ABOARD THE MATANUSKA, EN ROUTE TO ALASKA: It's 4:30 a.m. I lean over and shake my son awake.
"Look, Robert. Fishing boats."
Robert, 7, pokes his head out of his mummy bag and gazes through our ferry's white railing at the small boats passing in the dark.
The water is smooth; the sky, a mix of clouds and stars. A strong, salt-scented wind buzzes through the vinyl webbing of the deck chairs where we lay, side by side.
"See?" I whisper. "They're heading off to work."
"I see 'em," Robert says. He shudders in the cold. For a moment, we absorb the wild, rugged night. Then he yawns.
"I'm going to get a little more sleep. OK, Dad?"
He burrows back into his bag and I burrow into mine, and into a drowsy reverie about how specific moments in specific places can stamp people for life.
My wife, Pam, and I and our three children have been traveling all summer, surveying the state of American families. Now we're on the final leg of our almost-20,000-mile trip. Joined by Pam's mother in Seattle, we drove our rented RV to Bellingham, Wash., and onto this ferry for the 52-hour sail up the Inside Passage to Juneau, Alaska.
Sleeping in vehicles is not permitted and cabins are expensive, so we are camping on the top deck--Grandma and 13-year-old Ashley on chaise lounges in our backpacking tent, the rest of us in the open air or under shelter of the ship's solarium.
The autumn solstice is still ahead, and Labor Day has passed. The tourist swarms of just a few days earlier have shrunk to a smattering of young vagabonds and locals for whom the Alaska Marine Highway's ferries are floating Greyhounds.
These people are our neighbors now, and we get to know some of them as the miles of forest roll by. Their tales echo with others we've encountered in three months and 46 states.
As I lay on the dark deck beside my son, for instance, a scene returns that has been infiltrating my thoughts since the beginning of the journey. Just five days out of Los Angeles, we reached Utah's Monument Valley at dusk. We watched with something like reverence as the night slowly absorbed the spectacular rock formations. Then we continued across the black desert, feeling oddly lonesome and anxious in such unfamiliar circumstances.
A couple of times we passed little cafes just as their lights clicked off, and when we reached Mexican Hat, it looked as if that tiny town, too, had just shut down.
Then, up the road, we noticed firelight and a glint of dusty neon. In a minute we were there, seated at a dimly lit picnic table in a dirt courtyard littered with old wooden wagons and carriages and a sign reading "Wagon Yard Terrace." The restaurant's owner, Clint Howell, stood in workingman's cowboy duds swinging a squeaky metal grate over an open mesquite fire.
The rib-eye steaks sizzled and spit. Clint's shy 17-year-old son, Billy, peered out from his low-slung cowboy hat to take our order. His mother, Joy, and sister Haley, 13, helped serve us. Soon we were eating good hot food on a warm night in friendly surroundings.
The most vivid impression, though, was left by another meal, described that night by Haley. With her mom's arm wrapped around her shoulder, Haley said that she and best friend Jodi often saddle their horses on summer evenings and ride into the endless expanse of sage-covered hills. Haley described what to her were mundane details: "We spread out our bedrolls, make a fire where no one can see it, and just talk and stuff. In the morning, we make breakfast with whatever we've got--hash, eggs, potatoes." Our kids glanced at the dark landscape with longing.
That scene stuck, I think, because it contrasts so dramatically with our hometown urban landscape, which offers families good things but not the chance to be alone together in big spaces, or to tentatively test the darkness while the hearth is still within reach.
I'm not saying that's essential. It's just something you notice when you drive around the country scrutinizing families in a variety of landscapes.
The first morning on the ferry, three months later, I watched a thin blond woman named Mary dancing on the deck with her 9-month-old son.
She had gone into labor with the boy two months early. A medevac crew had flown her, all alone, from the island town of Ketchikan to a hospital in Juneau, where she was entitled to health care because the boy's father is Native American.
Now Mary lives in Bellingham and the baby's dad is in Jobs Corps training 100 miles away. Every three months, Mary and her baby grab a cheap ferry fare and head back to Ketchikan to see the grandparents.
All day, the ferry pushed up British Columbia's coast, past thickly timbered islands the size of Burger Kings and ones that took hours to pass. Around us, peaks snared clouds and the moisture spilled back into the sea in countless streams and waterfalls. With this wilderness as their backdrop, Mary and her son danced and sang and smiled at everyone.
