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In which tenderfoot Ralph Walter heads to the forest for a Christmas tree

OFFICIALLY LOST, Idaho Panhandle National Forests — I’ve never been the type to hike through a snow-speckled forest in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

Frankly, I’m not really into hiking. Or snow. The outdoors. Christmas. Trees.

I’ve always preferred the pre-fabbed, pre-lit Xmas “Tree” to freshly cut fir. (Sidenote: I think I was pre-lit in college.)

But early last week, S-R editor Rob Curley approached me with a story idea: “I need you to drive out to the woods this weekend, cut down a Christmas tree and write something funny about it.”

I countered: “I like it, Rob. Or how about this: I relax on the couch with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, turn on the tube and watch some football?”

And now, well, here I am, surrounded by sparsely limbed pines somewhere in the thick of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, shivering alongside my 12-year-old daughter, Ava, who keeps asking where we might find the good trees.

She’s been lucky enough to avoid this kind of misadventure. Over the years, our search has been limited to the orderly tree farms near Newman Lake or Green Bluff, where for 50 bucks we’d cut a beautifully sculpted tree, down a couple of hot chocolates and be home in time for an afternoon nap.

(Sidenote 2: Before Ava was born, every year I’d haul out my 6-foot Classic Plastic Pine from Target that was covered in just enough dust to make it look like it was flocked by Mt. St. Helens …)

On this day, however, we’re going the distance for our Griswold family Christmas tree: a 20-minute drive to my dad’s house to borrow his pickup; 10 minutes to Starbucks; 10 minutes back to my dad’s to borrow the saw I forgot; 10 minutes to Albertsons to buy an air freshener for the truck (Dad really enjoys his Pall Malls); 50 minutes to Ace Hardware in Priest River, Idaho, for a $5 Christmas tree permit; followed by another 20 minutes or so up Highway 57 (or maybe it was 54, I can’t recall). And then another 10-minute hike away from civilization.

“How about this one?” Ava asks, pointing toward the first candidate she sees, a pine (or maybe a fir) twice my height with more holes than Mike Leach’s secondary. It’s one of the pitfalls of not going to a Christmas Tree farm: Perfection’s hard to find.

Trees found in national forests tend to be less full, and are obviously more natural looking. We’ve been so trained by these commercial tree businesses that it’s like going out turkey hunting and returning with three packages of Buddig pressed turkey slices.

It’s a lesson I forgot from my own childhood, when my brother, sister and I would scour our grandparents’ property outside of Springdale, Washington, in search of a Rockefeller Center tree only to return with Charlie Brown’s toothless third cousin.

In fact, if this trip is missing anything, it’s my brother, Jess. He’s with me on nearly every road trip I take, eager to write about what a moron I am. Now I guess I’ll have to do that myself.

“Dad, you really need to buy some boots,” Ava points out. I’ve lived in Spokane my entire life and can remember owning only one pair of snow boots, a pair of old Moon Boots from the early ’80s. (Call me cheap but, well, I’m cheap.) Anyway today, I’m wearing some old running shoes and three pairs of socks, and they’re getting soaked.

And I’m getting cranky.

With every cluster of trees comes the same result: great from a distance, not-so-great up close. Missing sides. Mangled tops. Crooked trunks. Through it all, Ava stays upbeat. (“What kind of tree is that, Dad?” she asks. Me: “Uhh … I don’t know. Wood?”)

After hours of searching (probably more like 15 minutes) and wondering whether we’ve reached the point where the forest ends and a Bundy ranch begins, I finally take my daughter’s advice to circle back. Now if we can just remember where we left that first tree … and our truck.

UPDATE: We made it home, bringing with us that original tree that Ava found. After some trimming (3 or 4 feet per side), it’s up (all 12 feet of it) and beautifully decorated (Ava: “Dad, it’s perfect.”) And now we’ll just have to wait to see which nasty insects we’ve managed to smuggle across the state line.

The only other consequence of cutting a fresh tree in North Idaho? This thing seems to lean curiously far to the right.


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