HomeNationalOn dark, icy commute in Alaska, lone holiday tree offers light, warmth

On dark, icy commute in Alaska, lone holiday tree offers light, warmth


PALMER, Alaska — Within the deep darkness of December in south-central Alaska, daylight shrinks to about 5½ hours on the winter solstice, and hundreds of commuters could by no means see daylight as they navigate the icy 40 miles between the Matanuska Valley and Anchorage.

However between Thanksgiving and New Yr’s Day, mild shines for them on a grassy median simply off Glenn Freeway, in an space the place temperatures drop to 20-below zero and thick ice fog typically hangs within the air. There, the Glenn Freeway Christmas tree, a roughly 22-foot-tall rebar construction strung with about 2,200 lights, glows as if by magic with brilliant LED blues and purples. To its north stands an on/off-ramp and 29,000 acres of frozen, pitch-black wetlands; to its south, the four-lane freeway and half one million acres of mountains in Chugach State Park.

However it’s not magic. As an alternative, the ability comes from a pair of 65-pound golf cart batteries and the tireless work of the tree’s self-appointed caretakers, husband-and-wife duo Jason Tolstrup, 52, and Kaye Mack, 43.

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Tolstrup, a near-daily commuter, works lengthy shifts working a crane on the Port of Anchorage. About each two days throughout the vacation season, he parks his massive pickup truck on the facet of the freeway off-ramp and shuffles about 200 ft by means of snow to the tree with two freshly charged batteries. Tucked below the roughly six-foot-wide tree body in a 48-quart cooler padded with additional insulation to maintain them from freezing, the batteries energy the 22 strands of lights and treetop star, that are triggered on at nightfall and off at dawn by a photocell sensor.

“Each time I have a look at it, it simply offers me peace, whether or not it’s snowing sideways, it’s simply standing there as brilliant as could be,” mentioned Christina Chisholm, who often drives by the spot. “While you simply sit there and have a look at that tree in the course of nowhere, typically it actually offers me tears.”

The tree holds a particular place in Chisholm’s coronary heart. The Christmas lover mentioned its mild has introduced consolation to her younger household ever since they first noticed it just a few years after her husband’s dying in 2000. In 2019, her now-fiance parked on the facet of the off-ramp and proposed to her below the tree’s glow.

Tolstrup turned an admirer of the tree about 20 years in the past, when he noticed a lone reside spruce strung with just a few lights. When the lights didn’t reappear the next yr, he started stringing them himself. Ultimately, he linked with the unique light-keeper to take over, anonymously including extra lights every year and tinkering with the batteries that maintain them lit.

In the meantime, the tree had collected a loyal following. Then, about 10 years in the past, a co-worker revealed Tolstrup on Fb because the caretaker. The tree now has its personal Fb web page, the place 1,800 followers publish blurry drive-by pictures and tree-viewing reminiscences, and Tolstrup and Mack share updates.

“This isn’t ours — we simply do it for the individuals,” he mentioned. “I believe it actually brings out the very best in individuals, to be sincere.”

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In the present day, the freeway will not be fairly as darkish because it as soon as was — 140-foot-tall mild poles had been put in close by in 2015 — and the tree has solely develop into extra elaborate.

In 2019, the 23½-foot spruce died, a sufferer of waterlogging probably attributable to local weather change. Tolstrup lower it down and changed it with the rebar construction by drilling into the stump and anchoring it to the bottom with cables. The wooden and pine cones from the spruce had been became tons of of ornaments that Mack mails to followers of the tree at no cost.

“Individuals, after they see you or meet you and understand what you do or who you might be, they simply collapse,” she mentioned. “It’s only a lovely factor in the course of nowhere.”

Tolstrup and Mack acknowledge that their dedication to the tree borders on obsessive. In late 2021, Tolstrup fell whereas hauling the batteries over the icy floor. He wanted again surgical procedure and spent months in mattress recovering, he mentioned. However not tending to the tree this yr wasn’t an possibility. So, he has been coaching for the duty, hauling 90-pound weights up and down his stairs at house to prepare to maneuver the batteries.

The subzero temperatures and harsh wind shortly put on out the tree’s digital elements, and the couple estimates they’ve spent hundreds of {dollars} and hours to repairs. Tolstrup checks on the tree every time he drives by, and if somebody experiences that the lights are out in the course of the evening, he will get up and drives the 22 minutes to alter the batteries. Aside from the batteries, which Interstate Batteries of Anchorage donates, and a few electrical assist from a pal, Tolstrup and Mack settle for no donations.

They obtain all of the cost they want within the type of group pleasure, Tolstrup mentioned.

“Sitting in the course of that tree looking after which having individuals honk at you as they drive by, figuring out that you simply put a smile on their face — you’ll be able to’t really feel higher than that,” he mentioned.

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