A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

It’s sort of sad, really. From the kitchen window, I get a good look, many times a day, at the backyard fort that I had built for the kids one

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

It’s sort of sad, really. From the kitchen window, I get a good look, many times a day, at the backyard fort that I had built for the kids one

Castles in the Trees

It’s sort of sad, really. From the kitchen window, I get a good look, many times a day, at the backyard fort that I had built for the kids one summer. It wasn’t planned out very well. It only came to be when a contractor I had hired to build a fence suddenly had his next job cancel on him. I could see him arguing on his cell phone while pacing in my backyard. He hung up, turned to me, and explained the situation.

“My next job just disappeared, so I’m dealing,” he said. “What do you want?”

I did not hesitate two seconds. I could have ordered up an addition to our deck, a screened-in porch, fancy fence gates, maybe even built-in bookcases and cabinets inside the house.

But I did not.

“Build a two-story tree house, please,” I said, “with interior and exterior ladders, a cantilevered barn pulley so my kids can haul cool stuff up to the second floor, and a trapdoor.”

“A trapdoor isn’t very safe,” he said.

“Yep,” I replied. “But that’s how you learn about trapdoors.”

I will admit: I was 100 percent channeling some of my fondest childhood memories.

• • •

For most of my childhood, much of my free time, physical strength, developing cognition, budding interest in tools, and fascination with crafty folks like Kit Carson and Jim Bridger manifested in an absolute obsession with building forts in the backyard and throughout the woods behind our house in High Point. I wasn’t alone in this. Most kids I knew did the same thing. We had the big communal fort at the “white rocks,” which weren’t rocks at all but a big slab of concrete that served as a sort of cave wall for a fort. And I had a succession of personal forts, including one off a side trail in a thicket that no one else seemed to know about. I worked on that fort for years, all alone. In order to avoid creating a trail that others could follow, I tried never to approach the area from the same direction. I lined the floor with cut pine boughs. I guess I was a pint-size “prepper” before anyone knew what that word meant.

And then there were the tree houses we built. And by “tree houses” I mean rickety assemblages of spare boards and scavenged, half-rotten two-by-fours nailed haphazardly into the sweet gums. Way up in the sweet gums. Jiminy Cricket, I can’t believe our parents let us do that. Encouraged it, actually. “Get out of this house or I’ll give you something to do,” they said, and off we went to hammer up some gnarly tree house, cobbled together with nails so rusty and boards so decayed that the termites had long since abandoned the wood. There wasn’t enough penicillin in the world to blunt the infections we routinely flaunted.

With a few basic building materials and a lot of imagination, a kid can be the queen of her own castle. photograph by Getty Images

On the plus side, according to psychologists and educators, our parents were unwittingly bolstering our mental health by setting us free to plunder trash piles and construction sites. Evidently, the act of fort-building — be it with blankets and clothes-pins or poison-ivy-clad tree branches — is a part of a healthy childhood, like Lucky Charms and Little Debbie cakes. Seriously. Researchers point to the developmental benefits of designing and building such fantastical structures, and imbuing them with story and meaning. Physically and metaphorically, the creative act of fort-building helps children develop a sense of self apart from their parents. It fosters spaces where children have control over their environments at a time of life when they are in control of very little.

Thinking back on my own childhood fort-building, I have to say that I don’t recall much about my sense of self developing. I didn’t know my id and ego from Adam’s house cat. But I was all about that control thing. I remember lining up a barrage-worthy collection of mud balls to hurl if those kids from Circle Drive ever attacked my fort. They’d learn right quick that we didn’t mess around in the woods off Terrell Drive.

• • •

So why is my current backyard view sort of sad, as I mentioned earlier? For a couple of reasons. These days, parents can purchase prefab forts and tree houses and backyard hideaways aplenty, but nothing will ever compare to a rough rectangle built from branches, rotten logs, chunks of bark, and leaf chinking, using nothing more than a pocketknife and a Boy Scout hatchet. Because I had that awesome double-decker fort built by a professional, I’d taken away any opportunity that Markie and Jack would have had to dream up their own crazy scheme of a backyard fort. I might have saved myself a small fortune in tetanus shot charges, yes, but I’d definitely dinged their developing psychic apparatuses.

The other reason is that no one plays in that backyard fortress these days. For a long time, it drew the neighborhood kids like a dropped Popsicle draws ants. Now, however, my children are grown and gone, and it stores a couple of canoes, a kayak, and several dozen duck decoys. I’m sure it’s the hangout of possums and raccoons, not 9-year-olds with pirate swords crafted from bamboo sticks.

But I can still see where Markie and her friend Katie painted sunshines and flowers on the fortress walls. I can still hear Jack hollering taunts at his sister from the top floor. Despite its carefully finished timbers and custom-quality hardware, it was still the place of dreams and derring-do.

And yes, I can still remember when one little girl from across the street fell through the trapdoor, but let’s not talk about that. I’m not sure when the statute of limitations runs out on that kind of thing.

This story was published on Jul 25, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.