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Seems Early to Wrangle With This Transition

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pam was in labor. I was on deadline.

“Just one more page,” I’d say. “Just one more sentence.” Finally her contractions outpaced my contractual obligations, and we headed for the hospital. At 8:33 on a hot August night, Ashley Rose-Anna Sipchen came into the world, eyes wide with a look that said: “Great! Glorious! Let’s get this life thing rollin’!”

Thirteen years later, her birthday is upon us. And I’m on deadline. And our plan to celebrate in a special place is beginning to look seriously at risk.

When Pam and I decided to take our three children on the road for the summer to report on the state of the American family, we knew three birthdays would pass. I spent mine in New Mexico. Pam’s odometer clicked in Chicago. But those events were like entering another state (“Hey! Alabama! Interesting!”). Thirteen is more like crossing the Mississippi: “Whoa! Time to ponder the flowing depths of eternity.”

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Is there a parent alive who, when the clock strikes 13, doesn’t feel a slight misfiring down there between the soul and the esophagus?

In a sense, Ashley’s our first finished product, our first official lost childhood.

Man, those years blew by.

I remember when Pam and I introduced our baby to the tiny backyard of our rented duplex in Costa Mesa. Sunlight filtered through the yellowing leaves of a big sycamore, dappling Ashley’s pink face. Her eyes seemed as hungry as the tiny lips at her mother’s breast. Joyously she sucked up the chirping sparrows, the faint scent of the ocean, the smiles of friends who by now have drifted and grandparents who have died.

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(“But where did Grandma go?”

(“To heaven. You understand, sweetie?”

(“Yes.” Long pause. “When will she be back?”)

For some reason, I’d set 12 as the age when we would have all the things she’d need to keep her life on track: a big house with a pool where all her friends could gather to face the onslaught of adolescence, her own room, her own horse.

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As I said, though, the years blew by.

Ash still shares a room with her sister--having evicted her brother to impromptu quarters just a few months ago. We have had plenty of pools, but they’ve all been inflatable. And as for the horse. . . .

“Dad?” Ash asks as we rip through Nebraska. “Do you think we’re going to make it? Just tell me.”

“We’re gonna do our best,” I say. Then I drift.

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This trip has been good for all our children. But for Ashley it’s been a rite of passage. Leaving friends was hardest for her. School pressures are mounting. She is changing physically. Just three days into the expedition, we camped at Grand Canyon National Park. The kids were eager to get to the rim, but I had to write. By the time I was done it was dark.

“Let’s go anyway,” I said. Ash responded with a moan but reluctantly joined us. After a mile of hiking, our family came upon the canyon. In the absence of light it was a massive black slash, a void conveying an overwhelming sense of power. At my urging, we all lay on the trail and stared up at the stars.

I thought we were all happy.

But as we hiked back in the silence, Emily and Ashley bumped. That was all it took. In a moment, Ashley was sobbing.

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When I tried to console her, she snapped. “This is stoooo-pid,” she shouted with the inflection of a jaded junior high schooler. “We couldn’t even see anything. I told you I didn’t want to go.”

My brain flooded with this blind rage / pitying wail: “I worked so damned hard to show you this, and this is how you repay me?”

Miraculously, though, I held my tongue. We walked on in the dark, her sobs accompanying my despair. Even more miraculously, in a minute Ashley’s crying stopped and a tiny voice said: “Sorry, Dad.”

It was the first of a handful of increasingly short-lived breakdowns, and the beginning of my understanding of her fears and disappointments.

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As we continued, pushing from state to state and story to story, Ashley took to pitching in unspurred, washing dishes or coaxing Emily, 10, and Robert, 7, to do their journal writing. Her poise, confidence and respect have blossomed before our eyes.

Sometimes when the kids are asleep, Pam and I talk. We’ve decided we agree with the people who say this culture doesn’t offer enough official support to children making the tough transition from child to adult.

We thought about sending Ashley on a vision quest, but we’re not Native American. We considered a bat mitzvah, but we’re not Jewish. So once again, we opted to do the best we could.

That’s why, by the time we hit South Dakota, we were determined to pull off her birthday as planned. So I write as Pam drives and I file my story from the Pine Ridge Reservation, clearing a deadline out of our path.

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*

We get lost. The RV starts making strange noises. But we drive on and on, edging onto a nine-mile dirt road and through the stone gate of Eatons’ Ranch on the afternoon of Ashley’s 13th birthday, just in time for the day’s last ride.

The problem is that it’s pouring. And the wranglers aren’t sure whether they’ll be saddling horses.

We eat dinner in the ranch dining room and Ashley stares out the window, overjoyed by our surroundings but concerned with the sky’s unwillingness to stop spilling rain.

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Southern Californians owe the Eatons a debt of gratitude, if only because the original Eaton boys are reputed to have coined the term “dude” as a way to describe their pals from the East who would hang out at their ranch in North Dakota in the 1880s.

By all accounts I can find, theirs was the first dude ranch in America, and today a fourth generation of Eatons and their kin run the spread much as it has been run since it moved to these 7,000 acres in the foothills of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains.

Each morning at 6:30, a ringing bell draws guests to breakfast in the big communal dining room. An old man in a 1931 Ford pickup begins delivering firewood while another hauls blocks of ice to the cabins’ old-fashioned ice boxes. Before that, at dawn, wranglers have ridden up sage-covered hills and, with whoops and whip cracks, have driven the ranch’s 200 or so horses down from the high pasture.

Tonight, after dinner, dudes walk one by one out to the muddy hitching rail. They shake their heads and then head to the log cabin rec room to play Ping-Pong or back to the warmth of their cabins.

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Standing ankle-deep in muck with our rain jackets shedding a drizzle, we turn to Ashley for our family’s decision. She grins like Calamity Jane and is unequivocal:

“Let’s ride.”

So wranglers saddle five fine horses for our family and we head out into the mist, riding along a trail thick with wildflowers, including black-eyed Susans so high they tickle the horses’ bellies.

*

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After half an hour or so, according to a prearranged plan, Pam, Emily and Robert turn and head for the barn.

Back at our rustic, creek-side cabin, they build a big fire, string streamers and prepare the cake. They wrap Ashley’s presents, including two from Pam and me: gold earrings (which mean she finally can get her ears pierced) and a Browning knife with wood inlay--a symbol of our faith in her judgment and our hope that she’ll always cherish the outdoor life.

Ashley and I, meanwhile, continue on. A stream lined with very old oak trees rumbles. Birds dart chirping through a hayfield, then hide again from the storm.

When we finally turn back, the rain is coming down harder, blowing straight into our eyes. The sky has turned black and the mountains recede into 100 shades of gray.

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“Getting chilly?” I ask.

“A little,” Ashley says, patting her horse’s neck.

“Your pants soaked?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

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“Hands cold?”

“Yeah.”

I look at my poor wet baby and smile.

“Ain’t it glorious?” I ask.

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“Yeah!” she says.

* Thursday: To Colorado Springs, Colo., to visit Focus on the Family’s offices.

ON THE WEB: Visit the Sipchens on the World Wide Web at https:// www.latimes.com/trip/ for maps, journals and sounds from the family’s trip.


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