Hunting for Christmas trees at the Tramperos Ranch in northeast New Mexico is a Thanksgiving tradition we’ve left behind, and I miss it – even though there were some years when Christmas tree hunting was a wild adventure.
I remember the time it was 36 degrees with a 40-mph wind and we made record time. From the moment we first started talking about leaving the warm basement to actually driving down the road took only twenty minutes. Our previous record was one-and-a-half hours. The secret that year may have been the cold wind, or it may have been that we were only taking eleven people instead of the usual of twenty or more.
It was a tradition within the Atchley clan (my in-laws, their children, and spouses) to gather Christmas trees on Friday after Thanksgiving. We usually spent most of the day deciding whether to go before or after naptime, and how many pick-up trucks we’d need. This was not trivial since the family proved to be prolific breeders through the years and it took several pick-ups to haul all the cousins and aunts and uncles. It also took a long time to round up coats, gloves, hats, axes, and saws.
During most of our tree-hunting years, the ranch was owned and operated by Cyndi’s grandfather, Forrest Atchley. My small, four-member family went there for Thanksgiving every odd-numbered year, and whenever we went we brought home a Christmas tree or two. One year we brought home four: one for our home, two for Greathouse Elementary School, and one for the Lee Freshman High School Band hall.
Christmas tree hunting was not easy. The best trees were located far from the road and were surrounded by rocks and cactus and were hard to get to. The very best trees were always on the next hill over from the one where we were standing. In fact, there was no sense in even looking at trees until we’d hiked over the hill and the pickups were out of sight.
Hunting the perfect tree was also not haphazard. In a family steeped in tradition, as this one is, there is a correct sequence, a specific protocol, required to get the most from every experience.
First, we climbed all over the rocky mesa and steep canyons to find the absolutely perfect tree. We usually had to identify two or three perfect trees before deciding which one was good enough, and everyone in the family must agree on which tree was the most perfect. Up on the mesa, it took a lot of negotiating among husbands and wives and brothers and sisters to broker an agreement.
Sometimes the best trees had one flat side to put against the wall. Occasionally they had two flat sides, to fit in the corner. The best trees had only one main trunk, but a double-trunk tree would work as long as the sawyer could cut low enough to get both. The best trees often had pine cones on the branches. Also, the best trees were small enough to strap on top of an Astro Minivan, later a Ford Explorer, for the long ride home to Midland.
Every family had their own idea of perfection – some liked squatty fat trees, some liked flat-sided open-branched trees, some liked short Charlie Brown trees, and some, like Cyndi and I, cut only the very best symmetrical trees, perfect in every way. We never settled for those bushes the other cousins and aunts and uncles thought were adequate. Of course, they all thought their standards were higher than ours. However, regardless of specifications and selection, once a tree was cut, it became perfect. It was bad form to criticize each other’s selections; we were all expected to praise the choice of each family. We didn’t cut a tree and then throw it down to find another, oh no; once a tree was cut it was guaranteed a home.
One year Cyndi and I saw a particularly well-shaped small table-top sized tree up the hill among a pile of rocks. I climbed up only to discover it was actually a series of small trunks surrounding a 2-inch sawed-off stump. What looked like a perfect tree from a distance was the last desperate attempt of a root system whose main trunk had been cut years before. Not only was that particular tree showing tenacity and determination, it did so with style and humor. It was a survivor and it was beautiful. We saluted it, and moved on
The second step in the tree hunting protocol was that all the other families had to relinquish any claims to that particular tree even if they thought they saw it first. Sometimes that took a while, and may have included a promise to cook someone’s favorite dessert.
Step three: the oldest male in the family, or the closest male holding a saw in his hand, got to lie down on the cold rocky ground to cut the tree trunk with a bow saw, while one of the strong females pulled the tree over to one side to make the cutting easier.
Norman Rockwell paintings always show Christmas tree hunters carrying an ax, but don’t believe them. We used bow saws, which weren’t as fulfilling or as manly as using an ax, but much more practical. The trees on the mesas grew nestled among rocks and cactus and it was too hard to get a clean blow with an ax. I’ve heard of people who use a chainsaw to cut their Christmas tree, but they are probably the same people who spell Christmas, X-mas. We weren’t those people.
The last step in the process was to load all the trees and all the cousins and kids onto the pickup trucks and drive back to the houses. In the case of our family, we added another step, the ritual of tying our trees onto the top of our Ford Explorer. It wasn’t easy in the cold wind, and we usually had several trees to tie down. Cyndi often got so fretful about the gigantic pile of evergreen on top of her car that we sent her inside to make hot chocolate for everyone. After all, what could go wrong with an engineer and an Eagle Scout and two fifty-foot ropes?
As our own family grew up and changed, and as the larger family expanded and separated, we haven’t kept up this tree hunting ritual. Cyndi and I haven’t participated in the last six or seven years. However, we will always have great memories of hand-picking the most perfect Christmas tree from those New Mexico mesas, cutting them ourselves, tying them onto our Explorer, and singing carols all the way home to Midland. It’s one of our best family memories ever.
The Simpson family showing off our perfect tree for 1993
A load of cousins and trees, a successful huntung trip
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32
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