Hunting for a Christmas tree on the Arizona Strip

Morning drive 2

Winter morning in southern Utah

It was a muted, over-cast December morning. I had gotten up to make Monkey Bread before the troop of monkeys woke up. The smell of cinnamon and brown sugar gradually filled the quiet house. While the breakfast dessert baked in the oven I drank my coffee and read a book, enjoying the stillness while it lasted. Our house had doubled in boys as friends had slept over the night before.

As soon as they woke up our house was abuzz with activity and noise: blankets were draped over shoulders and dragged around the house, talking and laughter bounced off the walls and down the hall, a football huddle gathered over the breakfast like a storm, then video games, the mad dash to get dressed, and off to rugby practice. In the interval I asked Dallas, “We are still getting the tree today right?”

We tend to make loose plans not set in stone in case we change our minds, which we do often, so I wasn’t sure if we were really going to get our tree until we were driving out of town.

I had gotten the tree permit earlier in the week so all we had to do was go and get one. When I saw Terrie at the Interagency Land Management office and asked her for a Christmas tree permit, I had to quickly let her know I wanted one for the Arizona Strip. You heard me right; we were going to the desert in search of a tree.


Christmas tree tag

“You’re getting a tree on the Arizona Strip?” she repeated.

When I said yes, she went, “Oh,” and smiled. She thinks I’m nuts, I thought smiling back.

A voice from the back of the room said, “You’re going south for a tree? That’s unusual. Are there any trees out there?” I laughed and told him there were pinion pines.

Not many people go south for a Christmas tree, it’s true, so the reaction was the same from anyone I told; anyone not familiar with the Strip that is.

We have cut trees down before, but never on the Strip so I was a little nervous about how long it would take to get to the pines. I don’t need an excuse to go to the Arizona Strip, but I typically need a damn good one to drag my family out there.

A Christmas tree seemed as good a reason as any, but convenience is hard to compete with. There were Christmas trees just blocks from our house at any number of stores. We could have gotten one in 30 minutes or less. This trip was easily going to take four hours, probably more. The good part was that the tree permit was only $5 compared to a $30, $50, or $70 dollar tree at the store, but what we saved in money we would more than pay for in hours and miles.


Chaos is the rule, peace the exception

A sort of anxiety and excitement welled up inside me as we headed toward Colorado City, the turn-off point to head out for our tree. Driving long stretches on a dirt road, into what seems like the middle of nowhere, can rattle nerves and make people cranky, especially for a mission such as ours. Our kids had fallen asleep in the back seat of the car after being up half the night with their friends, however, and so the first hour of driving was peaceful and quiet.

Thin clouds were stretched across the sky giving the desert a winter hue. I felt myself relax into my seat as the land spread out before us. Nothing is quite so peaceful as the open desert. I loved it. I could have driven all day in it and been as happy as a pig in slop.

My reverie ended aburptly, however, when we hit a dip in the road that woke all the boys up. Kael rubbed his eyes and looked around, “Where the crap are the trees?” he asked.

I rolled. I don’t know why it was so funny, but it took me a good few minutes to stop laughing. “What’s so funny?” he asked, somewhat annoyed.

But the next question was a loaded one. “How much longer do you think we have to go Gret?” Dallas asked.

Crap. I wasn’t sure; it could be another 30 minutes or two more hours. I never paid attention to the trees when I went out on the Strip.

I speculated, “I don’t know, maybe another hour,” I said, bracing myself for the exasperation that was sure to follow. But to my delight, he just smiled and said, “Oh. This sure is a long drive for a tree.”

“Yeah I know,” I said, “But it will be worth it.”

I hoped.

We sped past herds of cattle and watched as flocks of birds traced across the sky. We wondered what the birds were doing or where they were going. We watched as the valley would fill up with dust like a thick fog when ranchers flew by us going in the opposite direction. We were the only ones heading south. Up and over hills, mile after mile, we went deeper into the desert. As we made our way I kept my eyes peeled for pinions.

The tree

The tree

Finally I saw one. I knew the mere presence of that one tree would be the beacon of hope everyone in the car needed to indicate that we were getting close. Suddenly the boys had their faces pressed to the windows trying to tell the difference between juniper trees and pinion pines.

And then we saw it, we saw our Christmas tree standing in a small depression beneath a low ridge. And there was one up on top of the ridge too.

