SPECIAL FEATURE: The Capitol tree: A truckin' Christmas story

By Suzanne Stempinski, Land Line contributing field editor | 12/3/2012

On the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 4, it will be all lights, camera, action as Speaker of the House John Boehner flips the switch and thousands of LED lights twinkle brightly upon the branches of the Capitol Christmas Tree. The crowds on hand will ooh and aah, and many thousands more will be glued to their television screens, cell phones, tablets and computers, eager to burst into holiday cheers. 

A tradition that began in 1964 with the placement of a tree on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building has become the symbol of goodwill and holiday cheer. The tree was delivered on Monday, Nov. 26, after a long truck trip from the forests of Colorado.

It took about a week to decorate the tree, covering it with more than 5,000 ornaments and somewhere around 7,000 LED lights.

courtesy of Suzanne Stempinski

LL Field Editor Suzanne Stempinski (center) with U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree truckers OOIDA member Duane Brusseau and OOIDA Life Member and former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.


On Tuesday, it will be all about the tree, which was a sapling before most of us were born. During the holiday season, it will be the star of the Capitol landscape. But how it got there is a truck driver story. It’s a grand and epic journey that began more than a year ago when the White River National Forest in Colorado was asked to provide the Christmas tree for the U.S. Capitol.  

The tree

The sound of chain saws filled the air of the Blanco River District near Meeker, CO, on the snowy morning of Nov. 2, as the 74-year-old, 73-foot tall Engelmann spruce was carefully harvested. A 120-foot crane stretched out over a creek to gently lift the tree. After being placed in its custom-built cradle on the back of a telescoping trailer, it was wrapped and secured. The tree’s trunk was connected to a bladder that was refilled every couple of days to keep the tree healthy and hydrated. It drank about 20 gallons of water daily.

courtesy of Suzanne Stempinski

The tree arrived Monday, Nov. 26, at the U.S. Capitol Building.


Plywood sides were added with Plexiglas panels at the far end so visitors could see the very tip of the tree, which was decorated with just a few of the more than 5,000 ornaments created and donated by Colorado school children. The outside was also wrapped with a giant banner identifying some of the project’s sponsors. At every stop on the trip, folks were encouraged to sign their names, marking their participation in this historic project.

Mack Trucks donated the use of the two trucks and one trailer for the journey. These Mack Pinnacles were wrapped in eye-catching graphics.

The lead truck was piloted by former United States senator and OOIDA Life Member Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado. At the wheel of the second truck was a professional driver and OOIDA member from San Jose, CA, Duane Brusseau. With roughly a century of driving experience between them, these two showcased the skills for which every professional driver strives. They were qualified, capable, dedicated, resourceful and patient.

The second truck carried 30 additional trees that were donated to other government offices and facilities. Girl Scout troops made tree skirts, and a large number of companies donated goods and services to support the tree’s journey.

It was a coordinated effort between the nonprofit organization Choose Outdoors, the Forest Service and other sponsor partners. Their fundraising efforts not only defrayed the costs of bringing the tree to the nation’s Capitol, but also raised money to reseed burned areas and stabilize stream banks. The funds will also help the forest recover from the devastating wildfires that burned more than 100,000 acres of land, along with 600 homes during the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs and the High Park Fire near Fort Collins.

Other participants in the convoy included Ken Coffin, district ranger for the Blanco Range District of the White River National Forest, and selected members of the Forest Service, along with volunteers, and Santa and Mrs. Claus from the tree’s hometown of Meeker, CO. With 30 cross-country stops, the tree traveled 5,800 miles before arriving at the Capitol. Huge crowds gathered in shopping centers, military bases, historic sites and town squares in small communities along the way.

Traveling with the tree

One journalist had the privilege of traveling with the tree as it made its last few stops on the way to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. I hooked up with the group at the Mack Customer Care Center in Allentown, PA, where hundreds of local residents and their children eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa and the tree.

It’s not easy to maneuver 105 feet of truck and trailer around curves and through gates that typically see shorter configurations. The two truck drivers, Ben and Duane, met every challenge, negotiating snowy mountain passes and small towns with streets not designed for such a large vehicle. Making sure the nose of the tractor and rear of the trailer were always in the right places to successfully navigate tight quarters took tricky blocking from security escorts and required boots on the ground from Duane.

The logistics for this month-long journey filled a large three-ring binder – and that didn’t include the ongoing coordination with state, local and county law enforcement plus last-minute permitting and clearances. A 30-stop, 21-day trip covered more than 5,800 miles. Visualize 14 people, two big trucks -- one oversize – and 7 additional vehicles, all traveling in a cohesive convoy. We moved down the road like a giant colorful amoeba running with the current, accented by the flashing lights of our law enforcement escort.

As we waved goodbye to Allentown and headed down the road to our next stop, I asked Ben about his role in this trip.

