Driver considers role in Capitol Christmas Tree an 'honor'

By Mark Schremmer, Land Line staff writer | 11/7/2016

The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree has been a tradition for more than 50 years. And it’s a tradition that wouldn’t be possible without truck drivers.

This year’s 80-foot Engelmann spruce was harvested on Wednesday, Nov. 2, in McCall, Idaho, and is on a 3,000-mile journey to Washington, D.C., where it will sit on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. The tree’s official lighting ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 6.

The tree will make 28 stops along the way, including cities in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Maryland. Many of the stops are at schools, where ambassadors for the tree provide education about the tradition and the U.S. Forest Service.

Land Line Contributing Field Editor Suzanne Stempinski was asked to be a driver for a portion of the journey this year. An OOIDA Life Member and former professional trucker, Stempinski has more than a million and a half million accident-free miles.

She didn’t need any time to think about her answer.

“There was no hesitation,” she said. “This is the best gig on earth. How many people get to go to work and do something this amazing? It’s a privilege and a rare honor to have the opportunity to be involved in something like this.”

This is the third time Stempinski has been a part of the tree’s journey to Washington, D.C.

Stempinski, who rode along in 2012 and drove a portion of the trip in 2014, is slated to be a part of a presentation on Nov. 19 in Kansas City, Mo., before driving about 125 miles for another presentation on Nov. 20 in Columbia, Mo.

She said the experience is different than driving a regular-sized tractor-trailer. In order to haul the 80-foot spruce, the entire tractor-trailer is more than 100 feet in length.

“Everything you think you know about turning a corner is infinitely more complex,” Stempinski said. “You have the eyes of the entire world upon you, and you better get it right.”

But once the big rig hits the highway, it’s smooth sailing.

“When you travel for the tree, you don’t really have to stop for anything,” she said. “Traffic lights don’t really matter. Police will come and block off the intersections. Once you get started, you just get to keep going. It’s cool to be that special. It’s a rock star gig.”

And Stempinski will definitely be watching the lighting ceremony broadcast on TV.

“It really brings out the kid in everybody. One of my favorite things to do during the holidays is to watch that lighting ceremony. They’ve shown it on television forever. They flip that switch, and you can feel the magic. Being able to be a part of that magic makes it that much more special for me.”

The tree’s complete itinerary can be found here.

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