Priest Lake may not be paradise, but most visitors agree you can almost see it from here … especially on warm, sunny, August afternoons, when North Idaho’s mountain air is laced with the aroma of barbecues, the laughter of beach games and the cha-ching of busy cash registers.
That’s when fair-weather vacationers turn to their spouses and say things like, “Honey, let’s quit our 9-to-5 jobs in town, move up here, open an espresso bar and live happily ever after!”
If Honey is smart, though, she’ll reply, “But Sweetheart, how many double lattes do you think we’d sell in the middle of March?”
The answer, of course, depends on whether deer and gray jays drink java. Because it takes a special breed of entrepreneur to survive the off-season in remote resort communities.
This is the time of year when Priest Lake roads are breaking up, and tourists are as rare as ripe huckleberries. Most locals are either under- or unemployed, low on cash and eagerly anticipating Memorial Day, when most of the snow will have melted and summer customers start trickling back.
“You can make a living,” says Shirley Garrett, 49, co-owner of The Woods at Coolin Corner, a combination tavern-restaurantvideo-“you name it, we got it” convenience store.
“But you have to put in a lot of hours,” she warns. “We have seven prime weeks - that’s it! - even though we stay open 365 days a year.
“When the weather is nice,” she says, “I work 24 hours, day in and day out. A lot of times I’ll say, ‘OK, we have to run down and look at the lake, because that’s why we’re here.’ But even then, we seldom do.”
Real estate broker Sharon Gordon, 49, echoes Garrett’s lament. “I didn’t get to go swimming once last year. I never even got out in a boat. You make your money at Priest when the sun shines, so you never get to enjoy this beautiful lake you fell in love with.”
If Gordon and Garrett are the solemn voices of reason, just across the street from Garrett’s store, in a pseudo-log-cabin mini-mall, are two examples of unbridled optimism.
Travis Holycross, 27, and Mike Singer, 28, are the proud proprietors of Rock Wear, a T-shirt and graphics company they launched 388 days ago. (Yes, they’re actually counting.) Surrounded by their whimsical designs - a mountain biker grinding straight up a tree trunk … smoke puffing from landmark Chimney Rock - the young business partners talk of their dedication, of schemes to attract big new accounts, and of a five-year business plan that will let them spend part of their summers skiing in Chile.
So far, though, their existence is best described as hand-to-mouth, “and sometimes the hand comes up empty,” admits Holycross.
Off-season cash flow has slowed to a trickle. “This is definitely a litmus month for us,” Holycross said recently. “We have some notes due that we’re coming up short on.”
And the demands of running a business have crimped the oncecarefree ski bums’ old habits. “Just yesterday,” says Holycross, “a friend called us and said, ‘Hey, we’re heading up to Schweitzer.’ I said, ‘No.’ So he says, ‘Let me talk to Mike,’ and I say, ‘No!’ He calls back five minutes later and says, ‘Are you sure?’ … Those times are difficult.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Craig Hill, who manages his family’s namesake resort and employs 110 workers during peak summer months, considers three ingredients essential for an enterprise to succeed in remote areas like Priest Lake.
First, have a good idea.
Second, choose something you enjoy doing.
And third, arrive with enough money to live on for at least three years while you build your business.
“Think of it as investing in a lifestyle,” he says, “not an income stream.”
Besides spectacular views and recreational opportunities, Priest Lake’s lifestyle includes having to drive 80 miles to see a first-run movie and do some serious shopping.
It also includes making time for community services.
Besides running her restaurant and tavern, for instance, Garrett serves as executive director of the Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce. She also volunteers as an emergency medical technician, a fire commissioner and Coolin Civic Center coordinator, plus she sits on the Priest Lake Disaster Alliance Organization and helps out at the local museum.
Life here also means staying on good terms with your neighbors, if you’re lucky enough to have any. In winter, they may be the only people you see for weeks … or longer.
Realtor Gordon says she usually has plenty of commercial listings, because owners get burned out chasing a year’s wages in less than three months.
She cautions prospective buyers - including Garrett, who bought The Woods from her in 1987 - that “it takes an aggressive achiever” to survive at Priest Lake.
Do they listen?
“Nope,” Gordon says. “They’re too busy following their dream.”
Only time will tell whether Holycross and Singer’s dream comes true. Clearly, other local business owners are pulling for them.
“We buy hundreds of printed products from Travis and Mike,” says Hill. But he predicts that won’t be enough.
To generate revenue year-round, says Hill, Rock Wear - or any other manufacturer - must have reliable customers beyond the Priest Lake community.
Hill’s wife, Missy, 36, is one of Holycross’ biggest fans when it comes to graphics, but she wonders if he has the stamina to survive the rough road ahead.
“He’ll say, ‘Ohmygawd, I’ve worked 12 hours three days in a row. I’m exhausted!’
“And I’m like, ‘You’d better get a grip on it, buddy, because you’ve got five years of that. I work 12 hours and then take care of two kids for another five hours. Don’t tell me you’re tired.”’
Holycross and Singer joke that they’re so broke they may soon find themselves wrestling their dogs for the last can of Alpo.
But the pair seem determined to prove skeptics wrong.
“We’ll definitely be here next year,” announces Holycross. “One big break, and we’ll have all new equipment.”
“And a paycheck,” deadpans Singer.
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