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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


Flying Christmas Trees and Camper Nerds

I always know it’s the Christmas season, because this time of year everybody in the nursery business has sticky fingers, wears a pocket knife on their hip and clothes they don’t mind ruining. That means Christmas trees have arrived. The trees arrive this early because the process of setting each tree up, so they can be inspected from all sides, is a long process. The trees come in tightly bound with string. One of the reasons they are tied up like this is because of shipping; they can get a lot more on a truck that way. Another reason is that most of the Fraser firs for sale around Mississippi have been trucked here from North Carolina. The North Carolina terrain where the trees are groomed and grown sits at around 2000 to 4000 feet above sea level and is situated on the steep sides of the Appalachian mountains. There is no way to walk the cut trees down these mountains, so it’s easier to send in helicopters with big platforms hanging from them to pick up the trees. They come into low areas where the workers have cut, tied and piled a platform’s amount of trees. The trees are loaded on the platform and flown lower down the mountain, where 18 wheelers wait in line to be loaded, so they can disperse the trees all over the country. It seems like it never fails that Mother Nature reminds us who’s boss by sending some nasty weather to that area during shipping week, just to make the logistical nightmare a little more challenging.

The trees are sized and graded while they are still uncut. The graders will use different colored ribbon to indicate the various tree sizes, because they are sold to us by the foot. I’ve been on the receiving end of 18 wheelers full of trees, wreathes and garland for 44 years, (well, I missed four or five Christmases at home while off gallivanting around) and I can tell you that on some years the guy sizing and grading the trees can be very generous or not so much. Sometimes the tree with a blue ribbon, meaning a 6 to 7 foot tree, is easily 8 feet tall… or the opposite can be true. We don’t really know what we are going to get until we open up the truck doors, unload the trees and cut the strings. We are counting on the integrity of the grower to send the very best. We’ve certainly had years that we know we’ve been sent bad trees. To us, it’s a disaster when families come in to get their Christmas tree, with high hopes that this will be the best one ever, and we can see they’re disappointed. But, it’s rare that we get a bad load. I can only think of two times that it’s happened, but it keeps me awake, every year, the night before the trees are scheduled to arrive.

This year, I am going to try something we haven’t done in a long time. I’m going to bring in some Douglas firs from Minnesota, that I heard were especially nice. I will still have 80% of the load in Fraser firs, but I thought it might be nice to have another tree option that decorates differently than a Fraser. The branching on Frasers allows you to put the lights and decorations in deep, which looks great. The Douglas firs are the shape of the crayon Christmas tree that kids draw…that great looking, full, triangular shape. Their branching also allows the lights to be set in deep, but it’s a fuller tree, which hides the wires and hangers better and illuminates the tree in a really nice way. If you hike in the mountains out west or ride ski lifts in the winter you’ve seen a Douglas fir. Those trees below the ski lift, that have a ski or a hat or one glove or sometimes Mardi Gras beads hanging in it, are usually Douglas firs. We will see how this experiment goes. Hopefully, there are a few people out there looking for a little change this Christmas. As more people move into Mississippi, we learn a lot from them. It’s always an interesting conversation to hear about what they are accustomed to in the garden worlds they left behind. People that have moved here from other regions are usually surprised that Fraser firs are the predominant variety offered around here. We will give Douglas a whirl this year and see what your response is.

