Memories of Searching for Real Christmas Trees

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When small children are along to help, the task of finding a tree becomes more difficult, especially with snow on the ground. 
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A long walk was required to find, cut and drag a tree back to the waiting vehicle. 
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When snow was on the ground, even the World War II U.S. Army Dodge's 4-wheel drive sometimes couldn't get us close to the mountains and the trees. 
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When December snows hadn't arrived yet, my four sons and I could drive our Dodge truck close to where the trees grew. 
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Trees growing in the wild, like this one being cut down by one of my sons, are much less bushy than commercially grown ones. 
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Making tracks in the snow.
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Our World War II military snow tractor was pressed into service on tree-cutting trips when deep snows arrived early.

A recent news story reported that only 21 percent of Americans use “real” (or fresh) trees for Christmas. That is a decrease from more than 40 percent 10 years ago. Part of that is the result of rapid improvement in the quality of artificial trees. Not only do they look more realistic than they used to, but since most are imported from China, their cost has come down. Those who use them are missing two things.

The obvious missing piece is the fresh pine smell. With the exception of the few people who find any aroma unpleasant, for most people it is an olfactory treat to enter a home with a real tree. It not only looks like Christmas but also smells like it. The second thing missing is the actual process of obtaining a real tree every year. Even if a tree is purchased from a corner lot, the experience is unique to the season and the walk among the trees for sale is a somewhat-therapeutic interlude in our hectic lives.

Most Christmas tree farms are located in rural areas. In recent times such businesses have encouraged customers — many of whom are city residents — to come cut their own tree. That gets those city dwellers out in the clear country air and helps them appreciate how nature figures into Christmas festivities. Finding “just the right tree” among the many others can be a rewarding experience.  

Forest Service harvests

Sometimes the National Forests get in the act by allowing public harvest of trees on Forest Service land. When that happens, the territory where the trees are available is dramatically larger than even the largest tree farm. Instead of an hour or two on foot with an axe or saw, those seeking to find the right tree might spend a half-day or so trekking over hill and dale. Trees growing in the wild almost never have the uniform shape or fullness that commercially grown ones do. Finding one that is suitable takes a lot more searching.

At least in the West, National Forest areas are quite a distance from population centers. That means a tree cutter must travel to the site. If the weather cooperates, a tree can be harvested, loaded and hauled home with no problem. December weather often makes things difficult. Roads into the forest may be snow-covered and slick. Slogging through snow of any depth while searching for a tree can be daunting. Hardy individuals can still succeed but some major effort is required. The silver lining to such an undertaking is the great satisfaction one feels having faced the challenges and emerging victorious. Every glance at the decorated tree is affirmation that “you did good.”

An easier way

The proliferation of snowmobiles has changed that dynamic a lot. Now a person can ride in style (if not comfort) over a wide area in search of a suitable tree. Things may be a little crowded on the way back, as the machine has to be shared with a bushy object. The person without a snow machine is still on his own in covering territory, cutting the tree of his choice and dragging it to his vehicle.

Some people, like this author, are fortunate to have family members and friends who are ranchers and own land on which wild evergreens grow. That means that permission is easily obtained to find and cut a tree on their property. Since only select individuals are granted such permission, only a very, very few trees are harvested each year. When our children were growing up, every Christmas for more than two decades we made a trek into the nearby mountains to find a tree.

At our high elevation — 5,000 to 10,000 feet — although deep snow lies on the ground for several months, in mid-December the storms sometimes haven’t arrived yet. In those years finding a tree and bringing it home was relatively easy. In other years we had so much snow that getting to the area where trees were available was difficult. The vehicles we used depended on the weather conditions. Four-wheel drive was necessary to get to the distant areas with or without snow. We sometimes used our small Jeep but most often relied on our World War II U.S. Army Dodge truck. The kids crowded into the small cab and away we’d go. Several times we even had to use our World War II Allis-Chalmers M7 military snow tractor to get to where the trees were.

The adventure of getting a Christmas tree was the highlight of the season for the family all those years. The children grew up and moved away and eventually the exertion necessary to physically climb the mountains and deal with snow of varying depths on the ground meant buying a tree instead of finding and cutting one in the wild. Now a Christmas tree still sits in the corner with twinkling lights, but its existence doesn’t represent the personal involvement that all those earlier ones did. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at

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