“We’re in Casper, Wyo., right now,” Jeff Underwood, 40, of Dahlonega said in a phone interview Nov. 16. “We left Buffalo, Wyo., this morning, and we just got to Casper, and we’re going to stay here for two, two-and-a-half hours,” he said.
“Then we’re going to spend the night in Laramie tonight. Then we’re going to Cheyenne in the morning.”
Underwood, owner of Dahlonega-based Jeff Underwood Trucking, might be used to frequent traveling, but this time the cargo is particularly precious.
Cradled carefully on the 105-foot-long trailer of the truck is the 9,000-pound U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, which is on its way to the Capitol’s west front lawn in Washington, D.C.
Dahlonega will be included in the tree’s 10-state, 32-city tour, when Underwood pulls into the downtown square on Wednesday.
It will be the first time a Georgia crowd will witness a Captiol tree en route since the Capitol began the 40-year tradition of getting its Christmas tree from a different national park each year.
It’s a historic event for Dahlonega, and for Underwood, it’s the realization of a goal he began working toward last October.
“I thought, ‘What could I haul that would be a major impact on the United States?’” Underwood said. “Something that someone would remember, and it would be the highlight of my career, and something that my children would be proud of me for doing, and that they could be a part of.”
He decided the “people’s tree” fit the bill.
“I found out it was coming from Wyoming this year, so that’s when I started pursuing it,” he said.
Underwood called Mary Cernicek of Jackson, Wyo., the Capitol Christmas tree coordinator for 2010, and “sold myself and my company to her,” he said.
Cernicek said she was relieved to find such an enthusiastic truck driver so early in the process.
“One of the biggest hurdles I thought of was finding a truck driver,” Cernicek said. “Within days of my pondering what I’m going to do with this problem, I had this phone call from this fantastically friendly man named Jeff Underwood, who said it would be his privilege and honor if I would consider using him as the driver for this tree,” she said.
To prove his interest in the project, Underwood flew to Jackson to meet with Cernicek, where they discussed what her expectations would be.
After he got the job, Underwood and his wife, Cindy, and children, Samuel, 10, and Mary Ann, 8, flew to Wyoming again.
“Me and my family got to fly out here in July. The U.S. Capitol architect flew from Washington (D.C.) out here and made the choice of which tree it was going to be,” Underwood said. “Me and my family got to be with them when they done that, and then we were out at the tree cutting.”
Underwood said cutting the tree, a 67-foot Englemann spruce taken from Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest, was a complicated process.
“We were out there very early, before daylight. We got everything all set up and everything, and when they cut the tree, they had one crane hooked to it up high, and it picked it up,” he said. “Then they attached another crane down low, and then leveled it out, and I backed the trailer up in under it, and then they laid it in the cradles, then strapped it down.”
A second truck, driven by Mark Fortner of Dahlonega, was loaded with more than 6,000 “Forever West”-themed ornaments, created by Wyoming residents for the large tree and 75 smaller trees that will decorate offices on Capitol Hill.
Then the caravan began its trek across the country, but not without some challenges.
“We actually had a little trouble in Jackson Hole,” Underwood said. “There was, like, 75-mile-an-hour gusts, and it like to have turned over my second truck,” he said.
Cernicek said another challenge was figuring out how to water the thirsty tree.
“You know those really big tractor tires? The inner tube from one of those is what we used,” she said. “We cut one end of it. Three guys got up on the tree and they pulled it up over the trunk like a big sock, and they used baby powder to help facilitate that, to make it slippery.”
The men nailed the inner tube into a wooden frame to hold it open, attaching a hose to the contraption.
“If you draw the short straw, you’re the one that gets to water it,” Cernicek said, adding that some fire stations have helped with the watering process, which requires 65 gallons each day, along the way.
But it seems no challenge will deter Underwood from enjoying every minute of the experience.
“The people, everywhere we pull in, people are just so nice, and they just can’t wait to see the tree and sign the banners, and just, I tell you what, it’s just been real, real good,” he said. “It’s just been great. I really can’t explain the feeling when you pull in somewhere, and there’s 4,000 people just standing, waiting on you to get there. It gives your chill bumps.”
But being away from his family for weeks has not been easy, Underwood said.
“They miss me and I miss them,” he said. “This is the longest I’ve ever been gone from home.”
But for the kids, their dad’s trip does have its perks.
“They’re like celebrities in school now,” he said. “They’ve been tracking us online.”
Once he stops in Dahlonega, Underwood’s family will share in the rest of the experience.
“My wife and kids ... can ride with me from Dahlonega all the way to the Capitol,” he said.
“They’re at the perfect age to remember something like this, and I got to thinking, you know, how many children can say, ‘Hey, I was with my dad when we rolled in the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree in 2010,’?”
In Dahlonega, the tree will be on display on Underwood’s truck, beginning with his arrival sometime between 3 and 5 p.m. Wednesday and on Thursday from 1 to 5 p.m.
Friday morning, Underwood will continue the journey to complete his task, met with another crane, at the tree’s final destination on the Capitol lawn.
“They’ll use that crane to put it into a 5-foot hole on the west lawn of the Capitol,” Cernicek said.
“It’s going to take them a week to decorate it, and then it will be lit on Dec. 7,” she said.