Mimi and I took off to North Carolina on a Christmas tree farm scouting trip. We visited six gigantic Christmas tree growers so we could see who grew the best trees and, of course, to get in some hiking on the Appalachian Trail. We weren’t married yet, but I was pondering it mighty hard right before that trip. Once we had found our favorite grower and made a deal with them, we headed for a camping area near the Appalachian trail. We were in our 1974 Technicolor Volkswagen camper with two bikes strapped to the back. That poor van did her very best getting up those steep hills. We were those people you get behind on those mountain roads that make you crazy while you desperately wait for a straight-away so you can pass them. With the crazy paint job on this van, (I think there were at least 10 crazy colors in abstract shapes), we got a lot of honks and hand signals, some nice, some not so nice. We got a laugh from people’s reactions. We didn’t have a care in the world, other than hoping we’d make it to the top so we could start a hike. We made it to the campground near the trail head to Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, at 6600 feet above sea level. Like it is prone to do in the Smokies, it started raining hard and didn’t let up for two solid days and nights. During that time, if it ever did show signs of letting up, we would jump on our bikes just to keep from getting too cramped up before a good long hike. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried camping in a Volkswagen camper, but there is an art to it. The top pops up to make a bed and some headroom, while down below is a little kitchen and a table with two bench seats. You have to take turns moving around when you are rained in for two days. We got along splendidly, except for a few times when we got a little too competitive during our 88th game of spades or Uno. Neither one of us likes to lose.

On the third day, the weather got right. We had a four day window that we would have relatively less rain. If you’ve hiked in these mountains, you know there will be some wet moments, and we were prepared. The clouds and fog up high make for some incredible scenery. We hitched a ride to the trail head in the back of someone’s pickup truck, threw our backpacks out and got going on the hike with lots of pent up energy from the rainy wait. The first thing I noticed was that I was going to have a hard time keeping up with Mimi, but, of course, I wasn’t going to mention it. It seems like every one of her steps were two of mine; I’d have to hike faster.

We found great places to set up camp and cook our meals on all the nights out, and I slept really well after keeping my poker face while struggling to keep up with Miss cross country champ. I made up my mind halfway through that hike, that when I got home, I was going to to get an engagement ring and ask Mimi if she would be my wife. She was more than I ever expected, and we both love the same things, plus something about barely being able to keep her pace made me even more crazy about her. It’s been that way ever since.

We puttered home, downhill this time, with no engine problems. The van had made another successful journey, and I was with my fiancé to be, hopefully. Mimi and I love backpacking and camping still. We also still love camper camping and have accumulated campers over time. We have a pull behind camper that we frequently use to camp in Mississippi and Alabama campgrounds. We load up our kayak and bikes and spend great weather weekends getting away. We also have a converted 1966 Greyhound passenger bus that is decked out for road trips, as well as a small vintage camper that I use for deer camp weekends. We’ve had 2 Volkswagen pop-up campers, a 1964 and the brightly colored 1974, but our pride and joy was a bright yellow 1966 Volkswagen 21 window deluxe van. I guess we are official camper nuts. We also have a yurt in our backyard on a wooden deck that we use in the winter months. It’s got a king size bed, a heater and a little space for making and sipping on a cup of coffee. The floors are covered in Moroccan carpets, and you can just imagine the decor that Mimi has put together, complete with solar lights that were a yurt gift from Mia. We sleep out there more than in the house during the good sleeping weather seasons. It’s a good way to keep away from the news and end another day at work.

From that North Carolina trip, we made a great connection with a Christmas tree grower that we used for years, until they sold out to a bigger company and we saw the quality begin to deteriorate. I think there should be a shortage of Christmas trees this year because of the fires out west. Those regions will be looking east for their truckloads of trees. I’m glad I buckled ours down back in May, so, hopefully, nothing funny happens. We are also going to offer some live Christmas trees this year. We brought in some great shaped trees, that will do well here in the landscape, like Arizona cypress, the Carolina Sapphire variety. They are a beautiful blue and will decorate perfectly. It makes sense to me, that for the same amount of money, or less, you can have a great tree for decorating, then, when the hoopla is over, it can be planted somewhere in the yard and can even continue be decorated outside for years to come. Whatever your tree choice, I’m sure this Christmas will be different from any previous Christmas, thanks to the stampeding pandemic. Somehow, it seems like a simple Christmas tree is one thing we can all agree upon, that will offer us at least one bit of normalcy to hang onto while we navigate all the changes that are challenging us.

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