After traveling nearly 2,000 miles from Colorado’s Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests, a 55-foot Engelmann Spruce adorned with handmade ornaments from Coloradans stood tall on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Although the traditional lighting ceremony of the tree in early December signaled the beginning of the Christmas season, the tree made quite a journey before arriving at its destination.
Known as “The People’s Tree,” this piece of history was transported by William “Butch” Hanna and Theron Schmalzried, longtime drivers with Apex Transportation based in Henderson, Colorado. 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 tree made several stops during its trek, offering a chance for the public to get a glimpse of the precious cargo. The Colorado portion of the tour, themed Experience Your Nature, was a partnership between GMUG National Forests, the nonprofit Choose Outdoors, and Colorado Tourism.
After making several stops in the tree’s home state, the tree traveled to the East Coast, where the Truckload Carriers Association was waiting with open arms and a truckload of Christmas cheer. Along with Cargo Transporters, Inc., TCA hosted a whistle stop at the Asheville Outlets in Asheville, North Carolina. The event was free and open to the public.
TCA Chairman and Cargo Transporters, Inc.’s President and CEO Dennis Dellinger was especially excited to welcome to the tree to his state.
“With so few physical events taking place this season, we were eager to participate in this year’s whistle stop,” shared Dellinger. “Asheville was a wonderful host city, and the Asheville Outlets was a great venue. It was heartwarming to be able to experience seeing the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree along its route and provide the opportunity to so many families who came out for the event.”
With the help of several local sponsors, the event offered complimentary bags which contained hand sanitizer and a personal marker to sign the tree’s banner; live remote broadcasts with iHeart Media’s 99.9 KISS Country Eddie Fox, 104.3 STAR Ariel Rymer, and 570 WWNC Mark Starling; a hot cocoa station, ITeam Games, and a photobooth sponsored by Ingles Markets; a toy drive benefitting Eblen Charities; food and beverages by Chick-fil-A and Sierra Nevada; and more.
“Asheville Outlets was thrilled to help host the U.S. Capitol Tree whistle stop this year,” shared Asheville Outlets General Manager Miranda Bowman. “This event was a huge success, bringing Christmas cheer and holiday excitement to our community during a challenging year.”
The tree itself wasn’t the only thing that brought attention to the event. Transporting the tree across the country was a Kenworth T680 featuring a custom wrap that paid homage to Colorado’s 14,023-foot Wilson Peak in Colorado’s Uncompahgre National Forest and the phrase, “From colorful Colorado to America’s front steps.” This was Kenworth’s seventh year to donate the truck for the trip.
Schmalzried and fellow trucking lifer Hanna were tapped for the honor of hauling the tree 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,” shared Hanna.
The driving duo 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.
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 tree as it made its way to the U.S. Capitol.
After the stop in North Carolina, the tree was delivered to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on November 20. Upon arrival, it was decorated with handmade ornaments specially created by Coloradans. The tree was lit during a live-streamed ceremony in early December.
On the last jaunt into D.C., Schmalzried was joined not only by Hanna, but by company president Walt Schattinger. 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 doesn’t happen to very many people, to get that chance to do it, or for a trucking outfit to do it,” said Schmalzried.
Hanna agreed, calling the tree assignment a fitting cap to a rewarding career.
To view photos from the Asheville event, or from the tree’s entire journey, visit truckload.org/Flickr.
Story written by Dwain Hebda & Wendy Miller.