“They asked me if I was interested in driving the tree to Washington, DC, and I jumped at the chance,” he said. “I had done it once before in 2000 and never thought I’d be asked again. It’s a big deal for an old truck driver like me.”

Long days and time commitments made the coordination of efforts essential. Most days had two public appearances scheduled. Just like delivering any other load, or being a rock star on tour, it’s all about getting the job done safely and on time. That means for one thing, no time to stop and do laundry.

“I had to buy a couple of new shirts on sale at Cracker Barrel the other night,” Ben laughed. “My old ones were pretty dirty.”

Staying in constant contact with the other vehicles via handheld radios set to a special frequency, allowed the group to stay tightly knit. Up ahead, a state trooper sat in the median, patiently waiting. Four-wheelers jammed on their brakes, and folks on the CB talked about the bear in the middle. I looked to see him gunning it out onto the highway, lights flashing, scattering four-wheelers like ten pins at a bowling alley.

“Oh, that’s just our new escort,” Ben explained as the trooper eased into the convoy and the old escort peeled off. Law enforcement escorts changed off depending on state or county, time of day or shift change.

Heading for full dark as we rolled into Milford, PA; right on the Pennsylvania/New York border, a crowd was waiting at the Grey Towers National Historic Site, the former home of the first head of the Forest Service. We were met at the city limits by the chief of police.

“I'm not sure you'll be able to make the turn to get in there,” he said. "But let’s get you close anyway.”

So we proceeded with caution through a residential neighborhood leading to our historic destination. No dice. That big truck and trailer were not going to make the turn safely. So we found a place to park as close as we could and moved the event down the road from its intended destination. Undaunted, visitors flowed through the streets, finding the truck and tree, learning about the journey from the dedicated caretakers from the Forest Service and signing the banner

We left the truck secured and safe and headed off to the motel. It was late and morning would be coming again early. We needed to be back at the trucks and rolling by 6 a.m. Dinner was a trip down the hill for some fast food. I set the wake-up for o’dark early.

At 5:15 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 25, we headed back to the trucks, still secured, undisturbed. It was cold and  pitch black, maybe the first shade of gray lifting a corner of the dark.

It sounds so easy when you hear, “Just take this road straight to the end, then two right turns and a left and you’ll be back on the highway.” Slowly, carefully, mindful of cars, low-hanging trees, power lines and roadside ditches, we made our way out and stopped for fuel one last time before the six-plus hour journey to Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, DC.

We didn’t get more than a few miles down the highway when a voice came over the CB radio. “Driver, you’ve got a tire going flat. You might want to stop and get it checked out before you break the bead.” Argh. Not the tree truck; it was Duane who had picked up a bolt. Sunday morning, with most shops closed, he guided it to an exit with a restaurant that offered truck parking. He had some help from some of the staff, and the rest of the convoy rolled on. The load had a schedule to keep.

We crossed the border into Maryland and picked up two motorcycle officers to lead us around the Beltway and over to Andrews AFB. Lights and sirens never looked or sounded better. People waved and smiled and hung out their car windows with cameras and smart phones. Thumbs up. The Capitol Christmas Tree is coming through.

The last stop, Andrews Air Force Base, was a classic celebration with military families, the USO, Toys for Tots, the U.S. Air Force Band, Operation Rolling Thunder, Operation Military Kids, Santa and Mrs. Claus. The harmonic voices of the four members of Celtic Aire, the USAF Band’s Celtic ensemble filled the parking lot and reached skyward as the coverings were removed and the tree was prepared for the final leg of its journey.

It was dark once again and another long day was in our tail lights. One more early morning get-up to deliver this load. The Engelmann spruce rested gently in its cradle, ready to be set in place.

Delivery: the U.S. Capitol Building

The west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building is the stuff of picture postcards. History is alive and breathing there. The gleaming wedding cake-style building perches atop Capitol Hill. Inside, the halls are lined with granite, and every step you take leads you in the footsteps of giants who have walked there before.

courtesy of Suzanne Stempinski

The tree will be covered with thousands of LEDS and more than 5,000 ornaments.


The lawn covers a broad expanse, rolling gently to the road. On the day of delivery, a crane parked at the bottom, waiting. Finally, the truck came around the bend, guided for the last time by flashing lights. Amid the cheers of the crowd, the tree was officially presented to the Architect of the Capitol. The AOC is the federal steward of the Capitol complex, and it became the agency’s job to see the tree placed and secured on the lawn. 

The crane was carefully attached. And as the boom lifted the tree up and away from the truck, the crowd followed its progress across the lawn and into its new location. The people were excited to see the tree and Santa, of course.

Like all good truck driver adventures, it’s what it takes to get there that makes the story. Ben and Duane began the process of cleaning off the Hale trailer, knocking the pins that would allow them to adjust the length back to 53 feet and then move it out of the way.

For them, the delivery was done.

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