Cruising along State Route 706 in Ashford on the way to spend the day frolicking on Mount Rainier, one might miss the home of Jacob Walker, located along the highway and just 3.6 miles from the park’s Nisqually entrance.
But those who do notice Walker’s home view a scene that could be straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. A glistening blanket of pristine mountain snow and impossibly tall, majestic conifers surround the squat house-turned-business while light pours from the two massive windows at the front of the building.
Inside, Walker stands behind an antique-looking barber chair, talking animatedly as he cuts the hair of a fellow Ashford resident. At the foot of the chair sleeps Walker’s dog, Ozzie. The next client reads a slightly out-of-date magazine in a chair beside a gumball machine. Outside, the lighted old-timey barbershop pole rotates.
Jacob’s Barbershop is the new kid in town. Sharing a town and a valley with businesses that have been operating for decades, Walker has been in business less than two years. He said he is still getting a feel for operating a business in a small, isolated mountain town.
“You need one year just to see what’s going to happen,” Walker said of starting an out-of-the-way business. “Then you need another year to compare to year one, and then you need a third year because maybe it was a weird year. (You ask yourself), ‘Is this actually how it’s going to be?’ So, to me it’s still a giant science experiment.”
Part of the experiment for Walker is learning about the cyclical nature of business in Ashford. During the summer months, he might cut the hair of the occasional tourist, but the bulk of his business comes from the influx of seasonal park rangers and contract workers who spend summers on the mountain and come to him three or four times for a $20 cut before leaving the area as winter approaches.
“The locals are what are going to get you through the winter,” Walker said, noting that he does not cut back his hours in the winter, like most other businesses in town. “My philosophy is that I’m not here for the tourists.”
When compared to other business owners operating in the shadow of a tourist-heavy icon such as Mount Rainier, Walker is one of the few who feels this way. In 2018 alone, Mount Rainier National Park saw approximately 1.5 million visitors, a report from the National Park Service showed. That’s a lot of potential haircuts. Especially when you consider that, of those 1.5 million visitors, 42 percent stay overnight in the park or within 30 miles of it. On average, these visitors travel in groups of three and stay in the area for approximately 2.5 days.
Walker’s Ashford community is one of the more popular of these areas for individuals visiting the mountain to stay due to its proximity — it’s just 6 miles away from the park’s Nisqually entrance — as well as its mountaineering outfitters, lodging, and restaurant options.
Other mountain communities surrounding the 236,381-acre national park include Carbonado, Crystal Mountain, Elbe, Greenwater, Packwood, and Wilkeson.
These visitors, the National Park Service estimates, contribute approximately $54.9 million to the economies of these small towns, adding more than $25.1 million in labor income and supporting close to 600 jobs. Predictably, hotels and restaurants see the lion’s share of the revenue, each earning roughly 23 percent of the total.
Gas, retail, groceries, recreation industries, transportation, and camping make up the rest of the pie. As a barber, Walker’s services industry doesn’t even rank. And he’s OK with that.
“Am I absolutely thankful when (a visitor) walks through the door that I’m only going to see once? Absolutely, very thankful,” Walker said with a smile and hint of his Missouri — he pronounces it Missouruh — accent. “But my thing is, it’s like Floyd the barber on the Andy Griffith Show, a small hometown barber. I like it when you know people; I like it when you can catch up on people. They come in, and you hear about things going on in the community. That’s what I like the most.”
At $20 a cut — compared to the $35 he was making at a barbershop in Fife two years ago — Walker said it’s all about repeat customers.
A little over 2 miles away, at Ashford Creek Pottery and Northwest Art Museum, husband-and-wife team Rick Johnson and Jana Gardiner have the opposite approach. For them, and most of the other businesses in town, it’s all about the visitors.
“I think we’re a little bit quirky, and a lot of times people are pleasantly surprised when they actually come in because it’s kind of a funky building and they don’t know what it is,” Gardiner said of the couple’s small space in an elegantly remodeled former roadside snowplow shed.
Like other veteran business owners, Johnson and Gardiner are well-attuned to the ebbs and flows of business near the mountain, having been artists in the valley since the early 1980s, after the two met while climbing Mount Rainier. Summer is busier; winter is quieter.
“We’re lucky we’re not in food service,” Gardiner joked. “Our product doesn’t go bad.”
“This time of year, we get Puget Sounders and people from Portland,” Johnson countered, as he hand-painted the mountain’s likeness on a rice bowl. “But last week, I had a couple from India and a couple from England.”
Elsewhere around the mountain, businesses closer to the ski resort at Crystal Mountain said their cycle slows down a bit in fall and again in spring, but the ski and snowshoe crowd keeps them on their toes. Greenwater-based Wapiti Outdoors, for instance, has been selling its signature Wapiti Woolies in the area since the mid-1970s.
Present-day owner and longtime customer John Clark has owned the business for only one year, but he said that was all it took for him to get the rhythm.
“It doesn’t take long to get a grip on the peaks and valleys of it,” he said. “(Former owners) Bob and Debbie Grubb said to, ‘Hold on to your hat in the summer.’ And every day our parking lot was full, and we were bursting at the seams … Then it quiets down in October and November as everyone is patiently waiting for the snow. Then it picks right back up again.”
Due to its central location next to a tavern and a general store and its reputation in the area, Clark said his business has no problem pulling motorists off the road while also catering to his crowd of locals.
Back in Ashford, this is something the couple at Ashford Creek Pottery has trouble with. Gardiner explained it’s very hard to do, so the bulk of their business stems from overnight guests.
“They’re already up here in the Airbnbs and in the lodging, and I would say that’s probably most of our folks,” she said. “This is what there is to do (in Ashford).”
Though much of the shop’s clientele comes from Airbnb listings, Gardiner said it’s becoming a problem for the city itself because there are fewer people actually living in Ashford, occupying those houses.
A search of “Ashford, WA.” on Airbnb yields 122 results. Listings are mostly cabins, bunkhouses, or A-frame houses, and most are described with words like wilderness, serenity, romantic, cozy, backwoods, and hideaway.
Gardiner explained the couple has slowed down a bit, opting to discontinue their rounds at the circuit of Puget Sound craft shows and turning down large orders for wedding registries. Instead, the duo has quietly been cultivating a collection of art from creators across the region to feature in their shop and gallery while also continuing to work at their primary craft: pottery.
It is something the couple embraces, even though it can be repetitive at times.
“It’s nice because it’s quiet, and it’s sort of a solitary profession, just being a potter,” Gardiner said. “(Although), sometimes people come in and sort of have this romantic idea of, ‘So do you know what you are going to make when you sit down?’ And it’s like, when you’re paying your mortgage by how many mugs you make, it definitely puts a different element of work into it — though we (still) feel very lucky.”
Johnson, too, enjoys the solitude mixed with bursts of mingling with tourists.
“That’s what I like about being down here: I don’t really actively try to sell things; they sell themselves,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I just talk history — I know a lot about the local history and our museum of Northwest art — and we just end up chatting, and people buy things sometimes, and sometimes they don’t.”