Cue the jingle bells and snow flakes.
Now you’re in the mood to discover one of the most charming and alarming parts of living in Colorado: the cutting of the real Christmas tree.
Here’s the charming part. You get to gather your close friends and family to take a relatively short road trip to some of the prettiest parts of the state. Packing mulled wine, hot cocoa, chili for lunch if you want, you find yourself in a winter forest wonderland. Carols? Sure, belt ‘em out. ‘Tis the season. You wander under the warming autumn sun, neck back, eyes up, in search of not just a great Christmas tree, but the perfect Christmas tree.
Too tall. Too fat. Bald spot. Not enough pine cones. Wait. That one. Yes, that one.
With a few strokes of your trusty saw, you bag the tree like a skilled hunter, carrying your prized catch back to the car and to the waiting winter celebration of good food, good friends and festive laughs. All this for only a $10 permit and the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping thin the forest and prevent a future wildfire.
That’s one version of the age-old U.S. Forest Service tradition of allowing the public to cut down their own Christmas trees. Welcome to reality.
Cue the whiny kid.
“I don’t care which stupid tree you get; just pick one so we can get out of here.”
That’s my girl. The day starts with trying to roll kids out of bed at the crack of 10 a.m. or so, a task less fun than bathing a skunked dog. There are squabbles, cursing and a bribe that involves listening to Justin Bieber Christmas tunes all the way to the Buffalo Creek tree-cutting area, just east of Pine Junction on U.S. 285, or the Elk Creek tree cutting area, just west of Fraser.
After stopping three times along the way to let car-sick kids and dogs puke on the side of road and clean some of that out of the back of the car, you stop for gas at rip-off prices because you were too lazy to fill up before you left Aurora. How’s that working for you now?
The dog got wet as soon as he got out of the car, and he stinks so bad you can no longer smell the chili thermos that spilled about halfway up Turkey Creek Canyon.
You get there, and Smokey Bear is waving from the side of the road, creating an uproar in the back seat. He looks scary, but the kids insist they must have selfies with him, whoever he is, before the cutting of the tree commences.
Everyone piles out of the car, leaving you to carry extra coats and gloves, the saw and the camera bag. A biting wind greets you as you lean into it and slog ahead. It is beautiful. Around you, but not near, you can hear children calling out to their parents.
“How about this one?”
“This one looks like a magic tree.”
“Daddy, James is writing his name in the snow with pee again.”
You veer right. So many trees. At first glance, each one is Sears-display perfect. But as you stare at it, the spell fails and each one reveals some gross flaw. Dead branches. No top. Something dead in that one.
“Daddy, Emily stepped in deer poop.”
So you wander down the mountain as the minutes go by. The trees are bigger here. The smell of the pine is overwhelming, like being in a frigid sanitized bathroom. A squirrel has a scary tantrum when you reach into a tree to shake the snow off a contender for being the perfect tree. You realize you’ve been walking straight downhill for about an hour now. The trees are all incredible until you stare at them.
“How about that one? That one? That one? That one?” The kid has had enough. The wife is rolling her eyes. Choose or die.
You’ve circled back and settled for the tree you saw 45 minutes ago. “I don’t know. Should we look some more?” The rolling of the eyes has given way to growling and clenched fists. You’re at about 10,000 feet, digging in the snow for the base of “the chosen one” and then sawing at frozen wood. Any green fire hazard in the saddest tree lot in Aurora sounds pretty good right now. Suddenly, you’re no longer freezing, and the sweat is making a little waterfall off your chin and nose.
There’s a solid crack as the tree slowly gives up the fight and falls to the ground.
What was once not quite the perfect tree, but an acceptable tree that you could envision in your living room, suddenly morphs into a hideous evergreen behemoth. HINT: Trees look smaller and shorter when you’re outside looking up at them.
Everyone’s hungry, cold and wondering whose idea this was anyway.
The worst is yet to come.
In the movies, Daddy flips the playful tree over his shoulder and it’s off to hot chocolate and schnapps. In real life, Daddy’s galoshes are now pulling off his feet in the snow as he grunts, moans and drags several tons of tree and a furious squirrel up, up, up the way we came. Daddy’s coat is soaked with sweat and a river of snot. The child’s coat is stained with a river of tears. Mommy has disappeared. Not only must “Tree of the Damned” defy gravity at 10,000 feet, it must be dragged in two feet of snow, creating a new circle of hell that marries thin air, steep incline, unfathomable resistance, blisters and droopy pants. It’s not a tree you’re trying to wrestle up the mountain, it’s giant hair brush made of lead.
After working through all the symptoms of a heart attack, you hear voices, and they’re not cursing at you. You crest yet another hill, and are overjoyed to see other tree mongers who have also survived the greatest challenge of their lives. The pine cones from your hand-selected prize have by now all been scraped off, as have more than a few branches and the family of squirrels. The beast is easily 30 feet long.
You and your precious family eat like cavemen coming out of hibernation. The chili and the hot wine are all gone now. The trophy picture sessions are over. The car smells like a pine-scented locker room.
“That was fun,” the kid says from the back seat. “I love this tradition.”
Elk Creek Tree Cutting: ow.ly/iOo13063l0u 303-275-5610
Buffalo Creek Tree Cutting: ow.ly/uaeF3063kSD 970-887-4100
• Take water, it can be hard work.
• Go uphill to hunt for a tree. Dragging your kill downhill is eminently easier than dragging it uphill. If you want a very large tree, carry a strong, lightweight, slick, plastic tarp with you to help make it easier to drag back and limit damage.
• Dress right. There is often deep snow in Elk Creek. On warm days, Buffalo Creek can be downright slushy.
• Trees look much smaller in the forest than they are when you get them home. Don’t be fooled.
• The trees are fresh, which means they can be sticky with sap, but they don’t lose their needles or feel like they might spontaneously combust. They smell extravagant in your home when they warm up, and they may be thirsty.