Performed by Loraine Kanervisto for Dharma Bums at The Can Can, Seattle.
If you climb to the tops of Mount Hood, Shasta, and the Three Sisters, there are large, wooden chests left on the summits by a mountaineering club. Lift their heavy, creaky lids and you’ll find massive books filled with the signatures of people who climbed all the way, who pushed out further into what few of us know.
In these books, you’ll find my mother’s illegible, curlicue signature. Proof of how my blood ran through the 1960s, pressing uphill toward the sky in falling-apart shoes across Oregon, Washington, and California. Shoes so damaged that one day my mom stopped walking across her college campus to examine her toes. They had mild frostbite, and she probably thought, “Oh, I need those to climb mountains,” imagining the subtle shifts in balance and the grip of her toes propelling her upward.
She scrounged together her resources, asked people to lend her money, and took care of her shoes. Her gaze never drifted far from the peaks of the Cascades or from the broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean. She was poor after she left home, and she found solace in climbing mountains or surfing the freezing waters along the Oregon coast.
Grown men would quake in their boots, cry, and freeze up as they hung from safety lines at 9,000 feet. Some of them needed to be carried down. Not my mother. She scrambles up mountains like she’s underwater, swimming desperately toward a surface for some air, and then bursting through at the summit.
As the world was toking up and protesting and rioting in the streets, my mother was running around in the mountains, giggling and lightheaded in the low air pressure of 14,000 feet. While serious athletic men obsessed over sporting brands and how to reduce the weight of their climbing gear, they couldn’t figure my mother out. She was busy carrying a can of soda up a mountain, curious to see what would happen if she opened it at a high altitude. (It fizzed really loud.)
The risks of those great elevations were her own private rebellion, her protests on the streets. The mountains took her away from her father’s 1950s nuclear family domestic dream. Where women stay at home to cook and clean, and they don’t go to college. When she left home, her father scoffed and gave her two measly dollars, expecting her to run right back. She never went back. She fights with her fists, pulling at handfuls of sky, one of few mortals who get to ascend above the timberlines, above the clouds.
She ascended Mt. Saint Helens before it exploded and turned into dust and liquid fire. Gazed upon Spirit Lake before it sizzled up and steamed away. She continued to climb, passing through poverty, homelessness, and a through a nursing career that has spanned three decades. Climbing beyond the struggle of being a single mother and raising two rascal girls. My mother finds wisdom in these trials. She continues to sign her name in those great and aged books that rest in heavy wooden chests on the summits of mountains.