Sweet! I thought. If we don’t like one, we can take the other.

We pulled off the road and piled out. Brrrr! It was shockingly cold. There were patches of snow on the ground and a cold breeze was blowing. It always amazes me how cold the desert can get. We all put our coats and beanies on and marched out to look at the trees. The tree on the ridge seemed a little small so we all congregated around the one in the bowl just below it.

It was perfect.

The boys each took turns with the hand saw, slowly cutting through the trunk of the tree. It didn’t take long and the tree fell to the ground in a soft landing of branches.

Kael cutting tree

Kael taking his turn

The boys grabbed the tree by the trunk and started dragging it to the car, and then of course had to prove that they could drag it alone, each taking turns in a strong man contest.

When they got the tree to us, Dallas and I hoisted the tree up on top of the car and lashed it down. At least two and a half hours of driving and maybe 10 minutes of cutting, and it was time to head home.

Before heading out just yet we all stood around rather proudly and took in the view of our harvest. I breathed in the cold, crisp desert air and felt the joy I always feel when I get away from the busyness and noise of city life. But I also felt a sudden well of gratitude rise up inside me. It was the first time I had ever felt an overwhelming desire to thank the land for what we were taking. It was surely a gift; the handiwork of God, of nature, of sunlight and water. And it was ours.

We all piled back in the car, turned the heat on, and started our journey home. Moods had improved and plans of decorating the tree were being made.

About an hour into our drive I asked the kids for my water bottle, which no one could produce. We looked around, under things and seats, but it wasn’t there. I couldn’t remember for the life of me if I had taken it out of the car when we cut down the tree, but since we couldn’t find it, it was the only logical explanation.

That water bottle had been a gift; a running gift from Dallas and he was not about to leave it sitting out in the desert somewhere. I, of course, would not have turned around for a water bottle, but had no complaints with driving through the desert some more and happily agreed to turn around and look for it.

Geez we had driven a long way! It seemed to take an eternity to get back to the spot where we had cut the tree down. The sun was sinking fast and we were running out of light. We got out of the car to a brilliant red and purple sunset and then dashed to the tree stump to look around.

Tree hunting

Take two

We looked everywhere. No water bottle. Dallas walked back to the car while I took in the last hues of the sunset. When I got back he had his arms folded across his chest and was looking at me like a scolding parent.

“What?” I asked. “Did you find it?” He didn’t answer me. I finally started laughing. Surely he had found it. “Where was it?” I asked when I got to the car.

“Under your hat little Missy,” he said.

“See,” I said, getting into the car and warming my hands in front of the heater vents, “You should have listened to me. We should never have gone back for the water bottle. We would be home by now.” And thus began the debate over taking care of our things.

Because the water bottle had been right under my feet the whole time, the kids got to throw heaps of blame on me for the extra two hours of driving, which they did with relish. I just laughed and enjoyed the fading view of the land as we made our way home.

The tree had to be pulled through the front door with gusto because it was so big and when we stood it up, we only had an inch to spare. Context definitely matters. A tree that looks like an average sized Christmas tree in an open expanse of desert can be deceptively big once you try squeezing it into a confined space. We ood and awed once we had it standing and felt its looming presence even when out of eyesight. It was like having a gentle giant in the house that left a sweet piney scent for days.

Christmas tree 2

A little piece of the Arizona Strip

Our behemoth of a tree, with its glittering lights, brings me joy every time I look at it – not just because it is a beautiful Christmas tree, but because when I look at it I see my home landscape.

For a fleeting season I will get to hold a piece of the desert inside my home and with it, remember the arid smell of dry earth being swept by a cold winter wind in the fading light of an ember sky. I didn’t get a tree from the Pacific Northwest, as lovely as they are, that was raised on a farm and shipped in a truck to my grocery store. I got a perfect homegrown tree right out of my geographical backyard and I feel blessed for the experience.


Posted on December 11, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Greta, it was a pleasure. You took me with you three weeks after you were there. Time traveling. Haven’t been on the strip in maybe 20 years. I went back today with you and the boys, big and little. Don’t know if this will interest you but it blew me away. Charlie rose and Sebastian Thrun. Hooked me in the first 30 seconds. The enthusiasm and the speed increases as they go.

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