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Destination: Discovery, Insight, Adventure : Mom, Dad and Kids Take an RV Across the Country During This Most Familial of Seasons

AMERICAN FAMILY / On the road with the Sipchens

June 16, 1997|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHIRIACO SUMMIT, Calif. — A trucker flashes his lights and we edge back over, tires clicking on Botts dots. That traveler's signal, that sound, are emotional triggers. Abruptly the tension of leaving evaporates and with the Chiriaco Pass filling the windshield, my eyes fill with tears.

We did it! We did it! We did it!

We're on the road, and you're reading the first installment of a series that one editor at this paper bitterly labeled "the Sipchen Family's Summer Vacation Scam."

Scam?

The Sipchen family resents that characterization of the inspired journalistic adventure upon which we have just embarked.

In the proposal that conned, er, persuaded this newspaper's muck-a-mucks to send us on the road in a rented motor home for the summer, I offered an observation:

During the past few election cycles, politicians across the political spectrum blathered endlessly about "family values." As the presidential candidates were butting heads, I spent some time talking to normal people around the country about what concerned them. While most were skeptical of the campaign rhetoric, few took long to steer a conversation back to worries about family--their own or the mythic "American family" they knew to be out there somewhere.

Those discussions, I discovered, covered thoughts too intricate or nebulous to be of much use to pollsters, and emotions too rich to make much sense in standard political stories--which doesn't mean they weren't worthwhile.

At least that's the pitch I made to my editors--throwing in that summer is the most American and familial season and that reporting from the perspective of a genuine, decidedly imperfect family would give the stories an unusual twist.

Against all odds, all expectations--all common sense, it might be argued--they said, "Why not?"

And so my wife, Pam, and I prepared to load Ashley, 12, Emily, 10, and Robert, 7, into a 26-foot RV and to wheel out of Los Angeles en route to Alaska by way of Florida, Maine and parts in between. Our mission is not to sightsee, but to see what we can discover about the state of the family.

The kids were thrilled, even though Hawaii isn't on the itinerary. ("Please Dad! Jenny went there and got to climb a coconut tree!") As word about the trip leaked out, friends had a universal response: "Wow! We'd love to do that! What a great opportunity for the kids! We're so envious!"

We have no illusions about how privileged we are for this opportunity to live this piece of the American dream.

The road-trip ritual spans the generations, from Lewis and Clark to Beavis and Butt-head. Beyond that, though, our era, with its company downsizings and lickety-split competitive pace, has left men and women on every step of the economic ladder longing to spend more time with their families.

For the corporate oppressors to subsidize a clan's summer road trip is good fortune that trumps lottery fantasies in some people's minds. What mother doesn't hope to "expose" her children to intriguing people and inspiring places? What father wouldn't love to enroll with his kids in a three-month traveling history, sociology and American culture class? Still, at least a few of the people who initially expressed abject jealousy came back later with a more measured critique of our plans: "A whole summer in a rolling tin can with three kids? You're nuts."

One friend predicted that we'd go Donner Party before we hit New Mexico.

Admittedly, this is our family's first long-range excursion. But we're not naive about the risk.

*

When Pam was 10, she and her parents and two siblings toured Europe for eight weeks in a Volkswagen station wagon. She remembers it in stunning and largely pleasant detail. My own family's frequent car trips back to our hometown of Chicago are similarly implanted in my mind, and all but a few of the memories are splendid.

(If you're reading this, Dad, let me once again point out the bright side: If I hadn't been so thoroughly groovin' to that Nebraska rock station and forgotten to shift into 4th, we never would have had that extra week to explore Lincoln, Neb., while living in that intriguing motel beside the repair shop. And we probably needed a new engine anyway.)

There was, of course, the summer between my junior and senior years in high school when my pals Rick, Greg and I put 10,000 cross-country miles on a 1964 Dodge van. Or at least Greg and I did. At about 9,000 miles, somewhere in the Southwestern desert, Rick and I got into a discussion of who was entitled to ride shotgun.

"I called it."

"It's my turn."

"You had your turn in Oklahoma, moron."

"Liar!"

BAM. SMACK.

Rick hopped out and refused to get back in. Interpreting the look on his face as a pout, Greg and I had little choice but to toss him his sleeping bag and leave him standing on the scabby shoulder, 25 miles from phone, food or water.

I've matured since then. I would never do that to my wife or children. And I'll be keeping my eye on them whenever they have the keys.

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