PAT NEAL: Finding the perfect tree

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS like the warmth and happiness of the holiday season is enough to drive the average person right over the brink.

The best way to eliminate holiday stress is to discard outdated notions of the perfect Christmas. Do you think the first Christmas was perfect? Jesus was born in a barn! Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect.

Unless you are talking about the perfect Christmas tree.

The perfect tree can be tough to find due to the simple fact that a tree’s degree of perfection occurs at an inverse ratio to its distance from a road.

We’re not after just any tree here. We are after the perfect alpine fir Christmas tree.

Abies lasiocarpa grows in the mountains and there’s snow up there in December.

Sometimes you have to hunt around for a while to find a perfect Christmas tree and it’s not a job you want to rush.

A low winter’s sun found me at the end of the road, where the climb up the side of the mountain began. There was only a foot or so of snow, but it had a good crust that made it perfect for skidding a tree back down the hill.

I considered taking a tarp along so the tree wouldn’t lose any needles, but then I thought I’d pack light when I took a look at the hill. I started climbing.

By the time I remembered I’d forgotten my water bottle, I was sweating like a walrus. At least I remembered the axe.

I’ll never forget that sunset, when I reached the crest of the ridge. It looked like a burning city of clouds the night before the end of the world. By then, I was too lost to appreciate the view. There was nothing to do but keep going. I needed a perfect tree and the holiday stress was mounting.

Then I came out into a clearing in the forest and found the perfect tree. It was perfectly symmetrical without a limb out of place. There were little cones in the branches near the crown. This tree was so perfect it was already decorated for Christmas with strands of silver lichen and a Canada Jay’s nest in the branches.

I remembered the old Indian curse about messing with a camp-robber’s nest, but I had to cut it down.

By then, the sun was down and it was getting dark. The belly of a moon showed beneath an ocean of clouds, so I could see pretty good until I got down in the timber. That’s when I lost the perfect tree. We started sliding down an icy slope. It was me or the tree, so I let go.

After a while, I worked my way to the bottom of the cliff the tree fell off. The top was busted, but I figured I could haywire the top back on with the angel and nobody would know.

I didn’t want to lose the tree again, so I took off my belt and used it to lower the tree down the mountain. This is tough to do with your pants falling off.

I knew I was getting closer to the road once I hit the overgrown slash of an old clear-cut.

By the time I dragged the tree through that mess, the cones, bird nest and a lot of the bark and needles were gone. A couple of limbs were broken clear off.

None of that mattered once I blundered into the road and found my truck.

It was another successful mission. Christmas was saved. I’d found the perfect tree.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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