O Christmas Branch!

Holidays tend to stimulate memories of past years, and mine often turn to the two years we lived in Stehekin, WA. Last December I posted an excerpt from my memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, about our first Stehekin Christmas.

Stehekin, WA 1994; l-r: Rachel, Iris, Jerry, Matthew. Murphy in front.

This year, as I decorated our “Christmas branch,” I thought back to that Stehekin Christmas again and the “adventure” of finding a holiday tree. The following excerpt from Hiking Naked (and some grainy photos from our Stehekin album) tell the tale.

~   ~   ~   ~

The same fluctuating temperatures that had caused the roof-alanche earlier in the month challenged our hunt for a pine to cut for our Christmas tree. I thought

back to years when the kids were little, squeezing between rows of stacked, compressed Douglas firs, blue spruces, and white pines in the lot at Seattle’s “Chubby and Tubby’s” hardware store on four-lane Aurora Avenue. This year, a hike through pristine, unplowed snow in a mountain valley just minutes from our home sounded blissful.

My vision of the tree search derived from watching too many Walt Disney films and episodes of Little House on the Prairie rather than the reality of propelling our knees and thighs through a mile of three-foot snow drifts coated with a layer of ice, the winter air chapping our cheeks. Sweat seeped from under my wool cap as I huffed to the first tree I came to.

“How about this one, guys?”

j m rJerry and the kids trudged yards ahead of me, pausing at a tree, rejecting it, and moving on to another.

“No,” Jerry shouted back over his shoulder, “I see some better ones up ahead.”

“But what’s wrong with this one?” I called out.

“Over here,” Matt said.

Just as I caught up with the three of them, I heard Jerry say, “It’s pretty, but I think it’s too big for the living room. Let’s keep looking.”

“What about the one we just passed?” Rachel asked. “It was nice and round.” Her rosy cheeks were coated with sweat, and every time she took a step I could see the marks of melted snow on her pants.

“Let’s just go a little further,” Jerry said. “I like trees that aren’t so bushy. It looks like there are some good ones not too far ahead.”

“Just remember, once we cut it, we have to haul it out,” I said.

“Dad, I’m getting tired,” Matt said.

“Come on,” Jerry said, “where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Da-a-ad,” the kids said in unison.

“Okay, okay. How about this one?”

“Great!” I shouted.

“Perfect,” said Rachel as Jerry took the first swing with his axe.

SuburbanThe trudge back to the Suburban was slower going than the way in as we jockeyed for handholds on the tree trunk and dragged it over the snow. “I never realized we had such different preferences for Christmas trees,” I said. “This one’s pretty, but I think I would have been just as happy with the one we saw when we first got here.”

“But that wouldn’t have made nearly as good a story, would it?” Jerry said.

Later, revived by warm showers, dry clothes, and mugs of steaming hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, we adorned our fresh tree with the ornaments and a string of lights I’d pulled out of storage. Finally, I was able to take in the splendor of the day and the satisfaction of the hard work we’d shared.

Ste tree

The next morning, Matt and I woke up before Rachel and Jerry to find another foot of fresh snow. I hadn’t imagined the quiet could become even quieter, but all sounds were muffled as gray clouds continued to dump fresh powder. I lit candles, Matt turned on the Christmas tree lights, and we slid a cd of Christmas music into the boom box. This was exactly what I’d hoped for in this season usually frantic with buying and consuming.

Hiking Naked Final CoverFor the rest of the Stehekin story, you can buy the memoir in paperback (wherever books are sold) or as an e-book or audio.

~   ~   ~   ~

When we moved to Lopez Island after leaving Stehekin twenty-two years ago, we bought a beautiful fir tree from the local Pony Club for our first Christmas here. We continued that tradition for many years until the kids left home. Then, we’d often join them somewhere for the holidays, and it just didn’t make sense to buy a fresh tree, decorate it, go away, and return home to drooping branches and piles of dried needles on the floor.

branch daylight

Now, the Christmas branch, a piece of driftwood scavenged from a Lopez beach, works just fine with its twinkling, white lights and a few favorite ornaments.

And when I yearn for the full effect of hearty firs and cedars lit with bright colors, I make my way to my neighbors’ forest – O Christmas trees!



  1. I love your idea of a Christmas branch! We cut down a small fir from our woodland this year but we decided to stop at just the lights and not put the rest of the decorations on. We’re enjoying the simplicity of it. Maybe next year we’ll do a branch! Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  2. I really love the idea of a Christmas branch, Iris. Our daughter left for college this year and although we decorated as usual, I have to admit I would much rather have simplified things (so much so that I’m taking stuff down already). Several years ago my dad made a modern tree out of wooden dowels, which highlights ornaments that are special to us, and I think that might be our tree going forward. Thanks as always for the inspiration!

    1. Great to hear this from you, Lauren. I love the sound of the wooden tree with dowels; it’s nice to have a simple way to display a few favorite and sentimental ornaments. I’ve felt a little Scrooge-y about not getting a tree for many years, and all the affirmation I’ve received from blog readers (like you) helped me let go of that!

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