GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - When Rifle native Jim Meeker learned that this year's Capitol Christmas Tree would be harvested from a Colorado forest near the town that bears his name, he knew he had to see it.
And on Wednesday night, as the tree came through Glenwood Springs on its trek eastward to the state capitol, Meeker was there.
"I had tears in my eyes when I saw this," said the elderly Meeker, standing in the parking lot of the Glenwood Springs Mall, surrounded by about 100 other onlookers. "It's going to be in Grand Junction tomorrow, and I'm going to call my son who lives there and tell him to go see it."
In front of Meeker, the tree lay horizontal on a massive flatbed truck, covered in a protective canvas emblazoned with the logos of companies that are sponsoring its journey to Washington, D.C. The tree was visible through a viewing window near the tip, which had been decorated with ornaments made by children throughout Colorado, and underlain with presents.
After just five stops in towns throughout Colorado, the tree's cover is already packed with the signatures of curious citizens who have come to see it.
On Wednesday evening, Glenwood Springs resident Shane David was signing his name, along with his wife, Amanda, and infant son, Paxton.
"We actually thought we would be able to touch the tree, and we wanted to tell [Paxton] when we saw it on TV that we'd touched it when it came through here. But we signed our names instead," said David. "It's just something new to do with the family."
"For many of us, this will be the only time we'll see it," said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest and the man overseeing the tree's transport across the country. "The message we want to convey is that this is a gift from Colorado to the nation."
The tree is a high maintenance piece of cargo, 73 feet tall and weighing about 9,000 pounds. The 74-year-old giant gulps about 50 gallons of water each day from a rubber bladder affixed to its base.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, pilots the flatbed truck bearing the tree, and a team of four other relief drivers share his burden. When a reporter visited Wednesday night, the driving team had gone to dinner, but Fitzwilliams said after just a few stops, they have already become a tight-knit crew.
The tree came to Glenwood Springs after stops in Rangely, Craig, Steamboat Springs and Dillon, and it will continue on to Grand Junction on Thursday, then Montrose, Cortez, Durango, Alamosa and Colorado Springs before heading south and then east.
Campbell's rig is accompanied on the journey by another Mack truck bearing 70 smaller Christmas trees, which will be distributed to public buildings and congressional offices when the convoy arrives in the capitol.
Also trailing the caravan is an RV driven by Gerald and Twila Morris of Meeker, who are using their own funds to make the trip, and playing Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus for children at every stop along the way. On Wednesday, Gerald posed tirelessly with children in front of the tree while his wife took a break to discuss his career.
"My husband has been Santa Claus for over 45 years," she said.