Lynden Transport truck driver John Schank looks a lot like Santa Claus – which suits him perfectly since he’s driving this year’s 74-foot-tall U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree cross-country from Seward, Alaska to Anchorage, and then from the Seattle area all the way to Washington, D.C. in time for the official tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 2.

Since 1970, the U.S. Forest Service has chosen a different national forest to contribute a tree. For the first time ever, Alaska will contribute the tree that will sit on the west lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. An 80-foot truck – fueled with Shell diesel – is transporting the tree, a Lutz spruce from the Chugach National Forest, across the country to our nation’s capital this fall. Shell is proud to sponsor this year's U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree celebration. 

John Schank at Shell fuel stop

About 15 community celebrations are planned throughout the journey, including Seward and Anchorage, Alaska, Seattle, Wash., Missoula, Mont., Rapid City, S.D., South Bend, Ind., Findlay, Ohio, and Joint Base Andrews, Md.

Kenworth provided a brand new truck for the celebration, Hale Trailer provided the trailer and Lynden Transport provided the driver. Paul Grimaldi, Lynden Transport president, said the tree is in very good hands with Schank behind the wheel.

The competition was stiff to serve as the driver of the tree, and Lynden chose Schank based on his stellar safety record and years of experience.

Safety always comes first

Schank grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan as the third oldest of 12 kids – he’s the oldest boy in the family. His father died in a car accident when Schank was only 12 years old, and from that point on he spent most of his time working various farm jobs to help support his mom and his siblings.

He followed a friend to Alaska in 1975 before taking a job at Lynden Transport shortly thereafter.

While safety hits close to home due to his father’s car accident, it’s paramount now. He drives a freightliner on one of the most dangerous trucking routes in the nation. Schank delivers essential supplies and materials for the Alaska oil industry and has logged the highest number of miles on the Dalton Highway of any driver in history.

John Schank with his new truck

Schank is based in Fairbanks, Alaska, and works long days. He typically goes to bed at two or three in the morning, sleeps until noon and then checks in at 4:30 p.m. before driving approximately 12 hours to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, with a couple of quick stretch breaks in between. He has 10 hours off before making the return trip. He usually makes the run from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay twice a week.

Every day is different

Despite the tough road conditions, 63-year-old Schank loves his job.

 

“Every day is different, and you’re on your own from point A to point B, which gives me time to think and reflect. Every week I see incredible scenery and meet tons of new people. What could be better?”

-John Schank, Lynden Transport Truck Driver – Alaska

The Alaska Trucking Association took note and named him the 2014 ‘Driver of the Year.’ He received recognition for logging 5 million miles accident-free on Alaska’s treacherous Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay over his 40-year driving career.

The extreme road grade, winter weather conditions, steepness, length and the number of truck stops make for a challenging journey – especially when drivers can go four to six hours without seeing anyone else on the road.

“Watching out for the other guy is critical for my job, and I rely on my defensive driving skills to stay safe. I also make sure I know the road, weather conditions and equipment like the back of my hand.”

Truck transporting the tree

Schank serves as the face of the national tree

Schank said repeatedly that he likes flying under the radar, but this year’s celebration put him front and center as the face of the tree. He embraced it.

Numerous kids and adults in communities across the country line up for hours to sign the official banner on the side of the truck and send a message back to Washington, D.C. Given Schank’s similarities to Santa Claus, he has received a few photo requests as well.

“I can’t wear the red hat – I need to wear green…I’m the elf!” he said.

All jokes aside, Schank’s excitement about driving the national tree cross-country shines through.

“I never thought I’d have an opportunity to drive such an incredible icon across the country, but what an honor. When Paul [Grimaldi] asked me if I would do it, I did a double take at first…and then took a leap of faith. This tree is the ultimate symbol of togetherness and beauty in a world with so much unrest."

-John Schank, Lynden Transport Truck Driver – Alaska

He paused for a second before adding, “This celebration has given me a chance to be involved with something bigger than myself – that’s the greatest Christmas gift I could ever receive.”

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