Trees, rock, sea and clouds. Don't tell me this family's character isn't being stamped by such surroundings. Trees, rock, sea and clouds. Don't tell me their bond won't be strong.
That's not to say that we didn't see ennui in Hemingway's Michigan or young druggies on Willa Cather's prairie. Even here on the ferry, people from island towns tell us they are troubled by kids who think they have nothing to do.
Likewise, we met strong, happy, families in New Orleans and New York City, Chicago, Akron and Des Moines. But there's a mettle that open spaces can inject into families, and it's still in great demand.
In August, we stayed on a remote dude ranch in Wyoming. We met a leathery, bowlegged man there named Bots, whose grandfather had come to the ranch in 1910 and whose father worked there as a wrangler. Bots, who attended Dartmouth and lived in suburban Chicago, spent his summers wrangling livestock at the ranch too.
During his fifth season there, a Smith college dudette named Ann showed up. She and Bots married 50 years ago and have been returning to the ranch ever since. Bots and Ann brought their children and then their grandchildren to this place where, at a good canter, a kid can disappear into the wilderness in a flash.
"In our family there's a rule," Ann said. "If you are interested in someone as a spouse, you must bring them here first and check them out."
That same rainy day on the ranch, I sat writing in the RV in a mud parking lot by the barn. A mother and teenage daughter, new arrivals, came out to their car. First they tried to use their cell phone and cursed the lack of reception. Then--still running on Chicago time and unaware of my presence--they bickered about the clothes the girl wanted to wear. The confrontation escalated into the sort of neurotic twitter that cities seem unable to vent.
"Do you want to play tennis this year?" the mother shrilled.
"I don't even know!" the daughter screamed woefully. "You guys have ruined it for me! You have so many expectations."
Having ridden in the hills with my own teenage daughter that morning, I knew something the mother did not. As I watched her face twitch toward hysteria, I silently shouted advice:
"Stop talking, you nitwits, and ride, ride, ride."
Now, a month later, Ed Crawford announces with excitement that the ferry has reached Wrangell Narrows, and I'm happy to see my family drift down from the upper decks and cafeteria to the Matanuska's blackened bow.
It's been raining, and as the night sets in, Ashley and I join Ed in the enclosed observation deck.
He'd boarded the boat in Wrangell, Alaska, to ride back to his island hometown of Petersburg. His mother arrived in Alaska in 1954, single and shamed by pregnancy to leave her small hometown in Illinois. Ed grew up surrounded by timber and sea. It seemed inevitable that he would start crewing on boats as soon as he could. In time, he met a woman who, for reasons not limited to money, had come up from Detroit to work in Alaska's salmon canneries. They married and now each has a boat. Separately, they ride through Alaska's wild waters, wrangling their herd of Dungeness crab pots. They meet at home at night.
Ed says their children haven't seen much in the way of plays or museums. But their daughter caught 2,500 fish during her 12th summer, and their son plans to have his own commercial boat soon.
I doubt that kind of life would appeal to Ashley. But I suspect that as she studies Ed's animated face, she sees what I do: an enthusiasm for life that is striking because it is increasingly rare.
Before we head for the bow, Ed tells us that the narrows is a 21-mile channel between islands. At some points it's just 100 yards wide. To navigate it requires 46 course corrections.
The Matanuska--408 feet from bow to stern--has made this run more than 2,000 times since it was launched in 1963. But this is our family's first passage.
There are no stars tonight, no moon, no light except from the buoys marking the claustrophobic course. The ship's engines drone softly. Raindrops sting our faces, as if the wind were chipping away at the surrounding blackness, blowing tiny shards.
Off starboard, a dumpster-size rock churns by. Off port, a fishing boat rolls in our wake. Ed shakes his head and grins in amazement.
Our family clusters, then rushes to look over a railing, then clusters again. Ten-year-old Emily shivers. Robert's eyes are wide. Grandma, hidden deep in a parka, puts her arm around Pam.
Everywhere we've been in America this summer, we've seen families searching for these moments. No talking needed. Our hope, I think, is that just being together in these places will help make us strong.
* Tuesday: From Alaska, a look back.
ON THE WEB: Visit the Sipchens on the World Wide Web at http:// www.latimes.com/trip/ for maps, journals and sounds from the family's trip.