Quick Stats: Pete Nelson, host, Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters”
Daily Driver: 1994 Land Rover Defender (Pete’s rating: 8.25 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: see below
Favorite road trip: New Jersey to Colorado
Car he learned to drive in: 1971 Volvo wagon
First car bought: 1973 Ford F-Series pickup truck
Although the movie “Born Free” made people long to go to Africa on safari, it sparked a different dream for a young Pete Nelson in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Decades later, Nelson’s green 1994 Land Rover Defender 90 is not only a childhood dream fulfilled, but it’s a safari-ready ride that’s fitting for someone with a show on Animal Planet.
“I’m looking at my sweet car right now. I’m so in love with it,” says the star of “Treehouse Masters.” “All my life since I was seven years old and ‘Born Free’ came out, I loved the lions of course, but the cars they were driving, those sweet little Land Rovers all over Africa, so ever since then I’ve wanted and I’ve been toying with getting one.”
After putting a card on the windshield of a Defender about four years ago, Nelson recently got a call from the owner saying he was open to an offer.
He loves that when he’s driving the Defender, it’s just him and the music that’s playing from the hidden CD player.
“I was so delighted because you can’t see the player inside,” Nelson says. “When I bought this I didn’t even know it was there and then you open up this console and then a very utilitarian metal box, you open that up and there’s a CD player,” Nelson says. “It’s a loud car and when you have your music playing loudly, you don’t hear the car anymore, you just hear the beautiful music.”
Nelson wanted to give the Land Rover a 7.5 rating, but after thinking about how much he liked the CD player and sound system, he revised it to an 8.25: “I’m a carpenter, so we’ll go down to the quarter inch,” he says, with a laugh.
Other nuances of the Defender remind him of a simpler time. “It’s [got] manual windows so you’ve got to slide the window open physically to stick your arm out and make your turn signal,” he says, laughing. “If I was just going to be an engineer and take the love away for a moment, the blinkers don’t work. There’s a fun side to that: I’ve got to stick my arm out and give the left turn right turn signal with my hand. It’s a cold, wet environment out here in the Northwest, it’s funny because I sort of enjoy doing it, but it’s very inconvenient.”
The Defender, which has a rough ride, also has a manual transmission. “I’ve gotten used to automatics, so I’m back to using the stick shift, which I really love,” Nelson says. “It’s a torque monster, this thing has power, it’s crazy torque, so going uphill you can feel the power in your foot.”
Nelson, who says he isn’t looking forward to the older Defender potentially breaking down, calls himself an aesthete. “I love my pretty things and the color is this beautiful forest green, it’s one of my favorite colors,” he says. “There’s a black rag top and the roll bars are all black and the tires aren’t so overly large, so it seems like an understated but beautiful little workhorse.”
2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser
Before the Defender, Nelson drove a 2007 Toyota FJ he still has; he says the SUV reminds him of a toad.
“I really love that car. As far as towing, I have a little tear drop trailer that I drag behind and it’s a little much for that FJ, but that’s one of the reasons I’m excited about the Defender 90—is the towing capacity.”
As someone who is into aesthetics, Nelson has always admired Toyota FJ Cruisers. “They just have such a different look to them and … I always love the idea of being able to go deep into the woods and do some four-wheel off road driving. I say that but it’s a lot like my fishing, I talk about fishing a lot but I rarely fish. I rarely go off road, but just knowing that it would be a possibility is comforting to me,” he says, with a laugh.
“Just in my own driving around the Northwest here,” he says, “you get to this point where it’s ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to roll this thing?’ and you don’t and [you] feel greatly relieved. But this is a car that can be brought to those extreme angles.”
In today’s technologically reliant automotive world, Nelson doesn’t feel like he’s missing out by driving older cars. In fact he relishes it.
“I’m kind of old school. I still buy CDs. I’m the last human being who seems to buy compact discs and I love it. I bring them with me on the road and I have to go into the rental place, Enterprise, and say, ‘Is there a CD player?’ and I have to reject cars based on whether or not they have CD [players] anymore,” he says, laughing. “I have thousands of CDs and I’ve got quite a vinyl collection too. But when I see the screen pops up, as long as I’ve got my CD player in the car and my phone with Google Maps, because that works so well these days, I don’t need anything else.”
Car he learned to drive in
Nelson learned to drive around the streets of northern New Jersey in his mom’s 1971 Volvo wagon that they called Admiral Nelson.
“Admiral was so admiral, it was a workhorse. It was manual, so I learned how to drive on that stick shift and it was bumpy beginnings. I remember running over a squirrel the first real run with my dad in that wonderful Volvo station wagon. The squirrel dashed across the road, it was so devastating, the poor little squirrel, just ran it over right there in my first driving lesson with my dad,” he says. “We were both feeling terrible about it, but clearly it was over. It didn’t suffer.”
His dad was his driving instructor. “I remember it like it was yesterday, driving on those backroads in Bergen County. My dad actually drove a separate car. My dad had a 1972 BMW 2002, that little sports car that he loved and so did I. They’re kind of funny looking cars, but they’re zippy,” he says.
As a kid in New Jersey, reaching the age of getting one’s driver’s permit, no matter which family car he got to drive, was a major milestone he looked forward to.
“When you’re 15 years old and growing up, at least in New Jersey, you feel like you’re already an adult, you’ve seen a lot it seems. Knowing what I know now, I didn’t see anything. But you still feel like you’re an adult and you’re just dying to get out of the nest, and the car represents that final leap of independence. I was so excited, I could not wait, I would count down the days before I could get my permit at age 15.”
First car bought
The first car Nelson bought was a 1973 Ford F-Series pickup truck he negotiated from $850 down to $825 when he was 17. The pickup came at a pivotal point in his young life.
