi jacket and a cowboy hat. I never understood how anyone could get cold when I saw what Dad wore. I wasn’t afraid of the cold. I am this man’s son!
I rushed up to him and jumped up and down tugging at his coat as if I were a little puppy. “Can I go with you, Dad? Please? Please?”
“It’s awfully wet, and cold outside,” he stated simply.
“I won’t get cold, Dad. I promise I won’t complain.”
“Alright, son, you can come. Get your snow stuff on.”
Leaving the house that morning was truly like walking into a winter wonderland. I loved newly fallen snow as it would allow me to see what had gone on while I was asleep. There were some tracks that I assumed were a deer’s. I could see where it had wandered through the field in front of the house, jumped the fence, taken a few more steps and paused – as if looking in our window before moving on to the north. I could also see where a bird had landed and hopped around in the snow looking for food. Then the marks of its feathers where its’ wings had touched the snow as it flew away. Of most significance to me, however, were Dad’s tracks. I could see everything he had done that morning before I was awake. I could see the steps of preparation he had taken and the channels the truck made in the snow as he had driven out of the driveway, up the hill.
Dad came out of the garage and I followed him up the hill, trying to step in his footsteps. At first, this was hard as the steps were far apart and I would almost have to almost hop to make it from footprint to footprint. Dad must have noticed this as he shortened his stride and it became easier for me to follow.
At the top of the hill were the truck and the horse trailer. We climbed in and as we drove away I felt the pride and the burden of the task before us. I had longed to feel this sense of pride, but I had never understood the sense of burden that would accompany the task. Questions came into my mind. “Where would we find a Christmas tree? How would we know the right tree when we found it? How would we get it home? What if something goes wrong?” I did not know the answers to these questions. I looked at Dad and began to open my mouth to question him. Seeing the confident and determined look on his face I realized that as long as I had him, there was nothing for me to worry about. I closed my mouth and turned to watch the newly disturbed snow whizz by the window.
We drove down the road several miles then turned into the driveway of one of Dad’s friends. This was no surprise to me as I had been here many times before and it was common for Dad and Larry to go on these outings together. He had his grey horse saddled and ready to go. They loaded it in the trailer as I watched from inside the truck. The door opened and I slid to the middle to allow room for the two men.
“Well, what have we here?” asked Larry. “Decided you didn’t trust us to pick a tree for you after last year, huh?”
Sheepishly I responded, “No, I…”
“Well, it’s good to have you around to make sure we get it right.”
I had forgotten what I had said last year, and Larry reminded me how embarrassed I was. Mom was right. The juniper tree did end up beautiful.
I cannot tell you where we it was that we parked the horse trailer that day, but I can tell you what it looked like. There was virgin snow all around us. We drove down a lane that had large snow covered trees on the right and there was a large pasture on the left set at the base of a gentle sagebrush, and hawthorn covered slope. There was a house there, but I could not tell if anyone actually lived in it. Everything was peaceful and quiet.
We mounted the horses and traveled up the sagebrush slope. The view, as we traveled, on any other day would have been a magnificent view of the valley. Today, however, the clouds were set in and the only things we could focus on were the things directly around us. As we traveled up the hill we soon lost sight of our starting point. It was difficult to tell how far we had traveled. I soon began to feel the chill of this humid day. The distance we traveled seemed to become long and a bit worrisome to me. I did not focus on the beauty or even the task at hand, but rather the distance we would have to travel before I would feel the warmth of home again.
We traveled through groves of Quaking Aspens with an occasional glimpse of a large pine tree. As I saw that first pine tree our mission came back to my mind and I forgot about the chill I was beginning to feel. Excitedly I began to look around for a tree that would be suitable to be our tree – my first tree; one that would be magnificent enough and memorable enough to be my tree.
As we would pass by a tree I would turn to Dad and ask, “How about that one?”
He would respond simply, “No, not that one.”
After several times, I began to be frustrated. At first I would just question in my mind, “Why isn’t that one good enough?” After another tree or two I began to verbally complain, “What is wrong with that one?”
“It is not the right one,” Dad would respond.
We came to a point where we could climb out on a ridge or stay low along a canyon floor. The ridge was as barren as the canyon was rich with trees and shrubbery. This is where we split up. Larry continued along the canyon floor and Dad and I climbed out on the ridge. At this point I really began to question Dad’s logic. “Why were we leaving all of the trees behind?” “What were we going to find on this ridge?” The chill began to set in again as I could feel the breeze unencumbered now by the lack of trees. I looked down as we traveled up the ridge. No longer could I sense my mission, nor any purpose in it. I watched the snow deepen as we climbed and the horse began to labor. And yet we pressed on.
We came out of the clouds on top of the ridge and I could see the sun. I turned and looked behind us to see the valley below; but all I could see were clouds and the mountain peaks and ridges protruding from them. It was if we had entered another world. The wind seemed calmer (although it was likely stronger) and I could see for miles, whereas below I could only see for a few yards. While it was still cold, the sun was shining and it felt warmer. My spirits lifted and I remembered our goal once again.
Looking around for trees I could see there were several. Many were deciduous, but among them were juniper trees that I had so vocally detested the year before. They grew saliently, alone on the ridge, where very little else grew. “They really are beautiful,” I thought to myself. Dad stopped the horse, perhaps to give it a rest. However, it seemed to me that it was to pause and reflect on the beauty and peace that we were immersed in. After a few minutes the horse was rested and getting uneasy.
“It’s time.” My dad said. And he helped me slide off the side of the horse. I sunk down in the snow above my knees.
“Here, son,” he said as he was bending over to hand me the saw he had taken from the saddle bag. “Go and cut that tree.” He pointed to a tree that was a few yards ahead on the south side of the ridge.
