PALMER — In the deep darkness of December in Southcentral Alaska, daylight shrinks to about 5 1/2 hours on the winter solstice, and thousands of commuters may never see daylight as they navigate the icy 40 miles between the Matanuska Valley and Anchorage.
But between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, light shines for them on a grassy median just off Glenn Highway, in an area where temperatures drop to 20 below zero and thick ice fog often hangs in the air. There, the Glenn Highway Christmas tree, a roughly 22-foot-tall rebar structure strung with about 2,200 lights, glows as if by magic with bright 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 highway and half a million acres of mountains in Chugach State Park.
But it’s not magic. Instead, the power 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.
Tolstrup, a near-daily commuter, works long shifts operating a crane at the Port of Anchorage. About every two days during the holiday season, he parks his large pickup truck on the side of the highway off-ramp and shuffles about 200 feet through snow to the tree with two freshly charged batteries. Tucked under the roughly six-foot-wide tree frame in a 48-quart cooler padded with extra insulation to keep them from freezing, the batteries power the 22 strands of lights and treetop star, which are triggered on at dusk and off at sunrise by a photocell sensor.
“Every time I look at it, it just gives me peace, whether it’s snowing sideways, it’s just standing there as bright as can be,” said Christina Chisholm, who regularly drives by the spot. “When you just sit there and look at that tree in the middle of nowhere, sometimes it literally gives me tears.”
The tree holds a special place in Chisholm’s heart. The Christmas lover said its light has brought comfort to her young family ever since they first saw it a few years after her husband’s death in 2000. In 2019, her now-fiance parked on the side of the off-ramp and proposed to her under the tree’s glow.
Tolstrup became an admirer of the tree about 20 years ago, when he spotted a lone live spruce strung with a few lights. When the lights did not reappear the following year, he began stringing them himself. Eventually, he connected with the original light-keeper to take over, anonymously adding more lights each year and tinkering with the batteries that keep them lit.
Meanwhile, the tree had collected a devoted following. Then, about 10 years ago, a co-worker revealed Tolstrup on Facebook as the caretaker. The tree now has its own Facebook page, where 1,800 followers post blurry drive-by photos and tree-viewing memories, and Tolstrup and Mack share updates.
“This isn’t ours -- we just do it for the people,” he said. “I think it really brings out the best in people, to be honest.”
Today, the highway is not quite as dark as it once was -- 140-foot-tall light poles were installed nearby in 2015 -- and the tree has only become more elaborate.
In 2019, the 23 1/2-foot spruce died, a victim of waterlogging most likely caused by climate change. Tolstrup cut it down and replaced it with the rebar structure by drilling into the stump and anchoring it to the ground with cables. The wood and pine cones from the spruce were turned into hundreds of ornaments that Mack mails to fans of the tree at no charge.
“People, when they see you or meet you and realize what you do or who you are, they just fall apart,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful thing in the middle of nowhere.”
Tolstrup and Mack acknowledge that their dedication to the tree borders on obsessive. In late 2021, Tolstrup fell while hauling the batteries over the icy ground. He needed back surgery and spent months in bed recovering, he said. But not tending to the tree this year wasn’t an option. So, he has been training for the task, hauling 90-pound weights up and down his stairs at home to get ready to move the batteries.
The subzero temperatures and harsh wind quickly wear out the tree’s electronic components, and the couple estimates they have spent thousands of dollars and hours to upkeep. Tolstrup checks on the tree each time he drives by, and if someone reports that the lights are out in the middle of the night, he gets up and drives the 22 minutes to change the batteries. Other than the batteries, which Interstate Batteries of Anchorage donates, and some electrical support from a friend, Tolstrup and Mack accept no donations.
They receive all the payment they need in the form of community joy, Tolstrup said.
“Sitting in the middle of that tree looking out and then having people honk at you as they drive by, knowing that you put a smile on their face - you can’t feel better than that,” he said.