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Seeing the Forest, Trees . . . the Light

AMERICAN FAMILY: On the road with the Sipchens. Tuesday: From Alaska, a look back.


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?"

"You bet."

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.

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