“That’s a juniper tree, Dad.” I stated the obvious.
“Yes it is, son. We will cut if for Larry. I’ll go and tell him we have it.”
Dad turned the horse and began to ride away.
“What if Larry doesn’t…” I began to say verbally, or not; to myself, as much as to my father, “…want it?” I concluded.
I turned and began to plod through the snow toward the tree. As I did, new questions entered my mind. “How long did it take for this tree to get this big?” “Will another one grow in its place?” I unfolded the saw and held it up to the bark of the tree. I paused for a moment, and then began to cut. I had sawed on fallen trees around our house during the summer, but had never cut a green tree that was standing. After the first inch or so the work became laborious. I would cut, then pause. Soon I was hoping for help from Dad. Yet I did not give up. I was standing in snow above my knees and would sit in the snow during a backstroke and stand and push on the forward stroke. After what seemed like an hour of sawing, the saw became wedged in the tree so that I could no longer move it forward or back. I sat down in the snow and waited for Dad.
By the time he came back I had tears rolling down my cheeks. Not so much for fear of being left behind, but more so because I had failed. I wiped the tears away the best I could, but I am certain Dad could see my frustration and concern. He dismounted the horse and tied it to a nearby tree.
“I can’t do it, Dad. I tried, but I can’t!”
“Yes you can! Never use the word can’t.”
He lifted me up by the arm and held the tree with the other. “Now try it again,” he said, sternly.
I paused and looked up into his face. “I…” I began, wanting to say “I can’t.” But when I looked up into his face, I couldn’t. “…I’ll try,” I muttered. I gave the saw a push, and it moved. With Dad holding the tree I was able to move the saw once again. I began to cut with confidence and soon I was able to cut through the tree.
“Timber!” my dad cried, and let the tree fall to the ground.
“Timber!” I echoed.
By the time we met up with Larry the cold had begun to set in for me. I had labored hard to cut down the tree and stood in the snow for some time. I was wet both inside and out. Although I was riding in front of Dad, and could feel some of his body heat on my by back, I still felt a chill that ran deep. I had told Dad I would not complain, and I was determined not to, but the shuddering chill of my body would not lie. Dad knew I was getting cold. He gave the trees to Larry to tow and we separated again. Larry was to take a longer path down that was better to travel with the trees and we were to take a quicker way. I wanted to thank them both for their thoughtfulness, but did not dare as it might let on to how cold I felt.
As we rode down the mountain I did not think of a triumphant entry into the house, Christmas lights and decorations, music, or even presents. It took all of my concentration to not cry and complain. The pace we took down the mountain was much quicker than that on the ride up. We rode down some fairly steep slopes in the snow that perhaps we should not have. It was rough and painful, but I was grateful.
After some time traveling, we descended into a clearing; a calming meadow of white. The clouds touched the undisturbed snow, but the lack of trees allowed us to see more than a few yards ahead. It was beautiful and comforting if for no other reason than we had smooth riding for a distance. I relaxed a bit, but as I did my body shuddered with a chill. I sniffled and tried to hold back the tears, but I could feel a warm rivulet slowly run down my cheek. I dared not wipe it away for fear that Dad would see my weakness. The warmth of that tear quickly turned into an icy chill.
We rode toward the edge of the meadow on the south side where Dad stopped the horse. He slid off the side and tied it to a nearby tree, then he came back a reached for me.
“What are we doing, Dad,” I stammered.
He lowered me down to the ground and said, “I want to show you something, son.”
We walked back toward the meadow to a tree that I had not noticed before. It was a beautiful white pine growing by itself in the meadow. It was perfectly symmetrical and would have made a perfect Christmas tree if not for one problem – it was the wrong color.
“If you are ever in the forest,” Dad began, “and need a way to get warm. Look for a red tree.”
“Why,Dad? What does a red tree do?”
“Watch,” he responded.
He took a match from his pocket, lit it and held it near one of the branches. In a moment the branch caught on fire. Dad put his hand on me and we took a few steps back. The fire spread quickly, and then the tree seemed to almost explode with fire momentarily as the needles disintegrated. It calmed and we moved back toward the tree.
We warmed ourselves for a bit near the crackling and popping of the dry wood, then we continued on our journey. As we rode away I looked back to see the cold, peaceful meadow and the warm, violent fire. I can still see it clearly in my mind today.
The rest of the journey did not seem as long as the previous legs. Maybe it was because I was warm again, or maybe it was because I had more to think about than myself. But before I knew it we were heading down the slope where I could see the pickup and the trailer. Dad started the truck and I climbed in while he loaded the horse in the trailer. We did not have to wait long for Larry. After loading the trees we all climbed in and headed for home.
“Did we get the right trees?” asked Larry.
“Yes,” I said. And thought to myself, “All three of them.”
“Which one do you want?” Larry continued.
I paused for only a moment, thinking of the symmetrical white pine in the meadow, looked at Dad and said, “The juniper.”
Larry laughed, “I thought so.”
We put up our second, and final, juniper tree that year. The next year we got a white pine and decorated it all in red. That began a tradition that lasted for many years in our household. I don’t know why Mom decided to decorate the Christmas tree in red, but I wouldn’t let her change it for many years after. She still has some of those red ornaments, and I think about my first Christmas trees every time we help her decorate – the juniper which warmed our home, and the white pine that warmed my toes. Both still warm my heart and soul today.
Life’s journeys take us down different paths and purposes – sometimes we choose them, and sometimes they choose us. What is clear to me is that we have help along the way and that whatever path we follow it leads us back to the same place in the end. It was only a few years later when one of these paths chose Larry. We miss him. And we look forward to seeing him again.