In more than four decades on the road, Theron Schmalzried has seen a little bit of everything and dealt with situations where quick wits and a cool head saved the day. So, when Walt Schattinger, president of Colorado-based Apex Transportation called him recently, he was all ears.
Nothing, however, could have prepared Schmalzried for what the boss had to tell him: He was going to be part of a team that would deliver the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree — aka “The People’s Christmas Tree” — to Washington, D.C.
“When Walt called me, I could tell by his tone of voice it wasn’t a prank,” Schmalzried said. “Walt was pretty excited, and it is an exciting opportunity. It’s kind of neat.”
Schmalzried and fellow trucking lifer William “Butch” Hanna were tapped for the honor based in part on their experience. Schmalzried has 42 years of truck-driving experience, 23 of them with Apex, while Hanna has been behind the wheel for 41 years and driving with Apex for 17. Along the way, both have been recognized by the industry with numerous driver and safety awards.
“It means a lot to me because there’s just a handful of guys that get a chance to do this. It’s just an honor,” Hanna said. “My grandkids are all excited.”
Every year, a different national forest is selected to provide a tree to display on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building for the holiday season. The 2020 tree, a 55-foot Engelmann Spruce, was harvested Nov. 6 in Colorado’s Uncompahgre National Forest. From there, it embarked on a tour within the state beginning Nov. 10. The tour, themed Experience Your Nature, was a joint partnership between Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests, the nonprofit Choose Outdoors and Colorado Tourism.
Hanna handled the driving for the Colorado portion of the journey; then he switched off with Schmalzried, who took the load the bulk of the way east. The duo then met up for the final leg of the run into Washington D.C. Hanna said his portion of the route and scheduled stops went smoothly, even though COVID-19 forced at least one event’s cancellation and turned the rest into either drive-by viewing opportunities or designated zones where the public could view the motorcade as it passed through.
“The disappointing part is … this COVID stuff,” Hanna said. “Instead of people coming up to the trailer, they just got to drive by and look at it. That’s kind of disappointing. But as far the route itself, everything went really good.”
The run ultimately covered almost 2,000 miles. Transporting the tree from the harvest site in Colorado to D.C. was a Kenworth T680 featuring the PACCAR Powertrain of a 455-hp PACCAR MX-13 engine and 12-speed automated transmission. Equipped with a 76-inch sleeper, the rig also boasts PACCAR 40K tandem rear axles.
Inside, the truck is spec’d with Kenworth’s “Driver’s Studio,” with a 180-degree passenger swivel seat and a 90-degree rotating table; a Kenworth Diamond VIT interior; premium Kenworth GT703 seats; predictive cruise control; Kenworth Nav+HD system; a liftable lower bunk and a stowable upper bunk; and Kenworth TruckTech+ Remote Diagnostics.
“It is an honor for Kenworth to participate in this important annual American tradition and provide a Kenworth truck to deliver the ‘The People’s Tree’ for the seventh consecutive year,” said Laura Bloch, Kenworth assistant general manager for sales and marketing.
Those interested in the trek were able to track the progress of the run online. Using FleetLocate by Spireon’s advanced trailer management technology, capitoltreetracker.com provided real-time GPS location tracking of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree as it made its way from the GMUG National Forests in Colorado to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Cross-country runs aren’t new to either driver. Schmalzried, 68, started driving to earn extra money while attending college in Texas.
“I was hauling fuel for a friend of mine. As a hungry college kid, I didn’t have any money. I had to make as much money as I could to go to school,” said the Kansas native. “Well, if you needed some money back then, there was always an old truck you could go get in and make a little. A lot of times, I’d go to college in the day and I’d haul fuel for him at night.”
Colorado-born Hanna, 62, started driving at age 21, following in the tracks of his father and grandfather.
“My grandpa and my dad were truck drivers, and both retired from the Union Pacific Railroad driving trucks,” he said. “I started for a little freight outfit called Evergreen Freight, then just kept driving, kept moving up, more money, different companies over the years.”
Both men say they’ve seen a lot come and go during their careers, starting with an emphasis on safety. Both drivers have taken this part of the job very seriously, as evidenced by their many awards and commendations.
“Safety is a huge thing anymore,” said Schmalzried. “If you don’t drive safely, it can bankrupt you in a second.”
Hanna holds three Driver of the Year awards from the Colorado Motor Carrier Association (CMCA). Schmalzried holds a long-haul Driver of the Year award (“Don’t ask me what year,” he said, “I can’t remember”) plus multiple Driver of the Month awards at both the company and association levels.
“Then also, some insurance thingamajig safety certificates,” Schmalzried said with a chuckle.
The tree made one final promotional stop in North Carolina before being delivered to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Nov. 20. Upon arrival, it was decorated with handmade ornaments specially created by Coloradans. The tree was scheduled to be lit during ceremonies in early December.
On the last jaunt into D.C., Schmalzried was joined not only by Hanna, but by company president Walt Schattinger as well. Schmalzried said that, as honored as he was to drive the truck, he felt equally proud to see his boss get to enjoy the moment.
“This is something that don’t happen to very many people, to get that chance to do it, or for a trucking outfit to do it,” Schmalzried said. “Walt’s a great guy and he deserves it. He’s worked hard and he stuck his neck out real far over the years. It’s deserving for him. I’m as happy about that as I am for myself.
Hanna agreed, calling the tree assignment a fitting cap to a rewarding career.
“I didn’t hesitate [to accept the assignment] at all, because I thought I’m probably only going to work another two or three years and then I’m going to try and retire,” Hanna said. “I thought this would just sum up my career really nice, you know? I felt pretty honored.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.