On the road with the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree
Every year since 1970, the Capitol Christmas Tree has moved across the country under the watchful eyes of the U.S. Forest Service, state and local law enforcement and the public. The 2014 journey spanned more than 17 stops as communities across the country share in the joy and fellowship of the season. For this truck driving reporter, it was a dream sandwiched between two celebrations.

By Suzanne Stempinski, field editor

OOIDA Member Elwood Higdem has been driving truck for 55 years. He’s the man behind the wheel of the Kenworth T880 that is hauling the Capitol Christmas Tree. OOIDA Member Ken Lundgren is the wheelman for the second truck – a Kenworth T680 Advantage carrying the ornaments and additional trees that will decorate offices throughout Washington, D.C. 

Higdem relinquished his seat to me for one leg of the journey – a 10-mile trip from Wilmington to Elwood, Ill. I’ve been a commercial vehicle driver since before there was a CDL, and I’ve got more than 1.5 million safe miles under my wheels. I’ve pulled reefers and dry vans, flatbed and horse trailers. I don’t have a lot of experience with over-dimensional loads, but I was excited to have the opportunity to deliver the tree from one destination to another. From the front bumper to the oversize load sign hanging off the back of the trailer, it measured just under 105 feet. No tight turns for this combo. With flashing lighted escorts in front, and a convoy of support vehicles running behind, it was quite a drive. 

On a blustery day in Wilmington, Ill., schoolchildren gleefully lined up to sign the tarps cocooning the 88-year-old white spruce making its way from Minnesota to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

People lined up along the street waving, cheering and taking pictures as the truck rolled out. I lined up with the curbs and took turns slowly and with great care as the logistics team had scouted the accesses and angles.

“Be sure to keep the stake on your left and don’t hit the sign as you go around,” advised Higdem as we made our way out of the Wilmington Middle School parking lot. 

These charming old communities with narrow streets were never designed to accommodate equipment this big. The trailer seemed to grow in my mirrors, longer each time I looked. Eventually we made our way onto a main artery, and the procession wound its way to the Community Center in Elwood. The team waved me to a stop in the middle of the road; my job for the day was done. I set the parking brakes and shut down the engine. Load safe and secured.

Chief of Police Fred Hayes welcomed us to his community. The Kenworth and Capitol Christmas Tree were the centerpieces of their official holiday lighting ceremony, with a huge turnout from the locals. Sandwiches and hot chocolate, cookies and good cheer were in plentiful supply as the day wound down and the lights came up. 

I left Elwood Higdem and his wife, Joan, as well as Ken Lundgren and his wife, Pat, and the caretakers of the trees and their crew, who were planning their route to Washington, D.C. 

And for me, I’ll be watching the news as Speaker of the House John Boehner flips the switch at the official lighting ceremony on Dec. 2. The stuff of dreams – delivered.  LL