*Note: This essay was published in the Los Angeles Times print edition on December 22, 2020. Images from the actual print story, as well as text can be found below; it can also be found online here.

Our Christmas tree has a knee. “A crooked tree for a crooked year” was my sales pitch when we spotted the bent ponderosa pine on the snowy downslope of Pike National Forest. First just my 6-year-old agreed, and then my wife, and finally my 9-year-old came on board. After we cut it, we found layers we certainly didn’t anticipate.

I’d taken the day off work so we could all drive half an hour northwest from our little town at the base of Pikes Peak up into the national forest to secure our tree. It’s a neat annual program run by the Forest Service that’s a fundraiser, family activity and fire reduction initiative all wrapped in one.

It seems like every year the day after Thanksgiving my wife and I have the same talk about the tree. Is this the year we break down and buy a fake one? (They’re expensive, but they last so long.) Should we pick one up at the local nursery? (We got a nursery tree last year that cost, gulp, more than $100, but it was postcard perfect. Last year Americans bought 26.2 million Christmas trees at a median price of nearly $77, according to the National Christmas Tree Assn.)

But now we’re going for the national forest program. Sure, it takes more time and the tree’s a little less than a looker, but it costs $20, helps protect our community from fire, and we (mostly) have fun doing it.

Besides, this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree came out of a national forest in Colorado. If a Colorado tree’s good enough for the National Mall, it’s good enough for the Cavanaughs. We sent a spruce to Washington, but ours would be a ponderosa pine. The forestry program at Colorado State University estimates pinus ponderosae scopulorum covers 2 million acres of the state, about 8% of Colorado’s forestland.

We secured our permit online, and in early December, headed out of the house on a blue sky day and into the crisp air at about 9,000 feet. Walking in ankle-deep snow, I zeroed in on our unusual ponderosa pine. It came out of the ground about two feet, then bent 90 degrees, and thereafter slowly curved upward toward the south. 

I’m no arborist, but I couldn’t see any reason why it had developed a human-like hinge joint. There was no other tree, no natural object forcing it in any way. It seemed like a freak occurrence.

Like 2020. What a year, for all of us, a year where we all hooked a hard turn from where we thought the year would go. At the time, the tree seemed like a perfect metaphor for an awful year. So we cut it down and took it home. And we fell in love with it even more with all the fixings and trimmings and trappings of the holidays.

But — I just couldn’t put it down — how did our tree get that way?

I started firing up internet search engines with multiple word combos and came up with a possible answer that made me more than a little sad. We might have cut down a piece of history. Native Americans often tied young trees down to produce a bend that marked the way to an important destination. These “trail trees” have been identified at nearby Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument pointing toward Pikes Peak. The Ute people considered the mountain sacred, and in 2012 park chief ranger Rick Wilson called these trees “living archaeology” for their historical value.

Our tree wasn’t huge, could it have been that old?

“Among the many crooked trees encountered,” wrote Raymond E. Janssen in Scientific Monthly in 1941, “only a few are Indian trail markers.” But bent trees age differently from straight ones. One group that tracks the trail trees points out that a bent tree sometimes can grow to only half the diameter of a normal tree of the same age.

One clue is in the bark. On our tree it’s rough, dark colored, and a 2003 U.S. Forest Service Field Guide says, “Old tree bark lacks the deep fissures and black color of young tree bark.”

I’m almost certain our tree is too young to be the product of Ute or Native American hands. I counted the rings before we put it in the stand, and it seems to be less than 50 years old, but I’ll get an expert opinion after the holidays.

This tree. It first excited me as a novelty, a sign of the times, but it’s got more to tell us. There’s an arboretum in Illinois that’s hybridized a white oak species they’ve named Pathfinder as a tribute to the trail trees. However it was made, that’s what I’ll remember — a pathfinding tree that started us on our way out of COVID-19-clouded 2020 to a better 2021.

Or maybe something even simpler. I look up from my desk and see this tree bent horribly, like a badly broken bone. And it kept going, kept growing, seeking sunlight, setting roots. Life finds a way, even after the harshest bend.

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