By Gary Hinson, circa 2001
There are about as many tree farms in the foothills of western Virginia as there are snowflakes in a December snow squall. And as each snowflake is unique, so is each tree farm unique, having been strewn across the wide expanse of these Appalachian foothills. One of the most unique is Larson’s Tree Farm near Childress, Virginia, a community so small that it may not rate an ink dot on a road map. A dirt road leads from the barely-two-lane state route onto the farm. There, perched on a knoll at the end of a high ridge stands Dr. Larson’s home, rustic yet modern, with a high vaulted ceiling designed to accommodate very tall trees. Opening the front door and stepping Inside, one is greeted by the sight of Christmas trees, covered in ornaments and lights and stretching to the ceiling. The air is filled with the heavy aroma of hot coffee and cocoa, evergreen and something unexpected that sets this tree farm apart from all the rest; the intoxicating aroma of leather.
Dr. Larson, a motorcycle enthusiast sells leathers to bikers out of his home. There are racks on racks of leather jackets and vests, pants and boots, some of which he made himself I have been told, although I have no way of knowing if this is true. Most of the leathers gently used, in excellent condition, and well broken in are whispering to interested customers drawn in by the wonderful smell of leather goods. I know. I have heard them whisper to me for I have been coming to Larson’s for many of my last twenty five Christmases. Bikers are welcome anytime of the year. Christmas tree hunters are welcome once a year. My children are excited about walking among the trees and picking out the perfect fit for our home. I am excited about walking among the leathers and picking out the perfect jacket or pair of boots that I can’t afford to buy.
The fields on the farm are rolling hills of white pine, spruce, and fir of many varieties. They have been carefully clipped during the summer to provide beautifully-shaped trees for Christmas. You may cut a tree or you may dig one out of the ground taking a small piece of the farm home with you. There are pots of hot coffee and hot chocolate waiting in the house for tree hunters who have returned to pay for their tree after a successful hunt. And so, on this too-warm-to-be-December, a Saturday, the first day of December, 2001, my wife, son, daughter, and I drive out to Childress.
Twenty minutes later, we arrive at a dirt road where two signs appear in the fenceline. One reads “Larson’s Tree Farm” and the second “Larson’s Leathers” painted over the image of a fast moving motorcycle. I park our van off the dirt road just past a run of signs tacked to the trunks of very sad looking locust trees. The signs read “Cut Any Tree in the Field $25.” With arrows pointing down paths, one would read “Spruce,” another “Fir,” still another “Don’t Feed the Crocodiles” and “Shakespeare Had No Word Processor.” We jumped from the van and began walking downhill into the Scotts Pine, bowsaw in hand. Coming to a consensus proved to be the bigger job. Many a “too tall” or “too short.” Many more “I don’t know why… I just don’t like it.” Back up the hill to the van and beyond until we reach the very top of the hill and there it is. The perfect tree. Standing alone, and whispering to my wife just like leather whispers to bikers, “over here. I’m over here.” My son and daughter held the tree while the bowsaw and I detached its trunk from its roots. My son carried the saw while I carried the tree back to the van. My wife and boy sat in the warmth of the sun resting while my daughter and I strapped the perfect tree to the top of the van and off to the house we walked to surrender our $25.
The road to the house now blocked by a temporary gate has had a small, makeshift booth set up at this barricade. Hot chocolate and hot coffee were being served from the booth as had been the tradition, but no leathers. The house sat another 50 yards away. No smell of leather jackets and vests, or pants and boots from the leather shop; only the smell of pine resin, and the smell of dry weeds toasting on the warm ground. Dr. Larson died this past year and all of the wonderful leathers that had hung on rack after rack have been sold at auction. I handed a young man the wrinkled five and twenty from my pocket, gave the house one long last look from the gate, and turned back down the road, daughter in hand, to the van with the perfect tree tied to its top. We drove slowly through the sad-looking locusts, reading their messages one last time. “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year,” “Die With Your Boots On” and “See Ya Next Year,” … next year.
There are other tree farms in our neck of the woods. Many many more I know, all growing trees on hillsides off of some curvy back road just waiting to be discovered by a biker out for a weekend spin. They most certainly will offer the perfect tree for the homes of future tree hunters. They will offer hot chocolate and coffee to customers. I will discover one of these farms and visit next year and search for and cut down the perfect tree for our home with the help of my family. But, I will miss walking among the grand-smelling leathers and picking out the perfect jacket or pair of boots that I can’t afford to buy.