This is a story of trucks and railroads and violins and pee cloths. It is also a story about what happens when you squeak through a near-death experience and recognize the opportunity for a shot at resurrection. Anastasia Allison is the founder of Kula Cloth, a company that sells a hiker-friendly antimicrobial cloth that serves as an alternative to toilet paper. Her path to entrepreneurship is less of a straight line than it is an inspiring decades-long journey to circle back to her childhood dreams.
Even as a kid, Allison had big ideas. After bopping around the southeast for a while thanks to her dad’s gig with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, she and her family stayed a spell in North Carolina, where the grade-schooler began offering neighbors tours of their creek-adjacent, gator-filled “mini national park” backyard. This entrepreneurial spirit persisted after the family moved to Pennsylvania, where they decamped for the remainder of her childhood. Allison served as her neighborhood’s resident pre-teen go-getter. She shoveled snow, walked dogs, and even partnered with a pal to offer freshly-squeezed orange juice, knocking on doors to take orders before spending entire days juicing 40-to-50 pounds of oranges by hand.
One of her most formative experiences, however, had nothing to do with scoring lunch money. At twelve years old, Allison began volunteering at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site with her sister, donning costumes as a living history interpreter. She also regaled park visitors by performing hymns and folk songs with her violin, an instrument Allison began playing with her grandmother’s encouragement at the age of four.
She was reminded of an idea she abandoned in 2015—Allison had been thru-hiking the Wind River High Route with her husband, taking artful, jokey photos along the way of a blue scrap of microfiber she used as a pee cloth, an item used by some backpackers as an alternative to toilet paper.
Unfortunately, relentless bullying led her parents to begin a home school regimen from the eighth grade onward. While she lacked acceptance from her peers, Allison began to find an increased sense of welcoming in the outdoors, a place where she didn’t have to work to “fit in.” When she was thirteen, her family embarked on what was a “life-changing” six-week trip to visit the West’s most iconic national parks. Allison became a Junior Ranger at every park she visited (and afterward, helped implement a similar program at Hopewell Furnace) and was enthralled to discover backpacking.
Allison volunteered at Hopewell Furnace for twelve years (“the best summers of my life”), a tenure that, at the time, rivaled that of the park’s longest-standing ranger. For her commitment, she received a Superintendent’s Award at sixteen years old—and a deep desire to become a park ranger herself. However, once enrolled in college, Allison began considering a career in medicine, a popular course of study at her school and one she thought would provide eventual financial stability.
As she continued volunteering at the park between her studies, Allison faced mounting internal discord—did she really want to spend the rest of her life working in medicine, pursuing someone else’s idea of success? When the superintendent of Hopewell Furnace casually asked one day about her plans for the future, Allison responded with honesty: “I just want to volunteer for the rest of my life at the park and play violin.”
The superintendent suggested she consider a career as a law enforcement ranger. Allison latched onto the idea. She was accepted into an academy program in Washington; her first law enforcement gig was at Twanoh State Park, where Allison found pride and joy in protecting resources, educating visitors, and patrolling campgrounds with her violin—“the realization of a childhood dream”—for seven-and-a-half years before she was laid off during budget cuts.
Allison had been trekking through Bhutan just before she was laid off. When offered the opportunity to return to the country and teach violin, she turned it down, fearful that it was an irresponsible choice. Allison felt locked into a career in law enforcement, so she pursued a job as a railroad officer. During her five years on patrol, she handled sixteen fatalities, remaining emotionless on the job, then returning home to unravel in private.
“I was sort of at this turning point,” she says. “I needed to get out of my own way and I just didn’t know how.”
An unlikely path appeared in January 2017. Allison, her husband, and her mother were returning from a snowshoeing trip when their truck began to fishtail, presumably after hitting a patch of black ice. Allison was at the wheel as the vehicle began a horrifying, slo-mo spin into oncoming traffic. She watched, helpless, as the blue cab of a semi truck prepared to smash into the passenger side.
