Truth be told, this all started years ago looking at the price of trees in a tree lot.
"$60 for a tree? You've got to be kidding me!" - I think that's what went through my head. Then I remembered an article I had read in the paper about the U.S. Forest Service selling permits that let people cut their own Christmas trees. This process helped remove tinder from the forest in order to mitigate fires during the summer burn season, and provided people with a ready-made adventure of harvesting their own Christmas tree. I left the lot, fired up the Google machine, re-read the article, and we've been trekking to the woods to cut our own tree ever since.
What started as a way to save some $$ around the holiday season has morphed over the years. Permits are still $10, but the memories we've acquired over the years are absolutely priceless. There were years, before any of us had kids, when we went with friends, stomping around in the woods and cutting down a tiny tree because the place we lived couldn't hold one much bigger (and let's be honest, we didn't have enough ornaments to cover a big tree). Years when it snowed so much that we post-holed through the snow to find a tree. The year when a blizzard hit before we even left town and it was -15 with whipping wind (we pretty much cut down the first acceptable tree we saw). Years with no snow, when kids cried because they wanted to sled. Years with "Charlie Brown Christmas Trees" and years when we cut beautiful trees that nature decorated for us with little tiny pinecones hidden in the branches.
The trees we've brought home are secondary to the memories we have.
This year's Christmas tree hunt began at a truck stop just off the highway where we met up with friends. We ordered breakfast, filled up on cinnamon rolls and hot coffee, then formed a caravan and headed to the cutting area. Since Christmas Tree Hunting is sponsored by the Forest Service, we always make a stop to tell Smokey the Bear hello. In an odd way, Smokey has become as much a part of our holiday traditions as holiday music or snowmen.
When it comes to trees, we've learned a bit over the years. The cutting area is covered in pine trees which grow big, tall and majestic, but when they can only be about 8 feet tall in order to fit in your house, they can kind of look spindly. To get that full, conical Christmas tree look, you want a fir tree. Fir trees grow on north-facing slopes in low areas where they get more water. GPS in hand we found a promising area, pulled over and hopped out.
We all headed in roughly the same direction but spread out over the hills in search of "the perfect one". There is the tendency to always keep looking for one that is "better", but after a while you hone in on THE tree. Once cut, you start the long process of dragging it back to the car.
Years ago, this would have been where the story ended, but traditions morph, and now we have a little post hunt tailgate party. This year featured the grill, some brats, Christmas ale and a Backcountry Hot Cocoa bar. Friends, laughter, food, the great outdoors - it's kind of a recipe for great memories.
After a good snack, we loaded up and drove home where the tradition continued with chili for dinner and the trimming of the tree. This year's might be the best yet.
If you'd like to learn more about the U.S. Forest service's Christmas tree cutting program, go here: http://www.fs.fed.us/visit/know-before-you-go/tree-cutting
If the Forest Service program doesn't operate near you, check out this site - you might still have some options for harvesting your own tree near you. http://www.pickyourownchristmastree.org/