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Sally Gorton’s Sunrise

July 29, 2013

The first time I met Sally Clark Gorton, I was a 21-year-old Washington State University college intern in her husband’s US Senate office in Washington, DC.  I was the farthest I’d ever been away from home.

I was introduced to her when she walked into the office with the Gorton’s beloved pet golden lab.  I nervously asked a senior staffer, “Should I call her Mrs. Gorton?” “Sally is fine,” he said.  She and Slade always had a casual elegance.  She was inviting and sparkly, asking about my family, schooling, and how I was liking DC.  She was just another Mom, nurturing me like she nurtured everyone.  She remembered my name and asked me how I was doing every time she swung by the office.

I’ve gotten to know Slade and Sally much better. Over the years we’ve sat through many political and high school events together and endured what seems like an endless number of election nights.

Last Fall, even as she was relegated to using a cane to get around, she still showed up at cross-country meets in random country fields all over the state to cheer her grandson, Daniel.  She wasn’t about to let aging body parts keep her away.  She still had the same adventurous spirit that marked her work way back in her 20’s as a reporter for The Yakima Daily Republic and The Seattle Times.

Last Saturday afternoon (July 20), I was lying in my tent on the Ingraham Flats at the 11,200 point on Mt. Rainier.  My Climb to Fight Breast Cancer team had ascended from Paradise the day before, and we were waiting for our opportunity to attempt to summit.  I had near-perfect cell service from my perch.  I received an email from a friend sharing the sad news of Sally’s passing.

When our guide came around several hours later, at 9:30 PM, asking us to get ready to climb, my first response was, “it’s still light outside.”  I was baffled at the early start time.  I’ve been on Mt. Rainier frequently enough to understand that departing at such an “early” hour would put us on the summit in darkness, unable to enjoy the overwhelming views Mt. Rainier offers on a clear day.

I trusted there was a plan and just went with it.  It was a warm, fairly windless night, and I was with extraordinary people, every one of which I will happily spend time with again. We put our heads down, and kicked steps toward the mountain’s summit under the light of a nearly full moon, arriving on top at 3:45 AM.

As we worked our way down the mountain back to camp, the sun woke up. I gazed out on my favorite view (the reason I come back to Mt. Rainier every year).  It’s the Yakima Valley, Little Tahoma and everything in between.  It takes my breath away every time.

And there, far below, was the small town of Selah, where Sally grew up.  Profile pieces written about Slade over the years always mentioned her hometown, which sits next to Yakima.  It was dawn on July 21, the day Sally would have turned 81, and here I was, surrounded by the most amazing sunrise I’d ever seen, looking down on her hometown. I was grateful for our middle-of-the night summit.

Breast Cancer took Sally.  She and Slade donated to my annual Climb to Fight Breast Cancer over the years.

What an honor to have been in my favorite place, admiring what I’m guessing was one of her favorite places, on her birthday.  As my team continued to descend, the sky brightened in a never-ending rotation of purples, reds and pinks.  An early morning sunrise I’ll never forget.

Sunrise over Selah from the upper flanks of Mt. Rainier. Photo by Lisa Carlson.

Sunrise from the upper flanks of Mt. Rainier. Photo by Lisa Carlson.

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