It was cruel gray dawn when L. G. and I crested the last ridge in the Appalachian chain, turned down the road to the hollow and jounced along the frozen dirt track toward the cabin at the bend in the river.
He slowed the little pickup on a high spot in the road and we pondered shards of light falling on the countryside we'd just passed through. Steam clouded the windshield as I poured coffee from a battered old thermos. "Right on time," L. G. said.
When the days are December short and you have work to do, you want all the daylight there is. A job waited for us on the mountain if we had the strength and savvy to get it done.
"They're up there somewhere," L. G. said. "All we have to do is find 'em."
You could call L. G. my hunting partner. Together we've pursued ducks and geese, pheasant, quail, and other denizens of the woods and fields. We've seen dawn together before. We've seen success and we've seen failure.
This day, failure was something we could not afford.
"My wife went looking the other day," L. G. said. "The cheapest decent one she could find was $44."
I had my own horror story. A neighbor did a little research. The price at the old stand on the corner was $50. For a Christmas tree.
So we came to the West Virginia mountains we knew. We came before dawn because that's the way we do, and we didn't know if we could find the place in daylight. We came armed to the teeth because according to the hunting schedule just plain everything was in season.
"We wouldn't want to be run off the best Christmas tree grounds by a flock of rampaging wild turkeys," L. G. said. Or by some garrulous grouse, either.
He also had the idea that the only appropriate way to obtain mistletoe was to shoot it off the topmost branches of a tall tree with a .22 rifle. Mistletoe, he explained, is a parasite that attaches to hardwoods. "Just look for a little green up high."
L. G.'s notion is that the best Christmas tree is a cedar, which, where I come from, is what poor folks end up with. My idea of a proper tree is a spruce. We figured to get one of each. We figured wrong.
"Remember," L. G. said, "if you come on a stand of small trees and you like the looks of one, call me before you start cutting. I don't want to have to haul you out of the woods and explain to your wife how I let you get attacked by a mother tree protecting her saplings."
We had L. G.'s Brittany spaniel along, sniffing for pine cones. She ranged out ahead as we scaled the steep slope behind the cabin. A good Christmas tree dog is a rare pleasure to watch and Patty was no exception. "See how her eyes get that wild look when she picks up a scent?" L. G. asked. "It's all in the breeding. The guy who said 90 percent of a dog's value is in the breeding was wrong. It's more like 99 percent."
Patty had plenty of breeding but not much experience in the field. By the time we had clambered to the ridgetop she had run right by several longleaf saplings and a good stand of young spruce and never once come on point. I was beginning to doubt her efficacy.
"Well, she runs good," L. G. said. "She just doesn't know what she's looking for."
L. G. proved prophetic. Through our long day of hunting Patty never pointed the first Christmas tree. It was up to us to sniff out the pine groves and our noses, dulled by too many years in the city, failed the test.
There were 10 hours of daylight and none of it went to waste. Yet as dusk gathered there still was no Christmas tree in our possession. We'd fired only twice, once at a grouse that exploded from a thicket and once at a sprig that appeared to be mistletoe. Unfortunately we got confused and made the shot with a 12-gauge shotgun instead of the .22, and the sprig was torn up so badly we couldn't make out what it was.
We climbed down from the mountain when there was thin light remaining. A car parked at the foot of the trail. In it sat an angry farmer, caretaker of the land.
"What were you boys doing?" he asked.
"Just hunting," we said.
"Just like that, huh?" he said angrily, groping for a pistol that lay on the seat of the car.
We hastily explained we were guests of a man who rented a cabin on the land and who had given us permission, which was true. The farmer relaxed.
"Say," said L. G., "you don't know where we might find a Christmas tree, do you?"
"Might try the fellow down the road here," said the farmer. "He might let you cut one down."
The fellow down the road didn't have a Christmas tree; he had a Christmas tree convention. "They just sprung up there," he said.
So we cut two where you couldn't notice they were gone and offered the man $10, but he talked us down to $6.
"Merry Christmas," said he.
"Merry Christmas," said we.