Julia’s tree is gone

We need things that remind us to smile. Such was the random, rogue little juniper tree that sprung up in a random little place on what Winters folks call the “S-curve” just east of town, between County Roads 31 and 32.

Nobody really noticed the tree, despite driving past it on trips back and forth from Winters to Davis, where it thrived like a scrappy little dandelion springing up defiantly between cracks in a sidewalk and surviving anyway, until one day several years ago during the holiday season, somebody decorated it. At first, it was just sparkling tinsel garlands that would disappear after the holidays just as mysteriously as they arrived, and when Christmas rolled around again the following year, the tinsel would return, and eventually even battery-powered light strings popped up. How can you not smile at that!

Now, during the holidays of course, there’s a sea of Christmas decorations and trees. Who could notice one more? But there was something about that tree that caught your eye, and heart. As the then-editor of our local newspaper, the Winters Express, a newcomer to town suggested a story about that weird little tree, and in the deep, dark winter, I thought that was an excellent idea. I assigned the story to my ace city reporter and assistant editor, Julia Millon.

This is my favorite photo of Julia, which I took after our trivia team (the defending champions) took the trophy again in 2018. It was Julia’s first time on the team, and her bright smile says it all.

Writing a lighthearted, whimsical story, thus far, wasn’t really in Julia’s wheelhouse. She was brilliant with city stories, able to distill all the boring but necessary information into a tasty-bite sized story anyone could understand. Actually, Julia was just brilliant, period. I’ve met a great many people in my life and during my 26 years as a newspaper editor, and I will state unequivocally that Julia was one of the brightest, maybe the brightest person I’ve ever known.

Hmmm, you may be thinking… if she was so bright, how did she end up at the Express?

Good question.

Better answer: Julia was plagued with a chronic medical condition that prevented her from doing a lot of things, and a job at the Express was flexible and didn’t aggravate her discomfort. Ironically, despite her pain, she defied that condition with a vengeance. The girl was a BEAST, and I mean that in the best way possible. Beyond our office, she was a dedicated trail and long distance runner, already becoming a well-known name in the running world. I remember driving past her one morning while she was out running in shorts along the roadside, and realizing, holy crap, she has the muscled thighs of an Olympic champion! A true hardcore athlete — something we never realized at the office, where she usually appeared in baggy workout pants and a huge fluffy jacket, even at the peak of summer heat, her unruly black hair balled up into a crazy bee’s nest, and rarely revealing much about herself. Full of mystery, that girl with cinnamon colored skin, and deep, soulful brown eyes, and a smile that, when it flashed (and only for good reason) could light up a cavern.

As the years passed at the Express, I was gradually getting to know Julia as a person, which required some digging because she didn’t offer up much about her personal life, tending to keep quietly to herself, tapping away at a computer while munching on a big bowl of cabbage salad for breakfast. When she did comment on something, it would be laser-sharp and right on target. She had a clear, quick mind and a sarcastic wit that would get us all chuckling. So far, however, when it came to writing, she’d kept mainly to dusty, dry city-related and local government stories. How would she do with a front page fluffy feature story about a goofy roadside Christmas tree? We were about to find out. I half expected her to turn down the story as too trite, but she took it quite gladly. The results were delightful… her dry wit and inquisitive mind sparkled through each line. (Read the actual story here.)

“Julia!” I exclaimed to her, “You never told me you were so funny!”

And, of course, she just flashed that big, bright smile, shrugged, and said nothing at all.

My mind was already galloping ahead to more feature stories I could toss her way.

But then, last January, a dark cloud passed over the Express in the form of new ownership. Within weeks, I knew for certain that one or the other of us had to go, lest we be trapped in a perpetual Tiger Vs. Dragon battle. Not being the owner myself, there was only one choice: I had to move on. This decision tore at my heart, having devoted half my life to that publication and the community it served, but that sadness was mitigated when Julia agreed to take over those reins — a big leap up and only a month to make it happen. But, being a beast in every way, Julia rose to that challenge, and we laid out a four-week schedule for her to learn everything. And by week three, damn if she didn’t have it mastered. The Express would be just fine.

And then came week four.

My last.

That week, Julia would schedule all the stories, do all the photos, make all the editorial decisions about what goes where, and lay out the entire front section while I sat by and observed quietly. She was ready. I was ready. Game on!

That fourth week began on Memorial Day, a holiday, so I expected to meet with Julia the next morning, our press day, and the training wheels would come off and away she’d go. I had complete confidence in her. Early that morning, as I was getting ready for work, came that heart-crushing phone call: Our former publisher told me that Julia was killed in a car crash late last night.

I screamed. I wept. I nearly dropped to my knees.

I couldn’t believe it. Not Julia! It’s a mistake!

But no, the police chief confirmed the worst. It had happened, and it was, in fact, Julia.

My heart was torn when I decided to leave the Express. That morning, it was ripped from my chest and splattered to the winds. We got through press day somehow, and the last story and column I ever wrote for the Express, through the blur of hot tears, were about Julia.

It’s been about eight months since that horrible moment, and not day has passed that I haven’t thought about Julia, in particular whenever I passed by her tree. That’s how it became known as “Julia’s tree.” A bittersweet smile would tug at my mouth, and I’d say, “Hey, Julia!” and remember that adorable pixie face, the shining dark eyes and beaming smile. That tree helped keep happy memories of her alive for me, and others who also who knew the story of the “Tree from nowhere.”

This was “Julia’s tree,” which brought joy to those driving east from Winters, California, on the S-curve between County Roads 31 and 32. It was chopped down over Presidents Day weekend, 2019. (Photo by Stephanie Atherton)

But then, over the last weekend, a friend messaged me that the tree was inexplicably cut down, lying there in a sad heap by the road. I posted about this on Facebook and NextDoor, and there was an immediate outpouring of grief and shock, because it wasn’t just those of us who loved “Julia’s tree” that were upset — turns out, hundreds of others who never heard the story loved it “just because.” It always made them and their children happy.

And now, like Julia… it’s just gone.

Was it the property owner who cut it down? Did it damaged in the recent storm? Was it random “just because I can” vandalism? Who knows. All that is certain is that a lot of people are really sad about this. Many of them suggested planting a new tree there, and initially I thought that was a great idea, and then it settled in… “Yes, but it won’t really be Julia’s tree.” I have mixed feelings. Somehow, losing the tree sticks fingers in the old, poorly healed wound of losing Julia. On the other hand… every time I pass it now, I will be reminded that the tree is gone.

My thoughts and feelings are so muddy, I just don’t know if it’s better to plant a new tree or not. What I do know is that I wanted to spread the story behind Julia’s tree, to tell it to those who didn’t know, and moreover, to commemorate a bright, beautiful girl who was tragically snatched away from us far, far too soon. Those who knew her already know. Those who didn’t, well, they’ve missed out on someone very special. Even so, may the story of Julia’s tree remind us all that life isn’t a guarantee and we must never take it for granted, and that even when faced with daunting challenges, we must thrive anyway.

Today, February 22, 2019, would have been Julia’s 28th birthday. Let’s dedicate this day to her, and always hold her in our hearts, and remember her big, bright, beautiful spirit that now runs with the wolves she so loved on some starlit celestial path.

I found this joyfully howling wolf patch at a convention over the same weekend that Julia’s tree was cut down, yet unbeknownst to me. I got it intending it to be a joyful memory of her. Julia loved wolves, and they will now serve as my symbol to keep her memory alive.