Beth Rossow is well-known to many of us who live in the shadow of Mount Rainer as the long-time office manager of the Pierce County Fair, having served in that capacity for 37 years.
She has also worked at the Scholz Farm in Orting, where for nearly three decades during Harvest Fest she has facilitated their youth programs, organized the corn maze, and supervised other farm-related activities.
Yet, perhaps her most far-reaching local endeavor has been to assist author and mountaineer Bette Filley in developing the premier hiking guide for the Mountain: “Discovering the Wonders of the Wonderland Trail.”
Since joining with Filley in the 1980s, Beth’s efforts have entailed traversing the Wonderland Trail for several weeks to update trail changes. Her most recent project has been to determine GPS coordinates for landmarks and trail markers along the 92-mile pathway, which will be published in the upcoming edition of the acclaimed guide. Further, as Filley has scaled-back her involvement in maintaining the book due to failing health, Beth has emerged as a full partner in the Wonderland Trail project.
But there is another side to Ms. Rossow, one of romance and passion, which she freely talks about. Beth, 53 and never-married, has had a series of relationships with men that include Evergreen State College professors, an opera singer and a millionaire sea captain. Reflecting upon all of her amours, a Tacoma News Tribune reporter once wrote that Beth was the “Siren of Puget Sound,” a moniker that she accepts.
However, more intriguing than all of this is the fact that Beth has lived for the past 35 years in a treehouse overlooking Puget Sound. Further, her tiny abode is one of her own design and making, and the structure – now in its third version – has been constructed entirely of recycled materials, cast-offs from neighbors, and flotsam that lands upon her beach.
Ever the friendly and gracious soul that she is, Beth invited me to visit her and her treehouse after last summer’s Pierce County Fair, and over the course of three trips to her homesite I have come to see many other dimensions of this remarkable woman as well.
Most notably, she and her home are completely at one with nature. Beth is so in tune with the weather, the trees, and the sea breezes that her body temperature adjusts accordingly, and she rarely wears heavy coats or sweaters, even in winter.
But even more telling, her tree house, which is absent any customary heat source such as a wood stove or electrical heater, utilizes clear vinyl sheeting and Styrofoam panels in such a fashion that it maximizes the passive solar-heating effects of the sun, and even on the most frigid of wintry mornings her home is comfy-cozy by 10 am. In fact, her knowledge of solar heating techniques and materials – learned mostly through trial and error – is so advanced that she has been asked by engineering professors at local colleges to share her cognizance in classroom lectures to their students.
In addition, the home is built without a-fixing any nails, metal clamps or hinges onto any of the trees, and incredibly, each wall and roof section are not fixed to each other but hang independently upon their arboreal supports. In effect, the entire house is lashed together in such a manner that each part of the structure moves, shifts and slides in undulating, independent motion as the trees sway back and forth in the wind.
Also, for added structural support several trees grow up through her house and they are wrapped in clear plastic “raincoats,” as Beth calls them, whenever it rains. This allows rainwater to channel through her home without getting any part of the interior wet, and then the “raincoats” are rolled back when the rain stops so the bark of the trees is not impacted by the non-breathable plastic.
Watching the rainwater swirl through this internal waterfall system can be mesmerizing.
“It’s beautiful watching the rain flow down in spirals – spinning and bubbling,” she says.
As for the tree that supports her house, it is a big-leaf maple that has spouted numerous limbs due to frequent topping and trimming. As a result, the tree is a perfect place to build a home.
How Beth came to live on this land reveals other inspiring aspects of her persona.
When Beth was a kid the property that is now her home belonged to a neighbor by the name of Mr. Keady. It is a one-acre parcel, heavily wooded, and runs hundreds of feet down a sharp slope to the waters of Puget Sound.