“I was hoping to be a carpenter, I knew that was something that I would do at least during the summers. I had a great education, so I was going to school and I don’t think my parents imagined that I would be a carpenter,” he says. “My dad is the last thing from a carpenter, but it was something that I had an aptitude toward.”
Nelson kept the pickup truck for quite a few years. “Nobody was lending me any money to buy it, I bought it with my hard-earned money and I’m very proud of it,” he says.
During his junior year of high school, he made money by working with a carpenter to learn the basics of building things such as decks. “I needed a pickup truck so I could go to the lumberyard and look like a real carpenter, so I was very proud of that car. It went through a lot of oil, oh my god, I kept a case of oil in the back because there were some engine issues,” he says, laughing.
The next summer, Nelson started a company called Cheapo Deck Company. “My dad was like, ‘You don’t want to call it Cheapo Deck Company.’ I said, ‘They are, they’re cheap.’ I would build them for $500 with wood that was untreated, so they would only lasted about two years because New Jersey has some rough winters, but you get what you pay for. I was also unaware that using that cheap wood would cause the lifespan of your deck to be quite limited,” he says, with a laugh.
Nelson had the Ford pickup truck when he went to college as well, driving it back and forth from New Jersey to Colorado, until he had to finally let it go during his sophomore year at college.
“Finally it threw a rod. I was coming from my grandparent’s house in Long Island, it was on the George Washington Bridge and I limped off the bridge and pulled it over to the side of Route 4 and I convinced my buddy to come with his dad’s Riviera and drag this pickup back to my house,” he says, adding his dad then gave it away.
Favorite road trip
Nelson’s favorite road trip was the one he took in his old Ford pickup with a high school buddy who went to the same college as Nelson in Colorado Springs.
“We struck off from New Jersey and drove through Kansas where we were apprehended for fireworks,” he says.
They were 18 and bored, he says, and decided to buy roman candles and bottle rockets in Indiana or Illinois.
“It was mid-August, so rolling across Kansas we decided we would fire these bottle rockets at all these cows that were lining the highway. It wasn’t long before the cops pulled up behind us and said, ‘OK, out of the truck.’ We were fully handcuffed and everything on the back of this pickup truck,” he recalls.
The cop was initially told someone was firing guns out into the field. “Then they found our bottle rockets and after a while he just let us be on our way. So it was a little bit of a scare, but we didn’t end up serving time,” Nelson says, with a laugh.
Nelson’s friend didn’t know how to operate the manual transmission, but that didn’t stop the two from splitting the task of driving on this long trip.
“I’d never forget, I would put it into third gear and then he would climb on top or next to me and I would slide out so that we could just be going along at 50 mph and he could just take over and drive. We never missed a beat,” he says, laughing. “He never had to learn how to drive a stick shift, he just slid in while I had it in third gear and took over. That was our drive to freshman year at Colorado College.”
Another incident Nelson remembers from that trip involves the truck’s tires, which were bald because he couldn’t afford new ones. “We hit one of those Kansas rain storms and all of a sudden we were hydroplaning … and we just spun around like a wing nut on the elevated highway and came to a stop on the divider. We didn’t damage anything. Somehow we survived and off we went and we were like, ‘Wow.’”
Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters”
Although his Defender is the most recent childhood dream fulfilled, Nelson’s life in itself has been living out a dream. He realized early on that working with wood, building things, and being a carpenter was his raison d’etre.
“I would get very excited and passionate about building a little boat model, or even a deck on the back of the house in the suburbs of New Jersey,” Nelson recalls. “I was always in love with that idea of creating things like that, but then I was going to school and this was the ‘80s and all of a sudden it was about, ‘You’ve got to make a living. How do you make a living in the real world?’”
He thought specializing would be the way to go. “I had this crazy idea when I was 25 after graduating with my economics degree, ‘OK, if you have to specialize and I love carpentry, what if I became a treehouse builder?’ I was always headed toward the idea of being a house builder. I loved building single family houses, I loved design.”
But since everyone builds houses, he thought treehouses would be his path. “Once again, my father was like, ‘Are you crazy? That’s absurd.’ And it was for many, many years. But I always found a way to build a treehouse here and there while I was doing my regular home building,” he says.
In 1994, Nelson created a coffee table book that showed grown up treehouses that he wanted to build for people. He’s since written six similar coffee table books and Animal Planet approached him in 2011 to do a show.
“I kicked it around for a while and finally was convinced they would be nice to us and represent us in a way that was real, and we don’t fight because were building tree forts.”
The show is now airing in its 10th season and they include visiting treehouses by other designers as well. “We’re having such a blast going around the country and even around the world like Norway, Japan, Brazil, and Germany.”
Nelson doesn’t think viewers tune in just to see the treehouses, though. “I’m biased, I always love to think that it’s the treehouse, but it’s not. It’s the story of the people who have called me,” he says.
He says his clients are all very compelling. “They have this treehouse dream, but they don’t know the first thing about putting wood together and creating something like this, so they call me and we fulfill a childhood fantasy.”
This season, Nelson travels from Paris to the south of France to visit a fellow treehouse builder Alain Laurens and see his work. “We’re in castles that have extraordinary treehouses in the backyard of the castle that looks better than any castle at Disneyland,” he says.
Although Nelson feels fortunate to be able to live his passion, he’s also worked hard at this treehouse dream.
“The fact is that I’ve had a very clear vision of what I want to do with my life and where I want to be … I can’t change the world, but I can do small things with all my heart … and I’m really grateful. We’re living a little dream right here and I know it.”
This season of “Treehouse Masters” airs on Animal Planet Fridays at 9 p.m. until March 2.