A 67-foot spruce from the Tetons tours Wyoming and then makes a long trip East, a gift of cowboy stature to Washington, D.C.
Deep in the Blackrock District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, a 67-foot Englemann spruce faced an unusual fate. It might have been logged for plywood or attacked by tree-killing beetles. Instead, it was spotted by Forest Service employee Sandra Seaton, who thought it would make a perfect Christmas tree. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) had pushed for the Capitol Christmas tree to come from Wyoming, for the first time ever, and thanks to Seaton, organizers had found the ideal one. “Sandra’s tree” was selected to be the most famous of its Wyoming evergreen brothers and sisters.
As Barrasso said, “People around the Cowboy State say we need more Wyoming in Washington. In Washington, folks can always use a reminder of Wyoming values – honesty, integrity, independence, and a strong work ethic. For the next four weeks, Washington will have a beautifully lit symbol of our state. This tree is Wyoming’s Christmas gift to America.”
The Capitol Christmas tree is not the same as the National Christmas tree. The current National tree is still living, having been uprooted in 1978 from a farm in Pennsylvania. It is planted on the Ellipse, the area between the National Mall and the White House. That’s the one commonly lit each year by the president.
The Capitol tree is cut from a different location each year. Wyoming’s tree was cut down in early November then fitted on a custom built double flatbed truck with special cradling to support its branches. The main tree filled one truck, while a second truck held 80 trees of various sizes harvested from different locations around Wyoming. Those trees were destined for various spots around the Capitol offices. Together, the tree and cortege of companion trees were loaded on a team of trucks that went on a 17-day, 4816.91 mile odyssey.
The journey of the Capitol Christmas tree and its companions could be tracked on the website trackthetree.com. There, one could monitor the evergreen travelers’ real-time progress via tiny, colored Christmas trees icons applied to a three-dimensional map. The trees ran a bit late during some of their Wyoming trip, as 55-mph winds forced the truck convoy off the highway. The trees finally left Wyoming on November 19 and headed across the state line into South Dakota. From there they popped into Montana, then hurtled southeast, without any official stops until they reached Missouri. From there, it was on in to Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
The Christmas tree came to the Capitol pre-decorated with 17,000 ornaments made by Wyomingites who had responded to the statewide call for creativity. It also was strung with 10,000 LED lights. Once at its final destination, its trunk was lowered into a 5-foot deep hole that functioned like a gigantic tree stand. Participants in the lighting ceremony included Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the Wyoming Congressional delegation. Daniel Sitter, a 6th grader from Lincoln County, whose name was drawn from more than 1000 Wyoming students who provided ornaments for the tree, flipped the switch.
I wasn’t in D.C. for the tree’s arrival, or for its lighting ceremony, held December 7. But I did take part in the Wyoming phase of the adventure. I was there to see the tree entourage in person when it stopped in Laramie on Nov. 16, at the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site. On one of the coldest, windiest days of Laramie’s fall, hundreds of people turned out to glimpse the tree. The marching band and a group of singers from Laramie High School, the University of Wyoming ROTC Color Guard, Santa Claus, and Miss Rodeo Wyoming, Brittany Richards, provided entertainment between snow squalls.
I’m not sure how I was expecting this tree the height of a seven-story building to be displayed — flopped on the bed of a really long trailer and bound by giant bungee cords, I suppose. Instead, it was hunkered down tight inside its custom trailer, with only peep holes here and there poked into plexiglass panels, through which one could glimpse a knot of branches strung with lights. I lined up behind groups of small children, who climbed a little step stool to peer through the hole, breathe on the plexiglass, and have their picture snapped by moment-capturing parents.
But the crowd wasn’t entirely made up of young families. Plenty of adults were there, too. Tamsen Hert lives in Laramie and is a special collections librarian at the University of Wyoming. State history, especially Yellowstone National Park, is her specialty. She went to see the tree because of her love for history, she told me. “Considering that Wyoming is home to the first National Forest, Shoshone, it is surprising to me that it has taken this long, nearly a century, to have our Capitol Christmas Tree come from Wyoming. It was an opportunity we may not see again for some time.”
Another long time Wyoming resident, journalist and author Starley Talbott, told me she visited the tree in her community of Wheatland. “Since the people who were taking the tree to Washington took the time to stop in Wheatland, I thought it would be great to support their efforts,” she said. “It’s also nice to see something positive after all the ugliness of the recent election. I was amazed at the crowd and the program in Wheatland, and it was very heartwarming.”
Talbott also had a chance to interact with the folks who were driving the trucks. Known as “Team Tree” they kept a blog of the journey and posted pictures of their stops along the way. Talbott and her bookseller at the Wheatland Book Nook were in the right place at the right time when the tree convoy stopped in town. They managed to deliver signed copies of Talbott’s book about the history of Platte County to the drivers of the main tree truck and the truck carrying the companion trees.
“What fun to have those Platte County books traveling to Washington with the Capitol Christmas tree,” she said. “It was also wonderful to see all the signatures on the banner on the side of the truck. Hardly any place was left for more signatures, but I found one right above the left side of the W in Wyoming. It was a joyous, lighthearted day, and I was glad I was there.”
Sandy Seaton, who first noticed the towering Englemann spruce in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, died before seeing her dream for the tree realized. But her ability to imagine a giant tree as one of Wyoming’s most appealing exports should remind people of Wyoming values for years to come.