If you aren’t looking for TreeHouse Point, you’d probably miss it.
Located in a bend on the two-lane road between the tiny Washington towns of Preston and Fall City, the only indicator that you’ve arrived at a popular tourist destination is a small sign in the driveway indicating that reservations are required. Drop-ins, it seems, are not welcome at TreeHouse Point, but for $20 a person, you can go on a 45-minute tour of the place, including entry into five of their six treehouses. Luckily, we’d planned ahead.
TreeHouse Point, which is nestled along the banks of the Roaring River on about 20 verdant, mossy acres, is the brainchild of professional treehouse builder Pete Nelson and his wife Judy. In addition to TreeHouse Point—which hosts weddings, parties, and elopements—they also own a successful building supply company, and Pete, most famously, is the host of the Animal Planet show Treehouse Masters. It was the show that brought our fellow tour-goers out to Fall City. Everyone besides my girlfriend and I were fans, but as the television we watch tends to be about either politics, murder, or food, we’d never even heard of it. I started to catch on when a fellow tour-taker raised her hand and nervously asked our guide if we’d be able to meet Pete. The, answer, much to her chagrin, was no. Pete travels a lot.
The treehouses at TreeHouse Point are, of course, impressive. They are like rich peoples' homes, but smaller, and in trees. Most of them are available for rent from between $285 and $365 a night with a two-night minimum, although due to some bureaucratic red tape—their treehouses are not handicap accessible, nor do they all have separate bathrooms—TreeHouse Point is unable to directly advertise. Mostly, people go there because they love the show. If you rent out the whole place, for $5,000 a night, you can sleep wherever the hell you want, including in the otherwise off-limits Trillium House, an airy, two-story structure that, two and a half years after completion, county inspectors still have not approved for visits.
The first house our group of around 15 entered was Temple of the Blue Moon, a little one-room thing perched halfway up a spruce. As our guide told us the story behind the structure (built in 2005, it was the first treehouse on the property, and so named because the first guest arrived during a rare blue moon), I recalled another, vastly different treehouse experience we’d had almost exactly the year before, about 80 miles due north. Unlike TreeHouse Point, there were no tour guides or “sparkle attendants,” as they call the cleaners. There was no flush toilets, no immaculate outdoor showers with views of the night sky, and certainly no reality TV celebs. Instead, there was was Sun Ray Kelly, a mysterious natural builder who looks like an unwashed Jesus recently released from the psyche ward.
I’d come across Sun Ray’s place by chance. I was searching for something to do near Sedro-Wooley, my favorite tiny Washington town, and happened across an old article about Sun Ray in the New York Times. The author, Michael Tortorello, visited Sun Ray’s curious homestead and wrote: “A recent Saturday morning found Mr. Kelley rambling in the garden while smoking an herbal palliative the size of a cigar. He self-medicates in this fashion at certain times of the day, like when he is awake and doesn’t have food in his mouth. Over the years,” Tortorello continued, Sun Ray “has fallen off a couple of roofs, breaking an ankle and both feet. His hip is seriously not right. More mysteriously, he has acquired a stigma on his forehead, a wound that weeps at random during the day.” Sounded like our kind of place.
After reading the article, I discovered that Sun Ray actually rents out rooms on Airbnb. We booked the Stump House, a gnarled wooden studio built on the base of an ancient cedar tree that was likely logged sometime in the 19th century, along with most of Washington’s old growth. It appeared, from the photos, as if you might find elves living there, and apparently the designer behind it was Sun Ray’s 11-year-old grandson.
When we arrived at the compound, at the very end of a long dirt road, we were greeted not by Sun Ray himself but by a bearded traveler, one of several young folks who lived on the land, trading labor for a place to sleep. A taciturn fellow, possibly suspicious of us Prius-driving city folk or maybe just stoned, he walked us through the woods, past a primitive outdoor kitchen and toilet (a hole in a bench perched over a pile of cedar chips) and on to our room for the weekend. From the outside, Stump House looked dreamy, but the inside was decidedly less so. It was scuzzy, unswept and I, at least, was afraid to touch the bedding (fortunately, we always bring our own). But it was also cozy, with a wood-burning stove and giant skylight at the top where we watched the evening rain fall.
We spent the next two days reading on the tiny Stump House porch, hunting for chanterelles in nearby woods, and wandering the compound property. In addition to maybe a dozen homes and barns and trucks that looked like they required a hand crank, there was a renovated gypsy wagon that you could also rent and a house that bore a striking resemblance to a human vagina.
Most of the homes, which Sun Ray builds by hand from materials he excavates from the land, looked like they belonged in Middle Earth, with the exception of one: his brother’s house, a regular old single-family home, stuck in the middle of a mad man’s vision. I wondered what their relationship was like. This wasn’t the only mystery—Sun Ray has an ill-maintained apple orchard, and all around the property there were piles and piles of some kind of apple-heavy animal poop. What sort of wild thing could possibly make these giant mounds? A bear? A boar? We never found out. Sun Ray and his helpers kept their distance from us, as did we from them, although we could see them smoking at night on the roof of the magnificent 4-story Sky House, where Sun Ray, according to the Times, lived until his ex-wife kicked him out.
The two experiences, at TreeHouse Point and Sun Ray’s place, could not have been more different. One was calm, clean, and as manufactured as the reality TV show featuring its cheery founder. The other was wild, dirty, quite possibly dangerous, and the local celebrity was a barefoot man of indeterminate age, turning mud and trees into something that looks a whole lot like magic.
Back at TreeHouse Point, as we walked along the well-marked paths and waited in line to step into immaculate treehouses, I overheard a tourist, college-aged, from Florida, whisper to her friend. “This is like a storybook,” she said. “It’s just… crazy.” Well, I thought to myself, if you think this is crazy, you should really head up to Sedro-Wooley.