The car pulled into the empty lot and almost pulled out again before Larry Krop walked up to it. "Do you have any trees?" Lynda Sterling asked from the passenger seat, sort of perfunctorily.
Sure do, Krop replied, pointing past the dusty roadside produce stand alongside Georgetown Pike in Great Falls toward acre after acre of gently rolling hills studded with verdant pines.
The trucked-in, cut Christmas trees haven't arrived yet; Santa's sleigh is still parked behind a shed, next to the motorboat; the "Christmas trees 1 ml." and "Christmas trees 200 ft. ahead" signs leaned against a wall.
But for those willing to trudge along rows of pines, saw in hand, at Krop's Christmas Tree Farm yesterday, a traditional holiday centerpiece was theirs for the cutting. At $5 a foot, that is.
With the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers barely cold, it may have seemed a little early for Christmas tree hunting, but for about a dozen families it meant choice of the farm yesterday.
"We figured everyone else is at the malls, so it's probably the best day to come Christmas tree shopping," Sterling said.
She and her husband, Trev, wanted to get an early jump on Christmas because they'll be in Seattle with family when the holiday arrives.
"They all look the same after a while," said Trev Sterling, surveying 10 acres of Douglas firs and Austrian pines.
Not to Arthur Krop. Walking among the greenery, Krop looked over his son's farm, which produces pumpkins for sale in the fall and vegetables the rest of the year, with no small amount of pride.
"Look what you get," he beamed, pointing out differences among trees, noting the location of a bud here and the type of needle there. "Pretty nice, huh?"
The younger Krop purchased the first lot of his 23-acre farm about 15 years ago and promptly started planting trees. The first blue spruce, a lustrous and cobalt-colored tree, now towers over the house he built. Last year, Larry Krop had to put a "Sold" sign on one of his personal trees near the house because so many people wanted to take a saw to it, his father said.
"I hate to turn people down," said Arthur Krop. "I'll give away a tree if they can't afford it."
"It's kind of a nutty operation to plant Christmas trees on this kind of land," he said, adding that it's probably worth about $100,000 an acre now. Develop it, put houses on it, many have told him. "But we just like to scrounge by. As long as you're happy with it, it's not too bad."
The Krops have been selling trees for several years, but it wasn't until last year that they had enough large ones to let people roam the land, picking and cutting their own. Before that, they mostly sold already cut trees. This season, Arthur Krop said he expects that about half the customers will saw their own trees.
For some families, it was almost a celebration just being together outdoors on a relatively pleasant late November day, as a light wind rustled through the conifers.
Jill Antonine poured a cup of hot cider from a thermos and relaxed as son Elliot, 4, futilely tugged at a rope trying to drag their freshly felled tree. Minutes before, roped together with Adam, 2, and Tai, 11 -- and with more than a little help from dad -- Elliot dragged the tree to the van. Now it wouldn't budge.
"The kids love it," said Antonine, an Army captain from Chevy Chase. She said that she and her husband, Army Lt. Col. Greg Antonine, were just glad to be together with their three children.
"We have a lot of friends over in Saudi that can't do this," she said.