capitol-christmas-tree1At long last, the People’s tree made its way into downtown Washington, D.C., during the first week of December. It was the culmination of a month-long, 3,800-mile journey that began in Idaho’s Payette National Forest and ended at the U.S. Capitol.

Behind the wheel was Gary Amoth, the owner of Gary Amoth Trucking in Twin Falls, Idaho. Thanks to his company’s stellar reputation and safety record, he was hand picked for the honor of driving the Capitol Christmas tree.

“I’ve had a great journey,” Amoth said on his return to Idaho. “The most awe-inspiring part was driving into Washington, D.C. We came in early in the morning, before dawn. The whole thing was special.”

Festive atmosphere

capitol-christmas-tree2As the Capitol Christmas tree made its journey from one end of the U.S. to the other, Amoth made 31 stops in towns nationwide. People lined up along the road to welcome the tree with much fanfare, cheering and applauding at every turn.

“The atmosphere was festive and there was a lot of excitement along the way,” says Amoth, a 30-year veteran of the road. “People took pictures and would be waiting with signs as we came through. Schoolchildren were out. It was great to see the nation be excited about something, especially right now in the political arena that we’re in.”

With police officers escorting the tree from town to town and throngs of people greeting the tree wherever it went. Amoth never saw anything like it.

“I had not done anything like this before,” he says. “I made some lifelong friends in the process.”

Gary and Suzanne together

Gary and Suzanne together

Former owner operator Suzanne Stempinski drove the tree in an honorary role in 2014 and has ridden along twice—including with Amoth this year. She revels in the festivities, whether she’s riding shotgun or driving.

“It’s one of those fabulous traditions I looked forward to as a kid,” she says. “Now that I’m older and I’m a kid at heart, my eyes still light up at Christmastime. It still feels like magic.”

Riding along as a passenger with Amoth had special charms—without the responsibility.

“As a passenger, it was still exciting to be involved with it but I didn’t have to worry about maneuvering it,” Stempinski says. “It’s always the driver’s responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle. No matter what you’ve driven before, every time that tree moves an inch you carry that responsibility of the safe transportation with you.”

While Amoth was charged with the heavy lifting this year, he still marveled at the levity along the route. The Capitol Christmas tree is called “The People’s Tree,” and with good reason. So many hands are involved with the project from beginning to end. For example, schoolchildren in Idaho crafted 18,000 ornaments to adorn this year’s tree. That’s the kind of community effort The People’s Tree embodies.

“The most surprising thing was how well received the tree was by the people,” Amoth says. “I saw firsthand that it really is The People’s Tree. They were genuinely impressed. It symbolizes a sense of hope for the nation and represents the Christmas spirit. It unites people.”

Suzanne driving in 2014

Suzanne driving in 2014

Meticulous Planning

As the driver transporting the Capitol Christmas tree on its cross-country journey, Amoth bore a weighty responsibility. The tree is indeed an oversized load, and together the truck and trailer measure nearly 105 feet from bumper to bumper.

As a driver, “it’s not so much about the speed as it is about the geometry, knowing where your pivot points are and how you’re going to make a turn,” Stempinski says. “You have to plan the turns in advance. It’s a very big deal. The eyes of the whole world are upon you and you have one opportunity to get it right, that’s all.”

Nothing about the Capitol Christmas tree is arbitrary. The tree is selected from a national forest and sawed by hand. The driver chosen to take the Capitol Christmas tree on its journey to the U.S. Capitol originates from the same state the tree does.

Every step of the way, the tree gets special treatment. It even travels with its own water supply, drinking up to 20 gallons a day while it’s in transit. Joining Amoth on his full cross-country trek was Forest Service elite “Smokejumper” Chris Niccoli,  who spotted for Amoth in tight areas, watered the tree, and sprayed it down as needed.

Gary driving this year

Gary driving this year

Security for the tree is high, too.

Every night, Amoth says, it had to be kept in a locked, secured facility or be guarded. Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service provides the best points of access for drivers ahead of time. But maneuvering is not easy, especially in small communities where streets are narrow. While there were some tight squeezes, there was nothing Amoth couldn’t handle.

Tight spots aside, both Amoth and Stempinski feel richer for having met the people’s tree.

“It really is embracing the holiday spirit, no question about it,” Stempinski says. “It’s definitely a community effort, and everybody’s a little better for having been a part of it. I know I am.”

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