WOLF, Wyo. — 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."
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.
("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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.