It really wasn't much of a tree. The little conifer that grew next to a roadside cutoff on Highway 74 outside of Evergreen was only four feet tall and, compared with the impressive specimens on the hillside above it, the tree's misshapen branches and crooked trunk were hardly worth a second glance from the thousands of commuters who passed it. But whoever cut it down in early August sawed into the heart of the town.
About twenty years ago, judging from the growth rings of its stump, the tree sprouted at a curve in the road where drivers get their first glimpse of what the day will be like in Denver. That the tree lived at all was as much by chance as anything else. If the highway department had made the road a yard wider, it would have been swept away with the other debris and never missed. But eight years ago a simple tradition began at that spot in the road.
It was two days before Christmas 1986. Evergreen resident Minetta Bishard was making preparations to cook a traditional Italian dinner for forty relatives and friends when her mother called from Denver to say that her father refused to come for the gathering.
Bishard's feelings for her father had always been one-sided. An "oops" child born twelve years after her siblings, she felt he had ignored her for most of her childhood; he never told her that he loved her. Hurt, she decided that the old man could cut her out of his life, but she wouldn't just let him go. With her eleven-year-old daughter, Deanna, in tow, she went in search of a tree she could decorate for a man who would never see it.
She had just about given up on finding the perfect tree--not the tallest or most beautiful--when she spotted the little conifer by the side of the road. Its imperfections reminded her of her relationship with her father. Mother and daughter decorated the little tree, vowing to return every year.
No one except her family and closest friends knew who had decorated the little tree. But the idea quickly spread.
Other people began to secretly visit the tree. On Valentine's Day its branches blossomed with small hearts and ribbons. On Easter cardboard bunnies and eggs appeared among its boughs and lilies were laid at its base. On the Fourth of July small American flags fluttered from its branches. Halloween, Thanksgiving--it was a much-anticipated mystery to see what would appear next.
The day before Christmas 1987, Bishard drove to the tree with her decorations. It had been a rough year. Her father had died, leaving their differences unresolved. It was a struggle to go back to the tree.
But when she arrived, she saw that someone else already had draped it with ornaments and tinsel. Bishard considered it the most wonderful Christmas present she had ever received. She recalls sobbing for hours before driving home to tell her husband and daughter about it.
The tree became a sort of living diary for the community. At various times, its branches held best wishes for the birth of a baby and yearly congratulations to the graduating seniors of Evergreen High School. After the Gulf War ignited, there were yellow ribbons, and when it was over, welcome-home signs for local veterans. When fourteen firefighters died battling a fire near Glenwood Springs on July 6, a small purple ribbon for each was tied to the tree already bedecked with its traditional U.S. flags.
Then, on the weekend of August 6, someone cut the tree down. That Monday, Evergreen's local weekly, the Canyon Courier, received dozens of calls from outraged residents. The town was just getting over a bitter dispute about a proposed giant Wal-Mart--the beginning of the end for Evergreen, some argued. In the past year students had been caught with LSD in the junior high school, and there had even been a hint of pollution in the air.
"People felt violated," says Tony Messenger, the executive editor of the Courier. "The tree was a tie to the way things used to be up here--a reminder of a less hectic time. It made people slow down a little bit, to see what was going to be on the tree, and that's getting to be a rare thing."
People wanted to know what to do. If the culprit had been caught, there might have been a lynching. Someone hung one final adornment on the tree as it lay on its side: black crepe paper for mourning.
Over the next couple of weeks, letters poured in to the newspaper. Some argued that the tree could never be replaced; others thought that another tree should be planted at the same spot as a statement of defiance to the vandals. Still others agreed that another tree should be planted, but in some well-lighted, public spot to keep it safe.
While the debate continued, one of Bishard's neighbors erected a green cross on the spot. Within days the cross was festooned with flowers and ribbons; objects began to appear as though at the site of a shrine. A Santa Claus doll. A red yo-yo. A Valentine that read, "I love you." Someone had tacked a cardboard butterfly to the cross on which was written, "We want you back."
A week later someone knocked the cross down, but it was back up by that evening. And the next day the employees of the local King Soopers planted a new tree, covered with ribbons, twelve feet from the stump of the original. The new tree was a bit too straight, too well formed, to match its predecessor's odd appeal. But it was a little tree.
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Then a few days later the Canyon Courier announced that the Highway Department had granted permission to plant yet another new tree on a grassy knoll a quarter-mile farther down Highway 74 toward Interstate 70. Plans to create a split-level, four-lane highway where the tree and its replacement grew would block views of that spot by many commuters, the paper's editorial reasoned.
The official new Evergreen tree would be accompanied by a plaque, according to the newspaper. Festivities for the planting were scheduled for late this month.
Minetta Bishard has been invited to the ceremony, but she worries that any tree planted with such pomp is likely to be a large, beautiful specimen--exactly the sort of tree she avoided eight years earlier.
She plans to focus her thoughts on the new, smaller tree a few feet away from the original. "I think I'll just decorate that new little tree at Christmas," she says. "For my father. And for myself.