There is no shortage of places in Manhattan where visitors can spend the night. Luxury hotels offer lavish suites that can run thousands of dollars, and youth hostels have beds for as little as $20. At least one flophouse survives on the Bowery. And, of course, there is couch-surfing — countless travelers bunk with old friends or near-strangers for little more than an owed favor.
Cory and Dana Foht have taken another route. On some 20 nights over the past two months, the Fohts, 25-year-old twins from Florida, have climbed about 25 feet up the side of a tall American elm tree in Central Park, stretched nylon hammocks between its branches, unrolled sleeping bags and, with a few acrobatic moves, squirmed into their makeshift beds.
“It’s kind of like its own ecosystem up here,” Cory said one recent night as he lay in his hammock. “You’re definitely aware that you are sleeping in something and attached to something that’s alive.”
Their resting spot is not likely to be awarded any stars by the Michelin Guide, but it offers something the Fohts think is better: stars in an inky firmament directly overhead and obscured only by a screen of twigs and leaves.
“When you sleep inside, it’s warm and cozy,” Dana explained. “But it’s also like you’re sleeping in a box.”
Sleeping in the elm may be invigorating, but it is also illegal. Visitors are not allowed in Central Park between 1 and 6 a.m.; violators can be fined $50. While park rules do not explicitly forbid climbing any of its 24,000 trees, they do prohibit any behavior that damages a tree.
Police and parks officers go through Central Park each night and rouse anyone found sleeping. But those people are usually on a bench or under a tree. A spokeswoman said the Department of Parks and Recreation knew of no one who had recently been discovered slumbering in a hammock after curfew.
“Twenty-five years ago, there was a guy who built treehouses in the park,” the spokeswoman, Vickie Karp, wrote in an e-mail. “He promised never to do it again.”
The Fohts made no such promises.
The notion to camp above the ground came to the brothers this spring while they were climbing a banyan tree in Florida. They put the idea into practice a few months later when they embarked on a city-to-city bicycle trip and began exploring creative and cheap ways of finding food and lodging.
“Really, the inspiration behind it was getting above the sidewalk level,” Cory said. “You’re getting into your own little world and rising above the stress of the street life.”
Their first try came a few months later, in August, while visiting Williamsburg, Va., but they encountered hammock-hanging problems.
Soon, they learned the importance of selecting the right tree. It must have branches low enough to be ascended without a rope, but also have boughs high and sturdy enough that the hammocks can safely be suspended. The tree’s canopy must be dense enough for the Fohts to recline amid the leaves without being easily seen.
They have since slept in trees on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (“We thought Jefferson would approve,” said Cory, referring to Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the school), and near Arlington National Cemetery. In Richmond, where they spent about a week’s worth of nights in two different trees, their favorite perch was a towering oak next to a church parking lot, until one Sunday morning when they awoke to find a police officer guarding cars parked by worshipers. (They stayed in their hammocks until the congregation had dispersed.)
While in trees, the brothers said, they sometimes catch glimpses of people who do not know they are being observed, or overhear snippets of conversation from those who imagine that they are alone. They have experienced a few close encounters with birds, they said, but have been lucky to avoid raccoons. The soft sway of the branches usually lulls them to sleep, though one recent night in Central Park, Dana had a disturbing dream in which a cord used to secure one end of his hammock came loose, leaving him to swing among the leaves like a pendulum.
The brothers, who graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2007 and want to make documentaries, said that they were editing footage to create a 10-minute film about life in the elm, which they plan to post on YouTube. The two came to New York in September to participate in a rally for the preservation of community gardens, then decided to stay. They have spent some rainy nights in friends’ apartments, and occasionally hang their hammocks in the back room of a bicycle-repair workshop in Brooklyn where they volunteer as mechanics.
But they find themselves drawn back to their elm in Central Park. Spending a night there is spiritually restorative, they said, if a bit chilly of late. As the leaves and temperatures fall, the brothers said, their time in the tree is drawing to a close.
“I love this tree,” Cory said, adding that they always climb carefully, to avoid harming it. “Some of the most inspiring nights I’ve had in New York were spent here.”
One night this week, they entered the park about 9 p.m., wearing knit hats and backpacks, and keeping an eye out for others. They followed the shadowed turns of a path, then scrambled up the side of their beloved elm, grabbing thick branches and feeling for toeholds. A wintry wind whipped through the park, but by 10 p.m., aloft in the tree, it was as quiet as Manhattan gets. An occasional siren wailed, and a faint whistle could occasionally be heard from a Metro-North train emerging from the Park Avenue tunnel. The rumble of cars and trucks, though, washed into a high distant sound that blended with the rustle of the wind through the leaves.
About seven hours later, the brothers woke up as the sky began to brighten and reported that gusts of wind had rocked their hammocks for much of the night. In daylight, they showed off some of the tree’s features that they had come to appreciate most: the thick, leathery bark of its trunk, which provided climbing traction; the low, sweeping boughs that offered an easy path back to the ground; the dense foliage that gave cover from inquisitive eyes.
“It’s made an interesting little home,” Cory said.
Then the Fohts packed up their gear and headed for the Upper West Side, where they had stored their bicycles overnight with a friend. Joggers and dog walkers filled the park, but nobody appeared to give the itinerant tree-dwellers a second glance.