At the time, Beth’s family lived in Tacoma, but they owned a piece of land next to Mr. Keady, and built a small but comfortable cabin there in the 1950’s. They used it as a summer vacation spot throughout Beth’s youth, and in 1990 her parents purchased another four acres nearby and built a modern home where they retired and eventually lived their final days. Beth’s parents have died recently, nine months apart from each other, and Beth now owns this house and its acreage, having bought out her two sister’s shares.
But when she was a child, Beth’s family became interwoven with Mr. Keady. He was a solitary gentleman without family or many friends, and Beth’s parents made a point of reaching out to him, such as having the kids bring sandwiches over to him, or inviting him to evening card games.
When Mr. Keady became elderly and infirm Beth’s father became his care-giver, and Beth took care of his land, which she ultimately inherited upon his death.
When Beth took ownership, she fixed-up Mr. Keady’s rustic mobile home and turned it into a jewel of 1950s nostalgia. She currently rents it out, and that income pays the land taxes and up-keep of the utilities.
How Beth came to live on Mr. Keady’s land and build a treehouse is a story I only partially understand, for it appears to have been a deeply transformative journey for Beth.
Nevertheless, this is what I understand from what Beth has told me.
When Beth was eighteen years old she was a hot-shot tennis player and eager for the limelight of professional sports.
“Look out Chrissie Everett, I used to say at the time,” Beth now relates with a hearty laugh.
Beth readily admits she was longing for the fast cars and the faster lifestyle.
However, all that changed in an instant. During a doubles match Beth blew out her shoulder attempting to return a hard volley at close-range. Retreating to the beach house to recuperate, Beth spent hours sitting under a tree on the family property looking at Puget Sound.
The hours turned into days, and then to weeks. As Beth sat still, her right arm in a sling, she began to write poetry with her left hand. A shift began at this time, and the Beth who was hungry for Hollywood began to evolve into the Beth who breathed as one with Mother Nature.
The poetry writing continued, and still does to this day. Beth proudly showed me her dozens of poetry chap books, and much of the writing is superb – wonderfully insightful and beautifully composed.
As a young girl, Beth loved to make play forts and outdoor “camps” as she calls them. So as her shoulder healed and her soul spoke of new directions, inclinations from youth re-emerged.
The cushion she had first sat upon under the tree evolved into a bench, and the umbrella she kept over her head became a plastic sheet, which became a tarp, which then needed a wooden pole frame for support. Then, the bench got a foam pad and a sleeping bag, and six months later she had her first treehouse.
However, the land beneath the structure slid down the hill in a land slide the following year; fortunately at a time when Beth was not in it, and she immediately rebuilt in a more secure location.
However, shortly after she finished the rebuild, the neighboring property was clear-cut and a house constructed within yards of the new treehouse. Beth decided she needed to move.
By then, Mr. Keady required prolonged medical attention and was absent from his land for long periods of time. Hence, Beth dismantled her newly built second treehouse and re-constructed it on Mr. Keady’s property pending his return, which unfortunately, he never did. Hence, Beth was free to stay, and she still resides there 33 years later.
Beth’s treehouse is tiny – about eight-feet wide and eighteen-feet long. It contains two small rooms, one holds a queen-sized mattress of “memory foam,” which she loves dearly, and the other is used as a changing room. All the dimensions conform to Beth’s diminutive 5’5” frame, and it is decorated extensively with sea shells, paintings and billowing fabrics, all of which gives it a fairy-tale look.
That said, Beth does not live exclusively in the treehouse, so at this point let me more fully describe Beth’s homesite.
Jutting out over the slope above the treehouse, Beth has built a structure she calls “The Dome.” It is a geodesic building formed by a series of interlocking metal bars that soar about twelve-feet high and are supported by a base diameter of about thirty feet. On the downhill side there is a six-foot high wooden log wall that provides a measure of stability. The dome rests on top of the wall, with a doorway framed underneath. On the uphill side of the dome the metal bars are interlaced with the trees, which provide the majority of support.
