Note: My father passed away on November 29, 1999.
MY FATHER'S MOUNTAIN
My father was born in 1913 on an Oregon farm. One of eleven children (the second eldest), he struggled to help support the family when his father died in 1931. In the depths of the Depression, he worked his way through college. He served as a U. S. Army chaplain in World War II, then again during the Korean War. He completed his doctorate after Korea, then spent his life teaching in colleges and universities. Now 84, he lives in retirement with my mother in Pittsfield, Mass.
When I was a boy, my father several times drove our family back from our home in Oklahoma to his old stomping grounds in the Beaver State. He enjoyed showing us the little town of Milton-Freewater (where stood the family farm that was lost to the bank in the Depression), the Pendleton Woolen Mill, the Columbia River Gorge, Portland, Crater Lake, the rugged and rocky Pacific Coast.
But the most spectacular sight of all—the favorite of my brothers and me—was Mt. Hood, a somnolent volcano, snow-covered year-round, that towers 11,239 feet about 40 miles east of Portland. Hood is part of the Cascades, a range that features, among others, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens.
When there is no industrial haze or cloud deck to obscure the sight, Hood is visible for many miles. As you drive west on I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge you catch occasional glimpses of it, first as a mere bump on the horizon, then as a massive shoulder of ice and snow. At other, hazy times you can drive all the way to Portland and not even know a mountain is near.
At Hood River, Ore., you can leave the interstate and take Rte. 35 to a road that ascends the mountain 6000 feet to Timberline Lodge, a rustic log-and-stone structure built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Depression and dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt himself in September 1937. (The lodge is familiar to movie fans as the setting for Stanley Kubrick's production of Stephen King's "The Shining.") Timberline is now populated year-round by tourists and hikers and skiers—the latter can be seen navigating its slopes even on August days that approach 100 degrees in Portland. I remember my boyhood delight in throwing summer snowballs at my brothers.
I do not remember how old I was—rather, how young I was—when Dad first told us that he had once climbed Mt. Hood. But I was probably not yet 10. Even today I remember some of the details of my father's story. He was with a few friends; they underwent no special training, carried with them no special gear. They climbed and returned in a single day. Near the top they encountered an unexpected blizzard that so obscured their vision that they nearly stepped off a cliff into thousands of feet of empty space. And at the summit stood a wooden shack. Inside was a logbook where they all signed their names.
My father could not climb a mountain now. A series of strokes has slowed him so severely that a simple set of stairs is struggle enough. From the living room to the kitchen is a hike up Hood.
I have been back to Timberline a number of times in my adult years. I breathe deeply the crisp air, buy souvenirs (coffee mugs, postcards, T-shirts, and the like), and I gaze up at the summit that my father once conquered and try to imagine doing so myself one day.
Last summer I was in the gift shop at Timberline and saw something I'd not noticed before: a large black-and-white photograph of the summit, taken in the late 1920s, a bit before my father's climb. But what grasped my attention was the little shack—just as Dad had described it. I purchased the photograph, had it framed, and gave it to my father for Christmas. He promptly hung it on his bedroom wall and now invites all visitors to see the summit of the mountain that he mastered years ago.
Late last winter I began to wonder: Is it possible that the logbooks still exist? Perhaps even the one my father signed? Could I acquire a copy of that very page? I fooled around for a while on the internet until I located a Timberline Lodge home page. I sent an e-mail inquiry.
On March 4 I received an answer: "Alas, the shack at the top of the mountain was blown away by a typical Northwest storm many years ago. It is assumed that the book you are looking for blew away with the shack."
Oh well. I told my dad about the fruitless search and soon forgot about it.
But one day this spring I received a phone call from an enterprising ranger stationed at Mt. Hood National Forest, Jeanne Ahern. She had seen my e-mail and was intrigued. She would do some additional searching, would keep in touch.
Again, I filed my hopes away, not expecting much.
She called again. Did I know what year my father climbed? Perhaps the specific date?
I did not. Nor could my father remember. My mother guessed it was probably in 1936 or 1937. I speculated that—because of the blizzard—it was either early in the season, or late. Ranger Ahern thanked me and hung up.
A few days later she called with the news. They had found his name. He had reached the summit of Mt. Hood nearly 60 years ago, on August 9, 1937, accompanied by James Earl Ladd, Kenneth C. Hendricks, and L. E. Rinearson—names my father could no longer recall when I asked him about his climb.
A few days later I received in the mail a photocopy of the page he had signed that long ago day. I took it to Kinko's, re-copied it on sturdy, attractive paper, and had it framed for Father's Day.
And then I wrote long letters of thanks to Ranger Ahern, to her immediate superior, and to Mazamas, the mountaineering club in Portland that maintains the records and whose employees searched through dusty records, name by name, for "Charles Ed. Dyer, Freewater, Ore."
I don't know that I will ever climb Mt. Hood. My father was 24 when he did it; I am 52. Although I can jog a few miles without requiring emergency medical assistance, I know I'm not in the kind of condition that Hood demands.
But I would love to stand one day at the summit of that mountain—perhaps with my own son, who, coincidentally, is now 24. I would sign my name in the logbook, and then I would turn toward the sun and shout my thanks to my father. And to my mother. And to Jeanne Ahern, Ranger, Mt. Hood National Forest, who brought into our lives a moment of surpassing joy.