Over the River and Through the Woods

From the Farm:


Published in the Casper Journal December 6, 2011

When we moved from Las Vegas to Casper, I was thrilled to start a new life of simplicity in the “wild” west. As we packed our belongings, I put our plastic Christmas tree into the “donation” pile. “We won’t need a fake tree in Casper,” I told the surprised children. “There’s a mountain there, and we’ll just cut down our own.” In my mind I pictured our first Wyoming Christmas, driving “over the river and through the woods,” to select the perfect Christmas tree.
As our first Thanksgiving approached, I reminded my husband that we no longer owned a Christmas tree. “We’re Wyomingites now!” I told him in a patriotic tone. “We’ll cut down our own tree.” Dutifully, he drove to the BLM office to purchase a permit. “It only cost $7!” he said when he returned. “What a deal!” He also showed me the map of designated tree cutting areas. Words like “Shirley Basin” and “Medicine Bow” were new to us, but they didn’t seem too far away, so we weren’t worried.
The day after Thanksgiving, we bundled our children into the van and set out. Our spirits were high and we sang carols as we drove. However, our happy “over the river” singing soon drifted into silence as we drove out of town and around Casper Mountain. When civilization had been out of sight for what seemed like hours, the map guided us off of the paved highway onto a small, gravel road. I looked around. The land for miles seemed deserted. I had anticipated seeing other happy tree-cutting families, but realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a house, a car or even a decent tree. “Oh well,” I thought. “Surely there’s more civilization up ahead.” The falling snow and barren landscape nearly swallowed us as I tried to swallow the sudden, uneasy knot in my throat.
Our van was silent now as we drove on for what seemed like hours. “How much further?” I finally asked. “We’re almost to the mountain turn off,” my husband assured me. Sure enough, soon the road turned to the left, up a mountain. “Christmas trees!” the children shouted. As if by magic, we were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of beautiful trees, the first we had seen in miles. Our spirits brightened. Still, the mountainside seemed silent. “There are more people around here,” I told myself, hoping also for a civilized restroom. But besides a lone parked car, the landscape was white and still.
“There’s the perfect tree!” my children called out excitedly. Sure enough, a beautiful pine tree was standing just off the road in the falling snow. “Yes, let’s take it!” I said, a little too eagerly. “This isn’t the designated area,” my law-abiding husband said. “It’s still a few miles up the mountain.” Looking ahead I saw only the faint outline of a road. Knowing that our Las Vegas van had never attempted a snowy mountain pass before, I wondered aloud, “Will we make it?” Armed with determination, my husband revved the engine and drove the van through the first feet of snow. For a few yards we skimmed across the icy whiteness, and then the van stopped. The wheels spun and stalled. He tried again, and again, but each attempt took us deeper into the snow. “How about we just cut that cute little tree right there and go home?” I suggested again. “No. We’ll get a fine,” my husband insisted, and put the van in reverse.
Wondering who would possibly see us illegally cut down a tree in this forsaken land, I held my breath as we slowly backed down the mountain. “Watch behind us,” my husband instructed my sons. “There’s nobody,” they said glumly. “No cars. No people. You’re all clear.” But just as we backed out of the snow, we felt the van slip to one side and were soon in a ditch. “Will we die here?” I wondered. It had been several hours since we’d seen another human being, and our Las Vegas heater wasn’t very efficient. With two screaming babies in the back seat and snow falling outside, my husband and sons dug and pushed and dug some more. After a good hour of working, we miraculously pulled the van up onto the graveled road.
“Now let’s really cut down that tree over there and go home,” I suggested. I saw my husband’s jaw set. “We’ll try the road on the other side,” he declared. The next hour was silent as we drove back around the mountain. The sky grew darker and the snow fell harder.
When the second road grew steep and snowy and the van stalled (this time with no picture-perfect trees in sight), my husband stopped in the middle of the road and reached for his saw. “Is this the legal tree-cutting area?” I asked. There was no reply as he tramped up the hill. In 15 minutes he returned with the scrawniest tree I had ever seen. The three half-hearted branches on one side made Charlie Brown’s tree look like a forest. Without a word, my husband tied the twig on top of our van, and despite the fact that we were still going “through the woods,” we silently drove home.
As we arrived back into town we passed a tree lot filled with thick, gorgeous pine trees. “$40” a sign read. I glanced at the $7 permit and our empty gas tank.
The next day we pulled out our Christmas decorations, and the children were each allowed to choose two to hang on the tree. “Let’s turn the light off,” my daughter offered when we stood back to admire our work. With only the tree lights shining in the dark room, our twig didn’t seem quite so scrawny. In fact, despite its few branches, the scent overwhelmed our house. “People pay money to have their house smell like that,” suggested my husband with a smile. “You’re right,” I sighed.
We’re now looking forward to our third Wyoming Christmas. Although we do love living in the “wild” west, we have a new Wyoming tradition: we buy a sweet-smelling tree at the in-town lot. And after we tie our gorgeous, full tree on top of our van, we always sing, “Over the river and through the woods,” all the way home.

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