And then it didn’t. “I literally to this day have no clue what really happened or how this truck avoided hitting us,” says Allison. “It felt like the truck just drove through us. I cannot explain it.” Everyone emerged unharmed. While her passengers commented on their luck, Allison couldn’t shake a darker feeling of guilt for what could have been. But she also felt something completely different—a stark sense of clarity. “It was some sort of sign for me that was telling me: Nothing is guaranteed in life, why are you so afraid of pursuing these things that you want to pursue?” she said. “It just destroyed that illusion of stability that I had been totally paralyzed by.”
Allison began questioning her path and indulging her curiosities more and more. She started seeing a life coach, meditating, and practicing gratitude. She also began a conscious effort to be more giving. In this vein, she posted a book giveaway on her Instagram account—then, with a scant following of about a hundred people—and one person entered. Rose Freeman was a total stranger, but when coordinating delivery of the book, Allison noticed that she lived about ten minutes away. The two stayed in touch and eventually met for coffee, where Allison mentioned that she always dreamt of playing her violin into the backcountry. Freeman, a pianist, was on board.
On their first outing as what would become the Musical Mountaineers, Allison and Freeman struck out in the pre-dawn, huffing their instruments (Freeman, a Yamaha digital piano) to a “secret pond in the middle of the Cascades.” They donned gowns to honor their surroundings and the music itself, and played to an audience of mountains. Afterward, they posted a few videos to YouTube.
Neither anticipated the response those videos would garner; within two weeks of that first outing, they were once more hauling their instruments into the backcountry, albeit this time with a TV reporter in tow. Allison suspects that it’s more than just the novelty that draws people in; it’s the emotions it invokes. “A lot of the people who listen to our music and have reached out to us find some sense of healing in the music, and I don’t think that that’s an accident,” she says. After all, the Musical Mountaineers has been part of her own process of healing from some of the trauma she endured during her years as a railroad officer.
The Musical Mountaineers is also part of the rebirth Allison experienced after the trauma of her near-miss on the pass. Within two weeks of the incident, she launched a Facebook group to create a community of outdoor enthusiasts who wanted to search for deeper meaning and connection in their exploits. She also began studying to become a life coach herself and launched a motivational podcast—The Inspired Adventurpreneur—later that year.
She also left her job with the railroad. “It was like a part of my brain had been destroyed in that accident, like the part that was afraid to go for it,” says Allison. “I feel like I was sort of unshackled by any of those fears.” She was reminded of an idea she abandoned in 2015—Allison had been thru-hiking the Wind River High Route with her husband, taking artful, jokey photos along the way of a blue scrap of microfiber she used as a pee cloth, an item used by some backpackers as an alternative to toilet paper.
You couldn’t buy a pee cloth at the store; this was a strictly homemade item. But Allison remembers thinking that she should try creating one that served a “legitimate piece of gear.” Allison, who had never sewn a stitch in her life, began designing prototypes of what would become the Kula Cloth, a Leave No Trace-friendly antimicrobial cloth, complete with a waterproof backing and snap closure, designed to absorb pee.
The website launched with a presale in July 2018, which funded the first run. Allison was nervous—she had invested a lot of time and money into launching Kula Cloth (named for both a peak in Bhutan and the Sanskrit word for “community”). Would people like it, or would she become the butt of jokes, not unlike those school years in Pennsylvania? Less than half a year later, orders keep arriving at a steady pace, and Allison is now expanding the line to include patterns designed by respected adventure artists like Claire Giordono and Nikki Frumkin.
Instead of being afraid to take risks and pursue the things that brought her joy from those earliest days of childhood, Allison now leans into the unknown. “None of this would have happened if not for that single incident. I look at the trajectory of what took place after [the experience on Stevens Pass], and I think I had spent a lot of time focusing on what wasn’t going well in my life and what I didn’t like,” she says. “I feel like Kula and the Musical Mountaineers, those are the best versions of me, the physical representation of me pursuing my path, becoming that better version of myself, and sort of trusting the process of allowing these good things to enter my life.”