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Washington outdoorsman-entrepreneur loving life in a treehouse

WASHOUGAL, Wash. – People talk about chucking their jobs. They say they will leave behind the madness of the city and hit the road.

A few drinks and they’re telling you about the epic hiking trip in the Sierra Nevada they’ll take or how magical the surf is in Baja California Sur, Mexico.

But nobody ever does it. Nobody. Except for one guy.

His name is Foster Huntington, and he used to work in New York. He had a bright future in the fashion industry. But then he cut the cord. And do you know where he lives now? In a treehouse.

“I could’ve bought a house,” Huntington said. He stood at the base of a massive fir tree, his face hidden behind a scruffy beard. “But this is so much better. For me, it’s realizing a childhood dream.”

He wore a black T-shirt, dirt-stained jeans and Chuck Taylors, the same clothes he would wear for the next two days.

Since last fall, Huntington, 27, has lived among a stand of Douglas firs on a grassy hilltop in southwest Washington state. The spot is God-kissed: wide, flat-ish land overlooking a verdant farm valley. Just over a ridge to the south is the Columbia River Gorge.

And at night, from up in the treehouse, you can see the faint glow of Portland, Ore., 20 miles to the west.

There are actually two treehouses: what Huntington calls the Studio, a red cedar cabin sheltered within three trees, 20 feet above the ground, so that it seems to float; and the Octagon, shaped like its name says, which clings, 35 feet in the sky, to the trunk of a lone fir tree.

Two bridges – one a swaying rope bridge, like something out of the Ewok Village – connect the midair structures. Down below there is a sinuous wave of concrete: a skate bowl.

Huntington built the treehouses over several months last year with the help of what he called a “bronado” of friends. He hired contractors to build the skate bowl at the same time.

“I think of it as a big-boys’ camp,” said Tucker Gorman, a buddy of Huntington’s from their time together at Colby College. Gorman is a builder and the one who designed the structures with the help of Michael Garnier, a treehouse expert. “It’s very much like Neverland up there,” Gorman said.

Huntington gave the place a name: the Cinder Cone, an allusion to its setting on an old volcano site.

But the Cinder Cone is not a 24/7 fun park. Huntington may have left New York City behind, but he didn’t forsake ambition or the fashion world.

For a time he was paid to be a social media consultant for the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, and he has collaborated with German financial services company Allianz and computer-maker HP, starring in online ads that played up his off-the-grid lifestyle.

He also works as a freelance photographer and publishes A Restless Transplant, an adventure travel blog he began in 2008, while still a student at Colby.

He is an outdoorsman entrepreneur who has invented his own career. The treehouses serve as his home and as an alluring backdrop for advertisements for himself.

Huntington beams photos and videos of the Cinder Cone to his 965,000 Instagram followers, and he is working on a book about the project – part how-to guide, part lavishly illustrated art tome – which he plans to publish and market through his site.

One reason Huntington built the treehouses, in fact, was that he was having trouble working in his previous home, a custom camper he drove around the West.

“I lived on the road for three years,” he said. “And it’s awesome. It’s an amazing way to live. But it’s hard to get things done.”

He shook his head and uttered the lament of the 21st century nomad: “Internet is unreliable.”

Four years ago, Huntington was working as a menswear designer at Ralph Lauren. He was part of a team that handled concept design, coming up with the stories, themes and presentations behind each collection: say, the bush pilots of Alaska and their ruggedly stylish world.

It was his first job out of college, and he initially found it fun and creatively challenging. But after a year and a half, he realized he didn’t care that much about clothes.

“I remember looking at photos of bush pilots and thinking: ‘I can take photos. I don’t want to live my life in the city. I want to go do something else.’ ”

The road has always held a romantic appeal for the young American male. So has the notion of ditching office life for something more self-determined.

Huntington said he knew that with each year he stayed at Ralph Lauren, it would only be harder to leave. “I’d be making more money,” he said, “which means I can have a nicer apartment and more stuff.”

He thought he would save up enough to buy a used van and quit his job in two years. But then HarperCollins paid him a mid-five-figure advance to make a book out of The Burning House, a blog he created in 2008 that asked people what they would take along with them if their homes caught fire.

“I’d never had that much money,” Huntington said. “I thought, I can live for a year off this money and buy a van.”

In July 2011, he flew to Reno, Nev., bought an ’87 Volkswagen Vanagon and drove it up to the hilltop property in Washington for a visit.

His parents, real estate agents who are outdoors enthusiasts, had bought the land years earlier; it lies a few miles from the rustic wood house where Huntington had grown up. When he got back to New York, he gave his notice.

“I flew out here and then immediately went on a road trip with my brother,” Huntington said. “After that, I went to California and just drove up and down the coast.”

He ate cheap Mexican food or cooked out. To cut down on gas costs, he would park for several weeks, spending time on Baja beaches or at Sierra Nevada campsites. Drive anywhere. No obligations. “It was everything I wanted it to be and more,” he said. “I was 23.”

He encountered other free spirits living in their vans. The subculture had existed since the ’60s, but now it would get its own hashtag, #vanlife, which Huntington slapped on the photos he posted to social media. Staying digitally connected, in fact, is what allowed him to live off the grid.

The photos eventually became a book, “Home Is Where You Park It,” whose publication he self-funded via a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $65,000. He sells the book for $65 through his site.

But when he grew weary of bean burritos and spotty Wi-Fi, he called Gorman, his friend from Colby, who was living on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay.

“One day Foster was, like, ‘Dude, I want to build some treehouses up at Cinder Cone,’ ” Gorman said. “That’s how it happened.”

On a recent afternoon, Huntington had some friends over, a common occurrence.

Ned Siegel and Kai Korsmo, members of the “bronado” crew, were helping him build his latest project, an outdoor shower to accompany the existing wood-fueled outdoor hot tub. Now they sat at a long table on a cement patio, taking a break.

“Kai is a mad scientist,” Huntington said admiringly, after Korsmo riffed on drones, the process of tanning animal hides and a robot capable of leaping onto rooftops, all while rolling a joint.

Siegel and Korsmo planned to do more work on the outdoor shower, but because Huntington wanted to film them, they were waiting. They would work in perfect light.

Meanwhile, Huntington ascended into the trees. At the top of an increasingly steep staircase was a platform made of red cedar. Opening the door of the Studio, Huntington noted that both treehouses have wood stoves, allowing him to stay hunkered in, even during the Pacific Northwest’s cold, stormy nights.

Inside, the space was toasty and light-filled, decorated in a cabin-y version of Young Bachelor. A shelf by the door held Huntington’s cameras and lenses.

Huntington regards the Studio as his workspace and the Octagon as his bedroom; he regards the small house his mother built, 100 feet away, as a source of electricity and plumbing.

In the biting cold that night, he was splitting kindling before firing up the hot tub to give his guest “the full experience.”

With the valley and its lamp-lit houses shrouded in a chilly mist, Huntington soaked in the tub and reflected on his time in New York: the overpriced apartment, the corporate job, the rush of it all.

“That world seems so distant,” he said.