(Tupper family photos)
My wife and I didn’t realize how much we didn’t know about trees until we moved next door to the Black Hills National Forest eight years ago.
That was natural for a pair of small-town, eastern South Dakota flatlanders. I grew up in Kimball and my wife grew up in Armour. Single acres of Black Hills land have more trees than our hometowns combined.
So it’s unsurprising that our inaugural trip to cut a Christmas tree in the forest was a comical failure.
That was in 2014, our first year as Rapid City residents. We learned that the local office of the U.S. Forest Service sells cheap permits allowing anybody to harvest a Christmas tree on national forest land.
With visions about the start of a grand family tradition dancing in our heads, we loaded up our two children — then 8 and 5 years old — and drove into the forest. There are millions of trees out there, we reasoned. How hard could it be?
Pretty hard, it turns out.
We hadn’t considered that most of the trees in the Black Hills are ponderosa pines. Their spindly branches and needles aren’t great for supporting ornaments.
On that first Christmas tree hunt, we drove around for a long time seeing nothing but ponderosas. Eventually we surrendered, cut one down, and took it home. We called it our “Charlie Brown tree,” like the famously small and sparsely filled-out tree on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
There are millions of trees out there, we reasoned. How hard could it be? Pretty hard, it turns out.
It was an inauspicious beginning, but our hoped-for tradition took root. We eventually learned that spruce trees, which grow on north-facing slopes in some parts of the forest, are more suitable for decorating. That knowledge led us to find some spruce-laden spots that have yielded wonderful trees. And along the way, we’ve harvested a trove of memories and stories.
There was the year I drove us so high and far into the forested, snowy mountains that my wife was convinced we’d slide off the trail and plummet to the bottom of a canyon.
There was the year we searched and searched, by vehicle and on foot, until we stumbled across a perfect tree standing alone in a snow-filled clearing, spotlighted by the sun.
There was the year we trudged through a picture-perfect scene of fresh, perfectly white, knee-high snow while new flakes fell all around us.
And there was the year it was so warm and dry, even in December, that our kids complained endlessly about the grass, the weeds and the other prickly vegetation that scratched their legs.
Every excursion has been unique. There have been years when our search glided along as if guided by fate, and there have been years when our quest for even a minimally acceptable tree ran long, while our patience ran short.
Through it all, I’d like to think we’ve learned a few things.
We’ve learned about the value of public land. What a blessing it is to live near such vast expanses of collectively owned space, where people can escape into nature.
We’ve learned that perfection is an impossibly high bar. We try our best to find a great tree, but experience has taught us it’s better to put in the effort, enjoy the company, and be satisfied with the result, whatever it is.
And we’ve learned to persist — especially this year, when the tradition nearly ended.
My wife endured two surgeries in November. She and I both contracted COVID-19 at the end of the month. Our son fell ill with flu-like symptoms in early December. Our pre-Christmas weekends dwindled until the only free one left with decent weather overlapped with our daughter’s birthday.
Not wanting to spoil her planned birthday outing with friends (especially after she’d endured such a rough couple of months with the rest of us) and with my wife and son still recuperating, it was collectively decided that this would be the year dad went out by himself.
So I drove deep into the forest, spotted a trail leading away from the highway, and ran my eyes along that route until I spotted some suitable-looking trees. They appeared to be part of a cluster poking out from around a north-facing slope.
This year, it was just that easy. I happened into a stand of great trees, picked one out, cut it down, enjoyed some solitary and silent time in the forest, and went home.
We didn’t cut the tree as a family, but we’ll still gather around it on Christmas morning when we unwrap the presents beneath it.
And that, I hope, is the most enduring lesson we’ve learned: Any tradition that brings us together is a tradition worth keeping.
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