Remarkably, the trees were planted in 1981 to the exact dimensions needed to support the dome when they would be full-grown. Beth did this because she knew with absolute intuitive certainty that she would one day own a geodesic dome, which she finally did in 1993 when she acquired the old climbing dome from the playground at Frontier Park via an auction of excess equipment held by Pierce County.
The dome is covered in a first-class canopy procured from Western Washington Fair – again another piece of excessed equipment – and has several glass and vinyl windows, making the interior light and colorful. In addition, sunlight streams overhead through a clear-vinyl skylight.
Beth uses the dome as a kitchen, shower and living room, and it is heated by a wood stove when temperatures dip into the twenties. For water and electricity she has a garden hose and a construction-grade extension cord snaking down from the utility/ storage shed next to Mr. Keady’s old trailer at the top of the hill. Beth, who is a fine cook, prepares gourmet meals in a collection of electric appliances, including a microwave/convection oven, a steamer and a Wok. She does have a refrigerator, but it is not plugged-in, so she uses it as a cold box.
Hot water for the shower and sink comes via a propane Instant Hot Water device, which Beth says is efficient and reliable. However, her preferred method of bathing is to use her “cannibal tub,” a cast-iron bathing tub located outside the dome and heated by a building a wood fire underneath.
Lastly, her toilet is a composting camp-style latrine hidden behind a matrix of artificial Christmas trees, and supplemented by an annual addition of blown-down Doug Fir and cedar boughs. It is fresh and clean, and easy to use.
Since the impact of this one person upon the land is so minimal, Beth’s home passes all health and sanitation codes, and her site is inspected annually to verify continued compliance.
Beth’s involvement in society is just as minimal, as she lives on $2,000 per year. Since she earns about $5-7,000 per year at the PC Fair, Scholz Farm and other seasonal projects, she has banked most of her earning for over 30 years. It adds up, and she has never been in debt.
However, Beth does not live an impoverished lifestyle. In fact, she takes an annual cruise to Hawaii or Acapulco every winter. In general, Beth does whatever she wants and is rarely impeded by financial restrictions.
So, how does she do it?
First, the girl knows how to shop. Plus, she’s not much of a consumer, as she is also a woman of simple wants and rarely spends more than $50 per month on food.
More telling, though, Beth craves the peace she finds camping alone in the woods and she even leaves the treehouse for greater solitude in the wilderness. For example, she takes off from the treehouse every year from March until July and serves as a volunteer backcountry ranger in the rainforests of Olympic National Park. In fact, Beth is the longest serving backcountry volunteer in the history of Olympic National Park –22 years.
At home, Beth is a regular at her local library, stocking up on books, DVDs and music – so she doesn’t have cable or Direct TV bills to pay. She does have a wi-fi laptop, so she can play the DVDs in the tree house. She also has a cell phone, but reception is spotty.
In addition, Beth doesn’t own a car, and hasn’t since 1985 when she decided to sell her VW bug since it cost too much to maintain – plus, as a woman who spends four or five months in the mountains each year and a couple weeks on the high seas, it mostly sat idle.
As a result, she is a maven of bus transport, zipping about western Washington on public transit. To reach the Pierce County Fair for her annual gig she takes four buses, and she has a vast network of automobile-owning friends who eagerly drive her to destinations not served readily by a bus, such as trail heads on Mount Rainier. She pays generously for gas, often treats for lunch, and is rarely in want of a ride.
When she’s home at the treehouse Beth rises early, and around 9 am jumps on her mountain bike to peddle three miles to her friend Willi, an older gentleman who is a formidable table tennis player.
Beth also excels at the game, and even has a practice table in her storage shed that is rigged with an automatic ping-pong ball return. However, as skilled as Willi might be, he only beats Beth once per ten games or so. As a result, she’s threatening to head to Tacoma to find new competition even though she cherishes the daily camaraderie with her friend.
