James Roth | Treehouse Builder
The Warren, Vermont-based woodsman behind Forever Young Treehouses makes childlike joy his everyday mission, designing and building super-inspiring shelters for kids with physical challenges. We sat down with him to hear more about treehouses, why play matters and how hitchhiking changed his life.
What’s your first memory of the outdoors?
It would have to be as a really young boy playing in the woods near my elementary school—it seemed huge at the time, a vast stretch of wilderness. I would sneak out there after school, wandering around, making hideouts. I also remember going to the big, beautiful lakes in Northern Michigan as a family. Those are some of my fondest memories.
Who has inspired you the most to live a life of adventure?
Jack Kerouac was always an inspiration. I went to college for two years, quit and hitchhiked all over the country. I went coast to coast, from Michigan to California, and back across. Later, I hitched around Africa for a whole year. I loved the allure of the unknown, the mystery—to me it was the greatest thing. Through hitchhiking, I had so many chance encounters with the kindest, sweetest, most interesting people. To me, that was the heart of adventure.
What is it about adventure that opens up possibility for real connections with others?
Adventure is social engagement, as well as physical interaction. Hitchhiking opened me up to so many people. It was very in the moment. I'd meet people, and we would exchange phone numbers and addresses, but nothing compares to that moment of connection. There are people and places I still think about: sleeping under highway bypasses, being woken up by wild horses in Montana, a guy that picked me up in Oregon who he was a hang-glider.
What’s one word you’d use to describe yourself? Why?
Lucky. I had a really great family to grow up with, and got a lot of love from them. Quitting college and taking on adventure allowed for more and more adventurousness. I've gotten to do a lot of things, and with my career, I'm so lucky to make treehouses and connect with an innate part of childhood.
What’s your idea of the perfect day in the outdoors?
Being in the woods—it's so different from before I built treehouses. I used to make furniture out of fallen wood, now I look at what clusters of trees could host a treehouse. I look at it so much differently as a designer, and I love every minute of it.
How does adventure play into your job?
A few years ago, we got a call from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. They wanted us to build a treehouse for a child with mobility issues. From there we thought, “Wouldn't it be great to if we made treehouses for people in wheelchairs, the elderly, anyone with impaired mobility?” Treehouses provide connection to nature and the outdoors. It's special. And someone who can't climb a ladder or take stairs has been left out of that. We love creating spaces that allow for that sense of play and adventure.
How do you go about building treehouses?
The trees speak to you. You have to find the ones that are appropriate, and you have to follow the natural arrangement. The trees speak for themselves, and we have to be good listeners. We have to work in and amongst them. We'll start with a site visit, take measurements and explore all of the trees available that are worthwhile hosts. I go to drawing board and play around with shapes that would best fit, and we create a footprint of the platform that's steered by the configuration of trees.
What’s one easy way that you spend time outside during the week?
I'm big into hiking. And tennis – that's my current addiction. And I love swimming. There are so many great lakes and rivers here in Vermont.
Can you describe a specific way that living a life of adventure has changed you?
It's been humbling, doing what we do—it makes me appreciate all the more being able to walk, hike, just up and go. When you're confined, those options aren't readily available, and it makes you appreciate what you've got. We go up in wheelchairs to test things out. It's a complete reality check.
What’s the best lesson that you’ve learned through the outdoors?
I've learned that the sky is the limit. There is infinite possibility with how to design and live in nature. And I’ve learned to respect Mother Earth. Part of that respect means we have to build around nature, and with it, not against it.
If you could go anywhere, with anyone, where would it be and who would you want to go with?
I'd love to go to Bali and India with my wife, who shares the adventurous spirit.