Ron Ballauf grows Christmas trees at Rose Acre Tree Farm in Felton, Calif. (Shmuel Thaler / Santa Cruz…)
Reporting from Los Gatos, Calif. -- Behold the typical Christmas tree: A faux fir fashioned from metal and plastic with that special dragged-from-the-attic scent. Or maybe it's bound like a hostage and plucked from a pile in a parking lot, a soulless commodity masquerading as tradition.
As an alternative, drive the switchbacks of California Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains a few minutes west of San Jose, pull off and ascend twisty roads into a canopy of oaks, redwoods and evergreens so thick you'll need to flip on the lights. Follow crudely painted signs pointing in all directions to places like Mountain Charlie Ranch, Raccoon Gulch, Patchen and Frosty's.
There you'll pay fifty bucks, be handed a saw and left to wander the silent forest in search of your perfect pine, spruce or fir.
For more than half a century, this rural refuge a world away from the bustle of nearby Silicon Valley has been home to dozens of "choose-and-cut" Christmas tree farms, mom-and-pop operations where the air is sweet with evergreen and a timeless ritual eschews modern commercialization.
"The perfect Christmas tree is something that exists in somebody's imagination," said Robbie Criswell, 67, who has run Black Road Christmas Tree Farms on his family's land since 1966. "It's one of those psychological things you don't want to mess with. If they get the tree that's in their head — and they go away happy — that's as good as it gets."
If only it were that simple.
A century ago, most people obtained their Christmas trees with an ax in the woods.
Today, Christmas trees are big business, but wrenching changes have reshaped the $1.5-billion-a-year industry in ways that sound familiar.
Some 27 million real trees were sold nationwide last year, down from 37 million two decades ago as artificial trees, mostly from China, have gained popularity with people who prefer their holiday ornaments non-biodegradable.
The domestic live-tree industry has declined sharply in the vast majority of states, including California. Oregon wields the big stick on the West Coast, shipping truckloads of trees to California retailers along Interstate 5 the way lumber barons once floated old-growth timber downriver to the mill.
Nowhere is California's decline more apparent than in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the San Francisco Peninsula, where a tradition that took root in the Eisenhower administration is drying up. Some 64,000 Christmas trees were harvested in Santa Clara County in 1994; last year, it was about 10,000.
"Most of the farms are going out of business, but they don't know it yet," said Jim Beck, 70, a high-tech entrepreneur who owns Patchen California Christmas Tree Farms on the site of a 19th century ghost town.
When Beck arrived here to build a country home and hobby farm 42 years ago, the choose-and-cut business was thriving. Hundreds of acres of mountain tree farms enticed nostalgic city dwellers, many of whom could remember when Silicon Valley was carpeted with fruit orchards and known as the Valley of Heart's Delight.
In addition to competition from China and chain stores, the Bay Area's tree farms have been squeezed by soaring land prices.
It's a familiar story: Old-timers died. Land that had been in families for generations was sold and subdivided. Homes sprang up in the redwoods and sprawling estates landed on ridgelines like alien spacecraft.
Criswell, a former high school science teacher whose stocky build, gnarled hands and rangy white beard give him the look of a lumberjack, sees the choose-and-cut business fading away.
"That phony baloney winery with the big trophy house?" Criswell said of a property near his farm. "That used to be Christmas trees.... This business does not pass easily from one generation to another. You have to have it in your blood."
The perfectly shaped Christmas tree is a time- and energy-intensive crop. A seedling takes five to 10 years to grow into a mature tree. Each summer, trees must be trimmed by hand to achieve the desired conical symmetry. Bug infestations and drought can kill off years of hard work.
Growers begin selling the day after Thanksgiving and have less than four weeks to make a profit. Weekends are frenzied, with cars backed up on winding mountain roads, leaving with trophies lashed to their roofs like deer in hunting season.
Jerry and Joan Jordan have been coming up from the valley for 40 holiday seasons. When their children were small, they'd spend hours judging the aesthetics of trees as a couturier would fashion models.
The couple pulled into Criswell's place one recent afternoon and drove away in less than 30 minutes with this year's fell in the bed of their pickup.
"We eventually came to the realization that there is no one perfect tree," said Joan, 78. "So you put the imperfect side against the wall."
"If you hang enough stuff on it, nobody can tell the difference anyway," said Jerry, 80.