CASPER, Wyo. — From Jackson to Kemmerer, Rawlins to Riverton, Thermopolis to Sheridan, they all wanted to shake his hand.
He's the one tasked with driving the 83-year-old, 67-foot Engelmann spruce more than 4,590 miles to Washington, D.C.
Each time Wyoming's 2010 U.S. Capitol Christmas tree makes a stop, he's photographed and asked questions and interviewed. In Dubois, two boys asked him to sign their arms with a Sharpie.
He'll tell you he's just Jeff.
At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Jeff Underwood of Dahlonega, Ga., eased his 81-foot flatbed around a corner in Buffalo, escorted by a detail of nine vehicles.
A voice over his radio crackled: “Wake up the town.”
A loud blast from Jeff's horn, and the entourage was off toward Interstate 25, headed for Casper. Highway Patrol cars blocked traffic.
“I would wave, but I'm busy,” Jeff said, maneuvering his Peterbilt 379 onto the ramp.
Now, the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is nearly halfway through its 19-day trip to Washington, D.C., where it will decorate the west front lawn of the U.S. Capitol through December. It was greeted with fireworks in Evanston, a crowd wearing faux Buffalo Bill facial hair in Cody, a three-dimensional cake shaped like a tree in Sheridan. It leaves the state Friday.
Jeff calls it the highlight of his career.
He wanted to drive Arizona's U.S. Capitol tree last year, but they had an Arizona trucker ready to do it. So on Oct. 1, 2009, he called Mary Cernicek, 2010 U.S. Capitol Christmas tree coordinator and Bridger-Teton National Forest spokeswoman. He tried to sell himself and his company, Jeff Underwood Trucking Inc., to take Wyoming's first U.S. Capitol Christmas tree cross country.
“I was real sweet to her,” Jeff said. “I really, really wanted to do this.”
She said yes.
He's driving the Capitol Christmas tree for his children, Samuel, 10, and Mary Ann, 8.
“Not many children get to say, 'Hey, I rode with my dad to the U.S. Capitol and delivered the Christmas tree,'” Jeff said. “It's a neat thing.”
Usually, Jeff works from his office in Dahlonega, a city of several thousand about 65 miles from Atlanta, what he calls a Norman Rockwell kind of town. When his kids were small, Jeff made trucking trips that lasted Sunday to Friday, through Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida and North Carolina. It didn't take long for him to realize he didn't like being away from home that long. Now, he manages the company his dad started in 1978.
Mainly, they haul poultry-processing equipment, frozen chickens and hatching eggs.
The Capitol tree is not the biggest thing Jeff has hauled. His company has transported Euclid dump trucks used in rock quarries.
But this is the longest. Bumper to bumper, the truck is 104 feet long.
Tuesday, the Capitol tree entourage was ahead of schedule. Less than an hour into the drive and already in Kaycee, they made a gas station pit stop. The team has tried to make short, extra stops along the way in smaller communities such as Farson and Meeteetse, where a 102-year-old woman was waiting for them.
Within minutes in Kaycee, children on their way to school trickled across the street to sign banners affixed to the truck. People snapped photos with cell phones. A fellow trucker warned of wind on the road.
Jeff fueled up. The truck takes 300 gallons, and all fuel was donated by the National Association of Convenience Stores as part of the privately funded Capitol tree project. Jeff can make it about 700 miles before needing to refuel. The wind and some of the inclines, he has found, cut his mileage.
Navigating 9,000 pounds at 75 mph took planning. An itinerary detailing the schedule down to the half hour and particular intersection keeps the team on track. When Jeff arrived in Jackson, he went over the route to see what obstacles might be ahead. On the road, if Jeff has difficulty judging a turn, a lead car will shoot ahead to see how to best navigate.
Weather is a constant consideration. Jeff's truck can handle 25 to 30 mph winds, but 50 to 60 mph can be an issue, he said. When he and Mark Fortner drove to Jackson, they hit wind in Nebraska with gusts up to 75 mph. They had to stop driving for two days.
On the highway, an 81-foot flatbed with its own security detail sticks out.
“Hey, Forest Service,” a voice cut in over the radio. “What you hauling in that thing?”
Jeff grabbed his intercom.
“The U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.”
Next week, Thanksgiving, the caravan will arrive in Dahlonega. When Jeff left, it was pouring rain. His wife, Cindy, took some photos, but that was it. He hopes when he pulls into town this time, Capitol tree strapped to his flatbed, people will celebrate with fanfare.
Jeff's kids call him every morning at 5:30 Mountain Standard Time, before school. At night, the tree's press secretary sends Jeff's wife an e-mail with some photos.
In Dahlonega, they'll join Jeff for the final leg of the trip, riding into Washington, D.C., Nov. 29.
As Jeff drove down the exit ramp into Casper, local police made sure his path was clear. Cars lined the street, people already waiting near the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center to catch a peek of the tree.
People would take photos and ask him questions as soon as he got out of the truck. But before that, he turned right, put the truck in reverse.
Jeff backed up the 81-foot flatbed, straight, hugging the curb.
“Safe and sound,” he said. “Once again.”
Contact Margaret Matray at email@example.com or 307-266-0535.