Chillicothe Ohio, population 21,899, likely drew the most inspiring crowd we’ve seen so far. The Capitol Christmas Tree cruised to stop in front of Mount Logan Elementary School. To the sheer delight of several hundred children the massive semi-truck arrived driven by a man in a bright red coat that bore an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus. The moment John Schank, 2014 Alaska Truck Driver of the Year, descended the steps of his customized Kenworth big-rig the kids swarmed around to get their pictures taken with him and stood anxiously in line to sign the banner that would mark their place at this particular moment in history.
I’ve been following the Capitol Christmas Tree from the moment it was cut on October 27, 2015 on a beautiful late autumn day in Seward Alaska. But since I was a child I have been captivated by the magic and wonder of the holiday season with its promise to make dreams come true. In a profession that now takes me around the world to tell the story of adventure I must confess a certain gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been afforded by pluck and providence to fulfill more than a few Christmas dreams. Conceived under the twinkling lights of an evergreen tree the gift of Christmas dreams each year are wrapped and decorated with love and joy as an expression of hope toward an even brighter future.
Harvested from the Chugach National Forest on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska the Capitol Christmas Tree, the People’s Tree, is a gift to the Nation. Provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the non-profit Choose Outdoors this 74-foot Lutz Spruce is a majestic icon of natural resource conservation as well as the enduring spirit of the American people. Named by the elders of the Kenaitze First Nation Tribe Ch’wala ka’a or “big spruce“ is also an ambassador of the National Forests that are the inheritance and legacy of all United States citizens. There are many great lessons to be learned in the protection and preservation of our public land.
“After 18 years of teaching I think this has been my favorite unit that I have planned,”wrote local educator Christy Lee Wellman-Jordan on Facebook. “My students have gotten into this unit and they can tell you anything you want to know about the tree and the history behind it…Watching my students over the past few weeks have been priceless. I was asked yesterday by my students “Are we part of history?” I told them “Yes!!!!” Their response “Awesomesauce!!”
The enthusiasm of the children on this day was electrifying. As I worked the crowd of excited kids I felt a tug at the hem of my jacket. Looking down I caught the wide-eyed gaze of a little boy who smiled up at me minus his two front teeth.
“Are you a traveler?” he asked with a glance at my pair of cameras.
His question took me by surprise though I knew exactly what he meant. As I crotched down to his height I said smiling, “I suppose I am. I’m the team photographer.”
Barely able to contain his excitement he said in a rush. “Oh wow! You travel all over? How can I do that? When you come back will you bring me a rock?”
“A rock?” I asked a bit puzzled. “What kind of rock?”
“Any kind of rock!” he replied almost shouting. “Just something from where you’ve been.”
Standing up I clawed into the pocket of my jeans. With all the crap I’d been carting around after 21 days on the road there must be something I could give him. And then I found it. “This came all the way from Alaska,” I said.
As the boy’s mouth gaped open in apparent awe I handed him a zipper pull given to me by the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance. A small plastic badge with a white background about the size of a quarter it featured a tiny portrait of an Alaskan Husky and a dog sledge. Hardly a rock, but it definitely did the trick.
The boy took his prize with a “Thank you! Thank you! Thank You!” And ran off to show his friends. Much of my work is dedicated to inspire young people especially to follow their dreams wherever they might lead. As I watched him skip away I felt that I had made a lasting impression upon this boy’s life that could lead him to do wonderful things in the future. It is my hope that he will become inspired by an abiding love of the outdoors, of adventure and our National Forests. And when he grows up I hope that he will fight to protect them and preserve them for future generations. I had to smile myself as a gaggle of children his age mobbed the spot where he stood as they each marveled that this amazing talisman that came all the way from Alaska.
I only regret that I did not taken their picture. The scene quickly faded into the swirling confluence of the day’s activities. I was swept away in my duties to take pictures and record video of the local dignitaries who took the podium to make their speeches and proclamations of welcome. But earlier that morning as the crowd slowly gathered Chillicothe Chamber of Commerce CEO Randy Davies shared something that meant more to me than anything else I would hear that day.
“Most of these kids are on free or reduced lunch,” he told me. “It really means a lot for you to be here and share this with them. Things like this don’t happen very often.”
This stop on our long journey inspired me more than any other. Here in Chillicothe the efforts of the many volunteers and sponsors that made this trip of more than 4,000 miles possible was placed in stark relief against the profound significance of what we aim to accomplish. The Capitol Christmas Tree, the People’s Tree, the big spruce Ch’wala ka’a is a great symbol of hope and love that is a gift we have the privilege to share with the American people and the world at large. Like a magic charm I can pull from my pocket and hand to an adoring child we have had the wonderful opportunity to deliver this remarkable experience, this gift of Christmas Dreams, to the joy of a new generation, inspired to spread the message of peace and preservation well into the future.
The Joy Trip Project is made possible thanks to the generous support of fans on Patreon.com
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