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A Wild Christmas Tree Grows in Oregon: New Traditions for Our Little Family

December 17, 2013

It sounded like a romantic notion, bundling up the 2.73 month old and venturing into Oregon’s Mt. Hood National Forest to cut down a wild Christmas tree…but how did it actually go, you ask?

A December freeeeeezing snap wrapped our city in a bone-chilling cold (a dozen degrees Fahrenheit is pushing it for temperate Portland), but the skies were filled with sunshine and the Saturday roads were clear, so we borrowed a pickup, threw in a handsaw, packed a bag of dried fruit, jerky, and chocolate and a thermos of cocoa and set out as a little family of three toward the village of Zigzag, Oregon near the timberline of Mount Hood.

All we needed was a Christmas tree permit and a Christmas tree.

Seems straightforward, right?

To understand how we ended up on the highway headed east for the mountain, you’ll need to know I grew up on a farm south of the city. A farm where, for years and years, my family has grown and sold wholesale Christmas trees headed for lots in Texas, Hawaii, and other presumably hotter-than-Oregon spots.

As a perk, ever since I can remember, we’ve been able to literally walk out the front door of my parents’ home and take our pick from thousands of beautiful trees. We’ve hosted friends and made gala days of it. In fact, one of the final celebrations before leaving on our round-the-world trip was our annual Christmas tree party.

Many, many wonderful friends and memories over the years: snatching mistletoe from the heritage oak trees, drinking mom’s hot wassail, wandering deeper and deeper into the rows to find the perfect tree…wearing my favorite green Columbia Sportswear vest year after year…

Seth and his chainsaw skills

In 2011, Ted and I watched as our best pals chose trees for their homes and tied the green treasures to the roofs of their cars. (Big thanks to my brother Seth who without fail toted the chainsaw around and ran the baling machine, making quick work of buzzing through tree trunks and tying up branches.)

With a mix of sadness and excitement, though, Ted and I skipped.

We had no home of our own; we’d moved out, we were staying in the upstairs room at my parents’ house, our travel bags were nearly packed, and our plane was set to leave for South America just after the New Year. No need for a tree.

It was a year for pausing convention.

And what a year it was.

You could stretch (         this space         ) miles long and still not have room for all the memories.

But this is a story about 2013.

About an Oregon Christmas tree.

About venturing beyond the farm and into the wild, and about starting new traditions now that we have our squishy, adorable little third Oregonian.

Fast forward from that final tree party, past the Santa in Lima, past the twelve months of continent-hopping, past the blissful summertime December and the 45-hour Christmas that took us from New Zealand through Japan to home again in Oregon. Fast forward through this year of 2013, the settling in our new home, the birth of sweet Lucie, the cold front that blew through Portland…

This year, the billowing smoke of the farm burn pile signals more than the end of the season… It’s the end of a tradition, too.

Cleared land and the Christmas tree burn pile on the horizon

The family Christmas trees will soon be no more. Field are being converted for a new crop of filberts (that’s hazelnuts to you non-Oregonians!), and cut Christmas trees aren’t being replaced.

As the burn pile turns this year’s stragglers to ashes, Ted and I decided this first Christmas with our little Peach would mark the new Christmas beginnings: A tradition we could start now and enjoy for years to come. A little part adventure, a little part tree-hugging (in almost the literal sense), a little part foodie-fun (well, cocoa-ie-fun), and a little part celebration of the beautiful place we live in the world.

And that’s how we found ourselves on the highway, headed toward the mountain with a small infant on a big experiment.

It started out tame. Smiles, sunshine, confidence. Lucie seemed miraculously content.

Twenty minutes later, we executed Plan A: pit stop at the Ace Hardware store in Sandy where $5.00 Christmas tree cutting permits are sold. Great, except the woman who helped Ted with the transaction said “I have no idea where to go or what to do; I’ve never done it,” and proceeded to give him a blank stare and a black and white copy-of-a-copy of the worst looking map I’ve ever laid eyes on. (No picture, you’ll just have to take my word for it. But hey, as a landscape architect and a traveler who’s seen many, many, many plans and maps in her life, you can trust me that it was pretty darn terrible.)

What the map lacked in clarity, though, the instruction handout made up for in Comic Sans.

Plan B. Second pit stop, this time up the road a little farther at the Zigzag Ranger Station.

Ted took the map in for translation, and I took diaper duty.

Perhaps this is the moment to tell you I’ve given birth to a terrible traveler. (Dirty diaper or no.)

Our life involves pit stops on more than just tree-hunting days.

Lucie hates, hates, hates her car seat. Nine drives out of ten turn into a screaming meltdown (on her part, of course) and a tense and “will-this-ever-be-over, will-she-ever-grow-out-of-it?!” fit (on mine).