Currently, Beth is home at the treehouse and is busily engaged compiling a photo essay of the Wonderland Trail. She says she has over one-thousand pictures to choose from, and will winnow her selection to several hundred and produce a DVD companion piece to the trail guide.
I’ve asked Beth how she feels about her unique life, and in an email to me she reflected upon her home and lifestyle:
“To me, my place epitomizes what a treehouse should be i.e.: integrated with the tree, blending in, and defying conventional architecture. To me it is the basis for the whole point. Anyone can build a house and stick it in a tree. My places are wholly dependent on the trees themselves and would never be as they are, swaying comfortably for 33 years without the exact trees that have housed me. I like being sure that I am one of a kind. I don’t think you can compare any of it, or me, to anything else because it is the original display of my personal style and creative explosions. I truly doubt that any Sunset Magazine-style treehouses will be standing as they are in three decades, housing their original owners contentedly. Most treehouses I’ve ever seen I can glance at and see their flaws. The hygiene factors of my outhouse, shower drains and composting habits pass all the tests the county can provide…etc…I am secure in my game, although I may not have conventional style.”
Beth continued eloquently:
“I have easily achieved the primary goals human beings seem to strive for. People should remember that I do own two regular homes, which have regular bathrooms and TV’s and central heating. I was recently given a car – again – and chose to give it to a friend in trade for handyman services. I have the choice of living in a normal house…but I still prefer my simple, “primitive” lifestyle.
“(Over the past 35 years) I have not changed one bit, but my friends and peers have aged, sold out their dreams, gone into debt; gained weight, lost flexibility, and have become generally unhealthy and depressed.
“The other thing that I think is weird is that everyone has hiked or camped at some time in their lives, or been on a canoe trip or sailed. Nobody thinks one thing about those backcountry experiences (as) being not hygienic or too-bare bones to nature. Most often, the memories are among the best of their whole lifetime. They remember that it was pristine and healthy, relaxing and stimulating, and settling for the soul all at once. If I had such as my treehouse, dome and cannibal-tub somewhere in the backcountry, it would be a highly revered trail shelter and thought to be extremely luxurious. In most third-world countries, and for eons of human history, all that I have would seem posh beyond compare for one person to own. I am a basic human who is well adapted to (living in) a tiny tent under a 9’ x 7’ tarp in all weather conditions. My place here on Puget Sound is a Taj Mahal!!
“Life is interesting. When I actually take stock of how alone I am in the world of humans and how misunderstood I will probably always be, and how I rush headlong to be even more remote and extreme in it, I celebrate the great lead I must have on the pack by now. I’m way off on my own route, but I’m absolutely not falling behind. ‘Leaders do not follow packs. Loners only lead themselves. A rack of bones in a thin, skin sack. A stack of poems on a shelf……’” (These last few sentences are an excerpt from one of Beth’s many poems).
As for me, I find Beth Rossow to be one of the most singular entities I have ever met. She is like an elemental part of nature; one with all of life and yet so fully human, and frankly, fully woman as well. She is 53 years of age but looks closer to 40, but even more telling she runs, hikes and climbs like a 25 year-old.
I admire how she fills her life with so many interesting people and things to do. I am in awe of how open to life she is, and how content.
Her comments about folks my age being fat, broke, and depressed hit me like cold water thrown in the face. She is so correct, and I consider Beth to be a kind of teacher to me, graciously reminding me of these cold, hard truths of my life.
When I speak to Beth on the phone, I sometimes have to hold it away from my ear – not because she speaks loudly, but because she is so vivacious.
I am honored that she calls me a friend, and I hope that this account of her life delivers an equal measure of honor to her as well. Certainly, she has my profound gratitude for sharing the story of her life.
For those wishing to learn more about the Wonderland Trail, or to purchase a copy of the trail guide or the new “Photo Slide Guide of the Wonderland Trail” on DVD, you can contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2011 Bruce A. Smith
Beth has provided several of the pictures used in this Mountain News article, and are used with her permission. Edited 2/21/11