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Holiday cargo: Drivers who transported the 2021 US Capitol Christmas Tree describe ‘trip of a lifetime’

Holiday cargo: Drivers who transported the 2021 US Capitol Christmas Tree describe ‘trip of a lifetime’
Members of the System Transport team are shown here at the Oct. 24 tree-cutting ceremony. From left: William “Bill” Brunk, driver; Rob Heskett, chief operating officer; Heskett’s son, Ryan Heskett; Jerry Gardner, driver; Robert E. Lee, driver; Mike English, driver; John Schnell, driver; Terry Jefferson, driver; Joel Eggert, mechanic; and Jeremy Bellinger, driver. (Photo by James Edward Mills)

WASHINGTON — On Oct. 24, the 2021 Capitol Christmas Tree was harvested from California’s Six Rivers National Forest and began a four-week journey from the West Coast to Washington, D.C.

Popularly known as “The People’s Tree,” the stately evergreen displayed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building is selected from a different national forest. This year’s tree, an 84-foot white fir, made 17 tour stops along a 4,000-mile trek across the nation before arriving in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19.

System Transport, headquartered in Cheney, Washington, was tasked with transporting the tree using a new Kenworth T680 Next Gen. For the six-member team of System Transport drivers selected to ensure the tree arrived safely to its destination, the trip was the experience of a lifetime.

Members of the team include Jeremy Bellinger, William (Bill) Brunk, Mike English, Terry Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and John Schnell Jr, a driver for James J. Williams Transport, a sister company of System Transport.

“Christmas has always been such a special holiday to me and my family, so to spread the holiday cheer throughout the country was truly an honor,” said Bellinger, who has driven 3 million miles over the course of his 21-year career with System Transport.

“I’ve been involved in transporting equipment to British Columbia for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and have hauled utility poles in response to wildfires in California, but being one of the drivers responsible for transporting the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is truly the highlight of my career,” he noted.

System Transport selected Jefferson, along with Lee, a yard manager and former company driver, to transport the tree from the harvesting site through U.S. Forest Service roads. The other four drivers divided the remainder of the journey.

According to Schnell, who split time driving the Kenworth T680 Next Gen with fellow driver English from Sacramento, California, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, said the holiday spirit was on full display at the tour stops during their leg of the tour.

“The turnout at the tour stops, especially in small towns, was really something. To bring the holiday spirit to each of the stops and see so many people come out to participate in the celebrations was special,” Schnell said. “I’ve known about this tour for quite some time but never imagined I’d be one of the drivers involved. To have the opportunity to transport the Capitol Christmas Tree is something I’m proud of and is an experience I’ll always remember.”

Transporting “The People’s Tree” was the first time each of the six drivers had a chance to sit behind the wheel of a Kenworth T680 Next Gen. According to English, who drives a Kenworth T680 classic for System Transport, the technology inside the T680 Next Gen is what initially caught his attention when he stepped inside the cab for the first time.

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“The new electronics, like the (15-inch) digital display, was something I grew fond of once I learned how to adjust the gauge settings to show the ones I wanted to appear on the screen,” he said. “The Next Gen offers a comfortable and enjoyable ride and is a step above the T680 that I drive regularly for System Transport.”

With prior experience hauling windmill blades and utility poles for System Transport, the drivers were prepared heading into the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Tour to handle the challenges of hauling a more than 100-foot long trailer.

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“It was difficult at times navigating some of the narrow streets along tour stops, but we all have plenty of experience hauling oversized equipment for System (Transport), so we were ready for it,” Schnell said.

Bellinger, who drove the last day of the tour and was responsible for delivering the tree to the U.S. Capitol, said he worked out a deal with Brunk for the opportunity. Bellinger and Brunk were responsible for hauling the tree from the tour’s first stop in Crescent City, California, to Sacramento, and again from Tulsa to Washington, D.C.

“I have some family in D.C., and planned on flying my family out from Washington (state) to see us deliver the tree to the Capitol, so I wanted to be the one behind the wheel when the tree arrived,” Bellinger explained. “The deal was, if I got to drive the truck to the Capitol, Bill (Brunk) would drive the truck over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a win-win. It was an incredible experience to be involved in this tour and celebrate the holiday season with my family at the end of it.”

A lighting ceremony is planned for Dec. 1 on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington.

The Trucker News Staff

The Trucker News Staff produces engaging content for not only TheTrucker.com, but also The Trucker Newspaper, which has been serving the trucking industry for more than 30 years. With a focus on drivers, the Trucker News Staff aims to provide relevant, objective content pertaining to the trucking segment of the transportation industry. The Trucker News Staff is based in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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The Trucker News Staff produces engaging content for not only TheTrucker.com, but also The Trucker Newspaper, which has been serving the trucking industry for more than 30 years. With a focus on drivers, the Trucker News Staff aims to provide relevant, objective content pertaining to the trucking segment of the transportation industry. The Trucker News Staff is based in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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