For this stage of life, I’m guess I’m well versed in pull-the-car-over-and-calm-the-baby exercises.

Let’s just say that wrangling a diaper change on the concrete Ranger Station bathroom floor while frozen wind whipped in the entrance and under the stall doors was like a rural Laos squat toilet experience on steroids. (There are some circumstances a blanket and changing pad – or a roll of toilet paper for that matter – can never really completely rectify.)

BUT – we braved it. And slightly happier Lucie emerged, tanked up on food, played a few goofy-face games with Ted, and returned to her seat for the shortest little route we could make out into the forest.

We found ourselves about a dozen minutes outside of Zigzag, a right hand turn off Lolo Pass Road onto Muddy Fork and across the Sandy River.

The roads were quiet, the Mountain majestic, the woods green and bright. And after we parked the pickup and put screaming Lucie into her snug-as-a-bug fuzzy suit and knit hat (and SmartWool baby booties repurposed as mittens!), we three set out through the snow, dashing to beat the cold from getting to the baby and to beat the winter sun from setting on us too soon.

I’ll be honest, I was worried.

Baby meltdowns and racing clocks aren’t usually the best way to start family traditions.

But guess what?

The woods worked their magic…

In the rhythm of the crunch, crunch, crunch on the snow and comfort of the warmth of our shoulders, Lucie made her way from winter wonderland to dreamland, and after a few maybe-possiblies, we at last found our tree: a perfect little Tsuga heterophylla waiting patiently for our arrival.

The little Western Hemlock had been growing in that spot, day in and day out, since before the baby…before our trip around the world…before our Christmas tree parties of years past. It faithfully grew toward the sun, stacking needles on branches, putting on height, until our first annual tree hunt, until it came home with us.

And just like that, a trip back through the woods and to the road, and the tree was tagged and tucked in the truck and ready to go. (Thanks, Ted, for manning the hand saw and paperwork and the four wheel drive.)

The happy ending doesn’t conclude with celebratory drinks, though.

Guess who roused briefly for the first five minutes of the drive and then slept an hour on the way home and another two hours once we were back? The little Peach herself.

And if one Christmas miracle wasn’t enough, the following day, we put the tree up in the house, put Lucie down for bed at 7:00pm(!), and managed a trimmed tree, more hot cocoa, and fresh baked cookies by 8:30pm.

I don’t want to be too confident, but I’d say we found the recipe for our new version of holiday cheer. Though, spoken as an ever-learning parent, I’d also say check in next year to see how it actually pans out…with a toddler.

I used to drive down my parents’ driveway and look out over the tree fields, imagining what each might look like decorated, picturing them in homes and windows in distant corners of the country, with families gathered round and traditions taking place.

Now and for years to come, I’ll be imagining each of our little family’s future trees somewhere out there, picturing them in my window, hung with ornaments from Baby’s First Christmas (and more memories to come)… I’ll pause on random days and wonder where in the woods it’s growing right then, waiting for Ted and Lucie and me to come claim it and bring it home.

Notes on How to Cut a Wild Christmas Tree from Mount Hood National Forest:

  • Get a tag. Check the Mount Hood National Forest Products Permit page for details. You’ll have to grab it in person ahead of time or the day of.
  • Skip Ace Hardware if you want to ask detailed questions about the map. (Okay, that’s just me.) It may be a moot point, though, because…
  • Each year the vendor list changes. Contact Mount Hood National Forest headquarters to find out which Ranger districts and local vendors are selling permits. (503-668-1700, 16400 Champion Way, Sandy, Oregon) .
  • Familiarize yourself with the details: 12′ tall tree max., five total permits per household, etc.
  • Remember the saw. Also: smart to pack a shovel and kitty litter (for snow/traction). We didn’t need it, but hey, I thought it was good advice. (Also: layers of clothing, drinking water, emergency survival kit fixings, etc. Avoid being caught on Mt. Hood without a backup plan.)
  • Don’t forget the coffee and the pumpkin pie*
  • Bonus: If you’d like to deck your halls, too, permits for wild-harvested evergreen boughs are free! With the permit, you can take home up to 25lbs during Christmas tree season.

*Or, depending on caffeine and portability issues, may I also suggest cocoa, chai tea, hot buttered rum (oh, wait…well, maybe for not-the-children and not-the-driver?), and copious amounts of jerky, sharp cheese, dried mangoes and cherries, sweet and salty nut mix, chocolate covered raisins, etc., etc. You know, the usual good stuff. Currier and Ives would approve.

What about you? Do you go to a favorite tree lot? Tree farm? Do you grow your own? Do you buy one live and plant it in your yard? Do you pull the fake one out of the storage closet? Do you go out into the woods to catch one in the wild??

Do you skip it altogether? Decorate a palm tree?

