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Town Follows the Light Of a Tree in the East

Va. Spruce Draws Its Neighbors to the Capitol

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C03

The hamlet of Monterey, Va., was all but deserted yesterday as three chartered buses brought more than half the town's population to the Capitol to see the Christmas tree they all thought of as "our tree."

Almost 150 people -- 60 percent of the people who call Monterey their home -- trudged through the mud on the West Lawn to reach the 65-foot-tall red spruce that grew so deep in George Washington National Forest that it took a helicopter to ferry it out.

Jim Jacenich, a reporter for the Highland Recorder in Monterey, takes a snapshot of the Capitol tree. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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After a five-hour bus ride in which they viewed a C-SPAN video of Thursday's tree-lighting ceremony, many disembarked wearing Santa hats and T-shirts bearing a photograph of the tree before it was chopped down, with the slogan, "I saw it in the wild." They gathered around their tree, pointing to ornaments that Highland County's schoolchildren had created in art and shop classes, most of which were variations on pigs, sheep and maple leaves.

"We wanted to see our tree," said Butch Washer, explaining why he, his wife and two children felt compelled to visit. "It's pride in Highland County. We only have 2,400 people in the whole county. We have more cows and deer than people. We're so small and insignificant compared to the rest of the country. Yet we're able to donate something."

For most of the people who bought $28 tickets for the bus ride, the selection of a local tree to grace the Capitol has been as big a deal as the annual maple syrup festival in March. Seeing it in place with the Capitol dome behind it was just the final chapter of a historic event -- the first time in 40 years the tree has come from Virginia -- they had followed every step of the way.

Excitement began building shortly after they learned in July that the tree was coming from their parts. The Capitol Holiday Tree is always chosen from national forests and rotates among states. Next year, New Mexico has the honor.

The 300 schoolchildren in Highland County's only school were taken on field trips to see the tree growing. On the November weekend it was cut, the town hosted a send-off that featured music from the high school band, dancing from a student clogger group and more than 10,000 cookies baked by local women who also supplied hot chocolate and mulled cider.

It might have ended there. But one day, Lisa Jacenich and Sharon Harper were getting their hair done at Carla Brown's beauty salon when Lisa lamented that no one was organizing a trip to visit their tree.

"If Mary Schweitzer were still living, she'd get a bus up," said someone getting her hair done, mentioning the late columnist for a local newspaper who always was ready to bring her community together for a good cause and some fun.

That day, as their hair was being set, Jacenich and Harper agreed to try to get enough people together to fill one bus for a day trip to the capital. They decided to "do it for Mary."

"It's such a great honor for our tree to come to Washington, D.C.," said Jacenich, Christmas personified in her red Santa hat, mistletoe earrings, gloves adorned with red and green ribbons and a sweater knit with the pattern of a pickup truck carrying a Christmas tree in the back. "There was no way we were not going to see our tree in its full glory."

Word got around, as it quickly does in small towns. The first bus filled up, yet people kept calling. They got enough for a second bus. Still more people called. Three buses would be needed.

It was a huge turnout from a tiny town that has only one traffic light -- a blinking light at the intersection of Routes 220 and 250 -- and is so rural that the nearest supermarket is 48 miles away.

No one was surprised that pretty much the whole town wanted to come. That's just the way people are in Monterey.

"Everything that happens, it's as if it happens to everyone," said Henry Harper, Sharon Harper's husband. "If somebody has trouble, everybody has trouble. If somebody has a reason to be proud, everyone's got something to be proud of."

And many said they were particularly proud of one of the ornaments on the Capitol tree. It is an angel, and it represents the people of Monterey. The ornament reminds them of their own "angel tree" on the courthouse lawn, bedecked with names of local children whose parents may not be able to afford Christmas presents. It's a Monterey tradition for residents to pick a name from the angel tree, so that no Highland County child will go without presents on Christmas.

Long after the tree from Highland County is turned to mulch and spread around the Capitol grounds, the residents of Monterey will have a little piece of it to hang on future Christmas trees. Local artist Bud Cook took thin slivers of its discarded branches and painted each with a snow-covered fir, making an ornament to mark the day Monterey's tree became the nation's tree.

"We have a personal attachment to our tree," said Jackie Stephenson, a schoolteacher who brought homemade cookies to thank aides of Sen. George Allen (R) for a group tour of the Capitol. "Everyone wants to see it in its setting. It's a part of our history that we'll remember for years."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company