This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune November 21, 2017.
From any west facing window in my boyhood home, it was impossible not to see it: A sprawling box elder, its branches towering over the other trees, not only in my yard, but the entire neighborhood.
The tree elicited gawks of amazement from visitors and provided vital patio shade for sweltering July Midwest days. But when you’re an adventuresome boy gazing at the multiple trunks jutting outward at 45-degree angles before rapidly shooting skyward, you’re not thinking comfort.
You’re thinking treehouse!
I could scale our yard’s other occupant, a skinny apple tree, in minutes. However, the tree possessed barely enough branches to hold my 11-year-old frame, much less living quarters. Conversely, the box elder’s branches were too thick for my still-developing legs to wrap around as I tried, in vain, to propel myself upward. But, as I pleaded to my dad, a few pieces of plywood bolted to the trunk would make a fine ladder, rendering the tree’s various branch collars accessible for a treehouse. I envisioned myself overseeing a waiting list of friends old and new for summer sleepovers.
“Sorry, Jimmy, this week is booked. I can probably squeeze you in next Thursday. You bring the snacks.”
“We’re not building a damn treehouse,” I can still hear my dad say. “Pitch a tent if you want to sleep outside.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Josh Bradley will never replace my Dad, but, more than 40 years later, he successfully turned one of my dreams into reality: the chance to sleep surrounded by foliage approximately 20 feet above the earth. Bradley, who works with special needs adults in Prescott, Ariz., built the treehouse, his second, five years ago and lists it on home-sharing service Airbnb for approximately $70 a night. Who would have thought a business trip to Prescott, best known as Arizona’s “Christmas city,” would include a bucket list moment?
“It would not surprise me if more than 100 people have stayed here, said Bradley, sitting beneath the structure on a cool, by Arizona standards, afternoon. Staring at the 15-step ladder that serves as an entrance, he recounted the story of the woman who planned to surprise her husband of two years with a night in the stars.
“She didn’t know he didn’t like ladders,” said Bradley, adding the husband wouldn’t even attempt the climb.
Contrast that failed adventure with the mother who hoisted her 2-year-old into the structure and, together, spent last Christmas Day there. Mom and son have already reserved the treehouse for this Christmas. Like last year, Bradley will invite them into his home, just yards from the treehouse, to celebrate the holiday. By his own estimates, he has shared his home with more than 1,000 guests, ranging from young travelers in need of a rest stop, to homeless individuals looking to get back on their feet. When all the beds in his house are occupied, he sleeps in his “favorite spot,” the treehouse.
Once I navigated the ladder, Bradley gave me a quick tour. The treehouse’s most distinguishing features — Wi-Fi and a space heater — almost compensated for what it lacked; namely, a bathroom. Bradley said I was welcome to use his home, although he hinted some male treehouse guests were inclined to do what men often do when facilities are lacking.
I opted for the former, using the ladder.
Laying in the twin bed after dark and scrolling my iPad, no doubt infuriating treehouse purists, my thoughts returned to the box elder, now gone, a victim of some sort of tree rot. Were humans really meant to exist among branches, or were we violating nature in the same way we bulldoze beaches to make way for oceanfront condos? Perhaps my dad’s reason for declining my treehouse request was simply that the tree would never look the same and, indeed, might respond negatively to wooden planks and sleeping bags? I began to feel guilty, vowing this would be my one and only night intruding on a tree. But I savored the entire experience, sleeping little, enjoying the solitude and only mildly panicking when a gust of wind briefly caused my living quarters to sway.
And, just to be safe, I didn’t drink anything all night.