“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman
The path of destruction created by COVID-19 is well-known: disrupted lives, cancelled events, shuttered businesses, on-line learning, short and long term illness, and, most tragically, over 700,000 deaths in the United States alone. But one of the positives I have seen again and again is what is known in Judaism as a kehillah kadoshah, a time when a community “circles the wagons” in order to support each other during a time of great need. I found this holy expression of compassion and caring exemplified seen in the story of a unique gift shop located in a small town in the Rockies.
On one of our FaceTime calls early in the pandemic, I commented to my daughter Julie that I loved her sweatshirt, a slate grey hoodie with a bright psychedelic mountain design and the words “Mountain Mama”emblazoned on it. When I asked where she got it, she told me Sunny Side Up, a popular local business, was selling them online as a way to stay afloat during the government-mandated shutdown. I ordered one for myself the next day. I enjoyed wearing my new top with leggings or yoga pants during Florida’s winter and felt good about supporting one of my favorite shops in Julie’s ‘Rocky Mountain 9100 Feet High’ community two hours west of Denver. Eighteen months later, Larry and I were finally able to fly out to Frisco to a summer rental. On my second day there, I donned my“Mountain Mama,” sweatshirt and headed down to Sunny Side Up to meet the owner in person and learn more about the story of “The Little Sweatshirt That Could.”
Ashlie Barclay Weisel was born and raised in Crown Point, Indiana, a small town 50 miles southeast of Chicago. She and Dan Weisel, high school sweethearts, were married in 2009. After graduation, Dan enlisted in the Air Force. They spent their next four years in Germany, where Ash was smitten by the mountains, the small picturesque towns and the quaint architecture. Ash also loved the opportunity and freedom their time overseas offered to her. “I could pull out my sketch book and create free-flowing fun designs wherever I was,” said Ash, “whether it be besides a flowing stream or on an airplane.”
When they returned to the States, Dan enrolled in University of Colorado at Boulder. Ash continued doing free lance illustration and setting up her happy art around art festivals in Colorado. She loved and followed the brand, Be Hippy, and started designing for them after meeting them at a festival in Keystone.
Two years later, confidence boosted by her success in with the Denver-based store, Ash decided to venture out on her own. On an anniversary trip , Ash and Dan stopped in Frisco, Colorado, and Ash immediately was reminded of towns they had visited in Germany. Ash split her time between Summit County and their home near Denver. Soon after, Dan, who now is employed as a state patrol officer, had a job transfer to Frisco. Ash began working for the art district in Breckenridge .
When space for a store opened up in 2018, Ash and Dan jumped at the chance to open her own business. As Ash’s personal art studio in Germany was on the second floor with a sunny terrace attached, Ash named her business Sunny Side Up. She had found a home for her art and her positive outlook on life, where she could “sell happiness.”
A bright, breezy space with a definite ‘hippy’ vibe, the store displayed Ash’s own original art work and offered tables for people to relax and create their own art projects supplemented by store’s supplies and inspiration. By summer of 2019 the business had been successful enough for Ash and Dan to open up a second location in nearby Breckinridge.
Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 struck. Governor Jared Polis announced that all non-essential businesses were to close. Ash was forced to give up the Breckinridge store. Meanwhile, Ash and Dan had to find a way operate a business that had no customers.
Initially, Ash established an “honesty shop,” where she set up her tee-shirts, mugs, and affirmation posters in front of the store. She provided envelopes so people could slip the money for the purchases under the door.
Just before the pandemic, Ash had designed a sweatshirt that she felt captured the spirit of women who lived in the Rockies. Her Mountain Mama had “a different grit about her,” Ash later wrote. “She is raw and authentic and her soul is complete with mountains.”
With hundreds sitting unsold because of the shutdown, she decided to cut the price and sell them on line to keep her store afloat. Cayla, her co-worker, along with friends, hand delivered the orders to local customers. Through word of mouth and Mountain Mama sightings, sales grew as more and more women, stuck at home, donned Ash’s creation over their sweatpants. Before she knew it, Ash had sold 200 of her tops.
“Everyone just flocked to them,” said Ash. “The sweatshirt really became a symbol of hope and unity in our little mountain town.”
Women began posting pictures on social media of themselves in tops as a statement of solidarity in tough times. Shannon Bosgraaf, a local realtor, met Ash when she picked up her purchase on the business woman’s front porch. She photo shopped dozens of the individual pictures into one huge poster with the logo ‘Mountain Mamas: Stronger Together!’
“The community of women became super excited to show off their support, and it gave us all a focus on something bigger than ourselves,” said Shannon.
In April 2020, Denver’s 9News picked up the story, and sales went through the roof. “A lot of people are calling it their quarantine uniform,” Ash said in the televised interview. “The demand is so high we have had people all over the nation say they want them.”
To date, Ash has sold over 2000 Mountain Mama and its Mountain Chick spinoff sweatshirts. Ash replicated the design on tee-shirts and hats, which were sold in the store once the pandemic shutdown ended. When I visited the store this past summer, the place was buzzing with people purchasing Ash’s designs, including several variations of the Mountain Mama theme.
Ash is now moving Sunny Side Up in a new direction. She is closing the working studio section of her store and using the space to sell more of her own creations in clothing and accessories. Although the original Mountain Mama trademark design, Ash is working on a new design. The legend of “The Little Sweatshirt That Could,” however, lives on.
“When I see someone today with the sweatshirt, it reminds me of that pure joy that we together as a community did that,” Bosgraaf said. “Ash’s s amazing inspiration and art will continue.”