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?