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A Christmas Tree Cutting Adventure

A Family Adventure

Stupid. Just stupid.

The sun was setting; dusk hung like a cloak over the Coconino National Forest. I had a scotch pine tree on my right shoulder, my left hand held our seven-year-old daughter’s hand, and the lovely Mrs. L carried our three-year-old in her arms. We were walking downhill from the tree cutting area and had no clue how much farther we had to walk. All I could think was “I don’t want to be walking this road in the dark with my wife and two kids. Stupid. Just stupid.”

No maps. No water. No flashlight. No food. The weather forecast said the temperature would reach the high forties at two o’clock and then drop after that. The low temperature was expected to be in the thirties that night. Just a few hours from now.

We were young; well, young enough. Married in ‘72, our first child born in ’73, our second in ‘77.

It’s November 1980 when my wife, the lovely Mrs. L, learned we could apply for a Christmas tree cutting permit from the State of Arizona. I think it was one dollar. The tag said we could cut down a tree in the Coconino National Forest in the designated area between November 15th and December 24th.

On a late Saturday morning in the middle of December, we headed north on Highway 17 towards Flagstaff with our tree tag in hand. It said we could cut a scotch pine and attach this tag to it. We drove farther than we figured before we saw a highway sign that said Designated Tree Cutting Area.

We pulled off the freeway and found a small dirt road that took us up a hillside. The ruts in the road from the water run-off made it impassable. We parked our car and began to walk up the road to the tree line. There were other tree cutting areas in the wilderness areas north of Phoenix but we were the only ones at this location.

My wife was twenty-eight, our oldest girl was seven, her sister was three. And we were just as happy as a young family can be walking uphill on a chilly, sunny, Arizona winter day to cut a Christmas tree. I carried a small saw.

At this age, we were invincible. We had common sense, a cutting permit, and, well, other than the saw, what else could a young couple like us possibly need?

We hadn’t walked far before a beat-up pick-'em-up truck stopped and offered us a ride. A woman and her son were inside and they were driving up to cut a tree, too. They didn’t have a permit. They were local and apparently their rugged individualist lifestyle didn’t require a permit from any state government to cut a tree for Christmas.

We said yes to the offer and climbed into the truck’s bed. It was farther than we thought to get up to the tree line. The ruts in the dirt road jostled us around pretty good but being driven up the road was a blessing we gladly accepted.

She stopped the truck soon enough and my family and I went to the right side of the road while she and her son went to the left. We didn’t want to be a bother to her and thanked her for driving us up. We planned to quickly cut a tree and then head back down.

First, you should know something about this terrain. It isn’t flat. It has steep gullies, washes, dry gulches, spiny bushes here and there, and reddish dirt along with a few trees. There are pinyon pine, spruce, juniper, and bristlecone pine trees speckling the ground around us. We didn’t see any promising six-foot trees of the scotch pine kind where we stood but across the small gully on the other side, we could see trees that looked perfect for us.

The gully was steep so I helped the older girl when it was too steep for her to climb up or down. Then I had to carry the younger girl down one side and up the other and set her next to her sister. Then I had to go back and help the lovely Mrs. L down and then up the gully. I made three round trips to bring my family to the other side.

Of course, after getting to the top of the gully on the other side, the first tree had a split trunk, the second was crooked, and the third tree was completely bare on one side. None of them were good Christmas trees. There were other trees but none of them were scotch pines.

I've always said God grows Christmas trees with one bare side so you can place it against the wall in your living room. But these rejected trees were so bad that even if you put them in a corner to cover the bare patches they still would not look good.

My wife spied another group of trees across a different gully that had a few possibilities. So we repeated the maneuver of me making three trips to the other side to keep our family together. I took my bearings so I knew which direction to return to the road. I was no boy scout but I knew enough to know that I had to find the road again or it was big trouble.

Of course, none of the trees in that area were good either. So I made three more trips to get to a third area where, you guessed it, there were no scotch pines but there were junipers, spruce, and bristlecone pines. It was so tempting to simply cut one of the little ones and call it a day but we weren’t going to cut a tree if we didn’t have a permit for it. Just because the US government reneged on its treaty with the Apache and Yavapai Indians, it didn’t give us the right to cheat the State of Arizona and take a different tree. No, sirree!

There were two more of these up-the-down-escalator gully walks before we finally found a tree that worked for us. We cut the tree together; each taking communal and/or ceremonial cuts. This was intended to be a family event and we made sure it was.

When done, I knew which direction the road was. Probably. Kinda. Sorta.

So now each gully required me to take four round trips. First the tree: down-over-up, and drop tree; then I return down-over-up to the family. Next was our older girl: down-over-up, set her down; then me again down-over-up to return for the younger girl. I repeat this maneuver a third time and, finally, it is time for the lovely Mrs. L. She's tired and she didn't like all these gullies and ravines. She coached me, through gritted teeth, in the fine art of how to correctly help her with the up-the-down-escalator gullies in Arizona. Every damn gully and every damn time, she coached me on my technique.

Of course, I kept my mouth shut. You can’t put out a fire with gasoline. Everyone knows that. I kept the cap screwed down tight on my gasoline can. Yes, sirree.

Finally, success! The road! Yeah! Thank goodness I remembered the right direction!

And now begins our long walk down. We'd been gone a long time and it was darkening and I was saying to myself Stupid. Just Stupid.

As I said, we were young. Invincible. And now, as I’m walking downhill with a cranky and tired family muttering Stupid to myself, I remember: stupid kills people like us.

We rounded a corner after a ten-minute walk and saw the same woman with her pick-‘em-up truck. She’d waited for us. She must have waited at least a half-hour. Bless her heart.

On the way downhill, the bed of the truck held a balsam fir, a scotch pine, and an exhausted young family. Plenty of room.

It was dark when I finally had the tree lashed to the top of the car and the family stowed safely inside.

We weren’t going to make it home without stopping to eat. So we pulled into an old Arizona restaurant and bar a few miles south on Hwy 17. There was a parking lot full of cars with Christmas trees tied to the top. Just like ours.

Rowdy and boisterous from all the families, there was a bit of Christmas magic in the restaurant. We walked out in a better mood than when we went in. As we headed for our car, we overheard two other families talking.

“What kind of tree did you get?” said one father to the other.

“A scotch pine,” the other proudly replied.

“Really? That’s what we thought ours was,” said the first.

The wife of the first said, “Our permit was for a scotch pine and we think this is one.”

The wife of the second said, “Ours, too. But our tree doesn’t look like yours.”

I looked over at the lovely Mrs. L and nodded towards our car which was parked on the other side of these two.

All three of us had the same cutting permit with different trees tied to the top. She giggled.

“Us, too!” she called to the two families and then pointed out our car and tree to the other ladies.

We all laughed, shook our heads, and gave each other a laughing Merry Christmas before getting into our cars and heading home.

It had been a long day and the kids fell asleep right away. The lovely Mrs. L reached over and held my hand as we listened to Christmas carols on the radio until we were home.

“That was a nice family adventure,” she said.


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