by Lee Graves
While Rachel Fowlkes was shopping one day several years ago, two of her passions — books and the outdoors — crossed like hot wires.
She came across a beautifully photographed book by Peter Nelson on treehouses of the world. “I brought it home and started reading it, and I thought, ‘This is it!’” says Fowlkes, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon.
She attended a workshop in Oregon, met with Nelson and embarked on building her own woodsy getaway on her 120-acre farm south of town. A hill overlooking the Virginia Creeper Trail provided the perfect location, and a sheltered white oak proved sturdy enough to bear the structure.
Now, she has a two-story treehouse nestled in a copse of birches, hemlocks and oaks with a narrow bridge and stone walkway providing access. “I come out here and lose all sense of time and purpose. It’s a great way to relax and get unplugged,” Fowlkes says.
Completed in June, the 300-square-foot treehouse took a year’s work and about $175,000 to build. Reclaimed and “found” wood — Douglas fir for walls, cedar for floors, locust for posts, cherry for elegance — accounted for most of the materials. Nelson drew the design, and Seattle builder Joel “Bubba” Smith did the bulk of the construction. Virginia craftsmen, from arborist Kevin Sigman of Abingdon to Woody Crenshaw of Crenshaw Lighting Corp. in Floyd, played key roles.
The cumulative effect combines outdoorsy ruggedness with refined craftsmanship and homey amenities — hot water, bathroom, kitchen and propane fireplace. “This is not somebody’s jack-legged structure stuck up in a tree branch,” says longtime friend Ned Stephenson, director of investments with the Virginia Tobacco Commission. “It’s very substantial, and it’s very, very charming.”
Stephenson and his wife, Susan, spent New Year’s Eve in the treehouse. They are in a small circle of family and friends who are test-driving the treehouse, which Fowlkes one day hopes to rent to tourists.
An Abingdon resident since 1969, Fowlkes has seen explosive growth in ecotourism and is on the advisory board of the Virginia Creeper Trail. Offering a cozy nest to hikers, bikers and birders is a way to share her love of the outdoors as much as to supplement income. “The treehouse is environmentally friendly,” Fowlkes says. “It’s really taking good care of the land.”
Tourism is one of Virginia’s largest industries. In 2006 (the most recent year for which figures are available), tourism generated $17.7 billion in spending, 208,200 jobs, $706.8 million in state taxes and $503 million in local tax revenue, according to the Virginia Tourism Corp.
In Southwest Virginia, where mountains, lakes, rivers and valleys combine to offer a cornucopia of outdoor activities, ecotourism feeds a variety of business ventures — outfitters, fishing guides, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds and retailers offering boots, boats, backpacks, binoculars and more.
The Virginia Creeper Trail alone supports about 30 jobs, generates about $670,000 in local income and provides about $1.6 million in local economic activity, according to a state report.
“Obviously, tourism in general is a huge economic engine for Washington County,” says Christianne E. Parker, assistant county administrator in charge of community and economic development. Abingdon assets such as the Barter Theatre, the Martha Washington Inn and a thriving arts community serve as magnets. “What we’ve seen also is growth
in ecotourism, and not just in the Creeper Trail. That’s been very exciting.”
Virginia Highlands Festival: July 26 to Aug. 10 in Abingdon. Arts, music, living history, bird walks, farm tours, ecology workshops, performing arts and more. http://www.vahighlandsfestival.org.
Appalachian Trail Days: May 16-18 in Damascus. A celebration of the AT and outdoor recreation in general. http://www.traildays.info.
Grayson Highlands Fall Festival: Sept. 27-8 at Grayson Highlands State Park. Music, crafts, camping and fall foliage. http://www.graysonfallfestival.org.
Old Fiddlers’ Convention: Aug. 4-9 in Galax. Music, camping, competitions. http://www.oldfiddlersconvention.com.
The Virginia Creeper Trail: Stretches 35 miles between Abingdon and Damascus. Bikes and shuttles are available through several area businesses. http://www.vacreepertrail.com.
The Appalachian Trail: Stretches 2,175 miles from Maine to Georgia, with Virginia accounting for the largest section of any state. Damascus, known as “Trail Town USA,” serves as a primary access point for hikers. http://www.appalachiantrail.org.
Mount Rogers National Recreation Area: Features include Virginia’s highest peak (Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet), Whitetop Laurel Creek (renowned for trout fishing) and numerous trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/mr.
Grayson Highlands State Park: On 4,822 acres adjoining the Mount Rogers area. Camping, trout fishing and numerous multiuse trails. http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/gra.shtml.
Martha Washington Inn: Dating to 1832 and renowned as an example of Southern hospitality, the inn recently completed a natatorium and now offers a spa in addition to 62 guest rooms and three restaurants. http://www.marthawashingtoninn.com.
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