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  • Reply Sue R. December 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    During my Minnesota growing-up years, my dad and uncle had a Christmas tree lot–meaning they went to northern Minnesota, cut down lots of trees, brought them back and sold them from a corner lot. We had the pick of the best of those (though not like your fresh acres of trees!) and then a burn pile of left-overs. Our family’s traditions changed when we moved to Oregon and found a place to cut our own–once in the mountains, but mostly from a guy down the road. Then home for eggnog and a reading of “Mole and Troll Trim the Tree.” Great fun! Lucie will love your new traditions!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 19, 2013 at 10:20 am

      That must’ve been quite the effort on your dad and uncle’s part – heading up into the woods to bring multiple trees back and then run the lot. I bet they had some good tree-finding-tricks up their sleeve :)

      I’ve never heard of “Mole and Troll Trim the Tree,” but now I’m off to look it up!

      So fun seeing Jay briefly the other night. Hugs to you and your family! xx

  • Reply Jane Luthy December 17, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    One year my mother was determined to go out into the snowy woods and cut down
    our Christmas tree. It was
    snowing like hell, hard to find the exact place to cut a tree and we all froze. Undaunted, my mother got the perfect tree (my dad wasn’t on this trip for
    some reason), loaded it on top of the car and off we went toward home. Well
    what do you know our perfect tree blew off the car onto the freeway and we stopped at a
    Christmas tree lot and picked out are 2nd best perfect tree.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 19, 2013 at 10:23 am

      Oh Jane, you’re killing me with your story. I can picture it all now. (Weren’t you telling me once about another roof-of-the-car adventure with your mom and a big army green canvas tent? Or am I imagining…?) Ted read your Christmas tree tale and shook his head laughing and said it sounded too much like something I would do. I took it as a compliment, of course ;)
      xx B

  • Reply Kristy December 17, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    If you take out the head pads in lucies car seat she may be happier. Main reason they love those (or not!) seats is over heating. Less is more! No head pads and no hats or coats or blankets… Light as possible. A 7 hour trip to sun river that should have been 3 made me crazy with my first born!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 19, 2013 at 10:25 am

      We have a trip to central Oregon planned for February, and I’m already running through the rest-stop scenarios in my head… Oh dear!

  • Reply Maria Falvey December 18, 2013 at 4:15 am

    Nice choice on the tree!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 19, 2013 at 10:28 am

      Thank you! We really like it, although (as I suspected) it’s dropping a few more needles than the farmed varieties… A small price to pay for a beautiful little piece of the wild in our living room. :)

  • Reply Jane Sadek December 18, 2013 at 5:02 am

    Hubby nixed live trees years ago as an unnecessary repetitive expense and spent a fortune on a pre-lit job. I have to admit, it’s a lot easier and much warmer, but I miss the fresh smell. Glade and Febreeze pine scents just don’t cut it.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 19, 2013 at 10:32 am

      I hear you on that. When we first got married, there was a discussion about skipping the tree because of allergies; thankfully, Ted’s been okay with the ones we’ve had in the house. I just know I’d miss the real green and the fresh smell if we did without… (Though the ease of setup and cleanup can sound pretty tempting at times…)

  • Reply blair mcmillan December 18, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Thanks so much for such a lovely recap of your family’s adventure! As a child my father, brother and I would set out for the snowy mountains, to a Christmas tree farm, where we would choose and cut our perfect tree. I don’t know why my mom never came, too much baking to do I presume (or maybe she just enjoyed having the house to herself for the day). After we found our tree we would hit up an old diner for lunch and milkshakes. Looking back these are some of my favorite memories. I’m sure Lucie will feel the same as she grows older.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians December 19, 2013 at 2:48 pm

      That sounds like such a delightful tradition, Blair! The diner stop, especially (even on a cold winter’s day, I can rarely refuse a good milkshake…).

      It’s funny, singing lullabies doesn’t come naturally to me, but I love Christmas songs and I’ve been humming them to Lucie for a few weeks now. I love the lyric, “…it’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives; these wonderful things are the things we remember all through our lives…”

      I have so many Christmas memories from the growing up years; I’m excited to make more and share them with my own little girl. :)

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  • Reply Aunt Linda February 5, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    So sweet to see you creating your own family traditions! Reminds me of Matthew, Adam’s, and my annual “snowballs and cocoa” tree-picking days at your folks…always a day resplendent with fresh-baked snowball cookies, cocoa from scratch (no packets!), marshmallows, and holiday napkins accompanied by strains of Christmas carols blaring forth from the car stereo.

    Aunt Linda

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 11, 2014 at 2:16 pm

      Aww, thanks Aunt Linda! It was good to attempt something new, and I can imagine it’ll be fun to look backward in time as the years go by and remember the early days with a baby :) Is it crazy to hope she’ll be able to have her own sip of (sugar free??) cocoa next year? ;)

      Love you!

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