click to enlarge Carol Rushton en route to Alaska, circa 1985.
Carol Rushton en route to Alaska, circa 1985.

Not long after learning to walk, I learned to wander.

Once, I made it to one of the busiest streets in town, right off the freeway. Another time, while exploring a demolished laundromat, I stuck a foot down a concrete drainpipe. My mother summoned firefighters who summoned a jackhammer. I was freed only after a considerable amount of concrete was pulverized. Within a week, I put my thumb in a hole on a trailer hitch and was stuck again. This time, mom freed me herself with help from Vaseline.

The solution was obvious. Mom buckled me inside a horse harness, then tied me to an awning post with a rope about 12 feet long. My sister would stand just beyond reach, eating ice cream and telling me how good it tasted. The harness worked so well that mom used it at the grocery store, albeit with a shorter lead.

My mother always has been practical, sometimes to a fault, and not much interested in what the rest of the world might think. Lately, she has grown forgetful, which happens to a lot of folks as they near 80. Recently, I spent a few days at her house, helping her out with things, and we stayed up late, talking and often laughing, sometimes so hard our faces hurt.

“Want to write your obituary?” I asked. “Sure,” she answered. I typed and asked for details while she went back in time. “I guess I have had a pretty interesting life,” she said, sounding genuinely surprised, when I showed her the finished product. The next morning, she’d forgotten we’d done it, so I showed it to her again. Later, she asked to read it a third time. She doesn’t have a computer – anything she reads must be on paper, so I’m hoping she keeps this column handy.

My mother has never borrowed money from a bank or voted Republican. When she was 12, her parents moved her and a younger sister to the interior of British Columbia, where the family ran a hunting lodge. There were no paved roads. Electricity came from a diesel generator. Temperatures dropped to 60 below in the winter, when water was achieved only after chopping through lake ice a foot or so thick. Mosquitoes were ubiquitous come summer. Carol loved it. She rode horses and got her high school diploma via correspondence school.

In 1964, she returned to the United States, becoming a homemaker and assistant to her husband, a mobile home repairman. Armed with a paint scraper and planted on her knees, she removed old tar from metal roofs in July like nobody’s business – it was the best way to ensure that fresh roof sealant would stick. She also baked the world’s best bread, a dozen loaves at a time, getting as many as she could into the freezer while her family ate thick slices straight from the oven.

Carol’s frugality is legendary, although she recently removed the switch on her hot water tank that she installed years ago, figuring she’d save a few bucks by heating water only when she needed some. Until just a few winters ago, she warmed her house with wood she split and stacked herself. All of her clothes, including underwear, comes from thrift stores. But she never scrimped on bicycles.

Cycling became a passion in the 1980s. She once rode 200 miles in a single day, but her most memorable journeys were tours lasting weeks. On a ride from Washington state to San Francisco, she ditched her bra somewhere in Oregon, in the interest of comfort, and never wore another. She also rode 2,500 miles to Homer, Alaska. “Scared of what?” she’d ask folks who wondered about dangers facing a woman who traveled alone and usually slept in a tent: “It was time to stop for the night, so you’d find a place where you could get off the road.” She also rode the length of the Baja Peninsula, but that was easy, seeing as a van toted her gear and she stayed in hotels. She always has smoked like a chimney. Years ago, it was Pall Malls. These days, she rolls her own with pipe tobacco.

She wore a helmet while riding, which was a good thing. Besides once being hit by a car, she had a close call on the Narrows Bridge, a mile-long span across Puget Sound, while riding bitch on her tandem. It was early on a Sunday. “There’s no cars, just stay in the traffic lane,” she ordered her son, who was driving. The road was clear until halfway across. Then cars  began whizzing past, inches away, with zero shoulder between the traffic lane and an iron barrier that bordered the sidewalk where we should have been. Worse, there was a grated expansion joint coming up and precious little room to swerve a bit and ride diagonally over it. How a wheel didn’t fall through the grating and flip the bike remains a mystery.

She no longer rides, but mom remains the toughest woman I know, and she really has had an interesting life. I hope she enjoys the rest.  

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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