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Originally published Sunday, December 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Searching for the family tree

Tradition doesn't sleep in. In a dark driveway off Petrovitsky Road near Renton, the engines start rumbling before sunrise. Chatter breaks the frosty...

Times Southeast Bureau

Tradition doesn't sleep in.

In a dark driveway off Petrovitsky Road near Renton, the engines start rumbling before sunrise. Chatter breaks the frosty morning air as kids and adults, bundled in scarves and hats, pile into big-wheeled trucks. The caravan thunders out of the driveway, marking yet another year of one family's Christmas tradition.

While others spend the first days of the holiday season focused on early-bird sales, the Lawson-Diemert-Palmer family heads east to the mountains. They pass up nearby tree lots in strip malls close to home, opting instead to spend the day driving on narrow, icy roads and charging up snow-covered hills in search of the perfect Christmas tree — eight trees, actually, one for every family.

Twenty-five years of early-morning Christmas-tree adventures started when brothers-in-law Dave Palmer and Tom Lawson saw an ad in the paper for Christmas tree permits in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and thought they'd try something different.

They always start early, getting up to the mountains and down again before most people wake up. Even the teenagers in the group manage bubbly smiles and enthusiasm at 6 a.m. on a cold Saturday morning.

"We like to get up there before everybody else does," Palmer said.

The family ends their adventure with breakfast on the way down — laughing and teasing each other over pancakes and chicken-fried steak at Charlie's in Enumclaw.

Lorén Palmer, 15, has been trekking on the family tree hunt since she was 3.

"It's an opportunity to spend time with your family," she said.

Into the woods

The family — part Lawson, part Diemert, part Palmer — is a big one. At Thanksgiving, 49 of them gathered in one house to eat a 30-pound turkey. Some of them live next door to each other. The family tree is complicated, but they're all somehow related. And when it's Christmas-tree time, everyone's invited.

Climbing up Highway 410 into the Cascades, the caravan veers off onto a snowy U.S. Forest Service road. This is the farthest they've ever gone on this road — usually the snow is too deep for trucks, Neal Diemert said.

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The snow-covered roads are slick, and the trucks go up until there aren't any tracks to follow. The caravan comes to a stop, doors fly open and the kids bail out, scampering up the hill.

"I see my tree!" they scream.

This isn't a tree lot, where trees are grouped by height and price. There's no holiday music blaring on tinny loudspeakers. No miniature candy canes with tree purchase.

Searching for the right tree is tiring. It requires stumbling over snow-covered tree limbs and shaking snow off branches to get a better look at each tree. Some family members find trees closer to the road; others climb so high up hillsides that they appear specks to people below.

Cousins throw snowballs. Fathers and sons yell jokes back and forth. The youngest cousin eats snow from her mitten.

This family tradition is one shared by many in Southeast King County. The Enumclaw office of the U.S. Forest Service sells more tree permits each year than any other office in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, spokeswoman Renee Bodine said.

Rush for tree permits

During the second week of November every year, Forest Service employee Susan Price braces for a different kind of holiday rush: the opening of Christmas tree-permit season.

Last year, the Enumclaw office sold 3,700 of the $10 tree permits, Bodine said. The number of tree permits sold each year varies by the health of the forest and how many trees need to be thinned.

Part of the reason the Enumclaw office sells so many permits is because the coveted noble firs — usually quite pricey at tree lots — are easily accessible from the forest-service roads off of Highway 410, Price said.

The weekend after Thanksgiving is the biggest. Families meet in the Enumclaw Safeway parking lot and caravan up into the mountains. They take barbecues and spend the day, sledding and playing in the snow after they find their trees. Depending on what the weather is like and which roads are plowed, Christmas tree hunters can find their trees by going up several forest-service roads.

Although Price can't recall anyone who's gotten lost searching for the perfect tree, she's heard endless tales of cars getting stuck in the snow or fishtailing on icy roads.

Each year, Price gets a lot of people who buy tree permits for the first time.

They need to understand that getting a tree in the woods isn't as easy as it sounds, Price said. It's hard work to cut the tree down and these trees definitely don't look like the ones found in a lot.

"People don't realize that these are natural trees. They're not trimmed, they're not shaped. If you're looking for a pretty tree ... no," said Price.

She's also quick to remind newcomers that while tree permits are fairly cheap, the cost of having to get towed out of the snow is not.

The Lawsons, Diemerts and Palmers are tree-finding professionals. It doesn't take long before the first tree comes down, dragged off the hill by one of the kids. The branches smell of the fresh, sappy pine, and cousins argue over who takes it home.

After all the trees are found — even one for grandma — the dads build a fire in the snow and the family shares hot chocolate from a Thermos. Just as a few more carloads of adventurous tree hunters pull up, the family packs up and heads back down the mountain.

Another year, another bunch of perfect trees.

Lauren Vane: 253-234-8604 or lvane@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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