On a windy afternoon, 17-year-old Ashley Standridge and her friend Kristen McKelvey drive down to the Carson River. The rhythmic rush of the river and rustle of cottonwood leaves is interrupted every so often by the piercing ring of rifle blasts echoing through the canyon.
Empty shell casings, broken bottles, abandoned cars and piles of trash attest to the secrets of this hideaway tucked in the canyon behind the city.
For Ashley, this day is a sort of homecoming.
She points across the dusty road where a blue minivan is parked.
"We had a two-room tent where me and my brothers slept," she explains. "When it was cold, my mom had a mattress in the back of her Blazer and we slept there."
A man steps around from behind the van.
She tells him she used to live where he's parked when she was in the second grade.
"Praise God, I'm living here now," he responds.
He warns of a rattlesnake about 150 yards upriver. It's about five feet long, he estimates, drawing a circle in the dirt showing how big it is when coiled up.
It reminds Ashley of the time she and her brothers found a rattler during the five months they lived on the river with their mom and stepfather.
She remembers her stepdad trapping the snake in the V of a forked stick, then hammering its head.
"We were going to eat it, but we never did," she says.
When she thinks back, there are some good memories associated with her past. And some ugly ones.
"Were you a drug addict?" the man asks her.
"No, but my parents were," she answers.
She's determined to make a better future for herself.
Today's graduation from Carson High School, she says, is the first step.
"I'm so ready to get my life started," she smiles. "Oh my gosh, it's right here."
Living on the River
When Ashley was 4, she lived with her mother, Ilona, and two brothers in a Carson City motel room. That year, her mother met Curtis Vadnais, the man Ashley now refers to as her father.
He helped them move from the motel into an apartment.
But four years later, in March of 1999, they went to San Jose, Calif., violating Vadnais' parole. They returned to find themselves without a place to live.
So they moved down by the river. Five of them shared a tent and the back of a Chevrolet Blazer. They cooked on an open fire or ate their meals at Carson City's Friends in Service Helping, a community service organization that provides goods for the homeless.
"Some days it was horrible, and I really wished we had a house," Ashley remembers. "But some days I loved it. It was like camping out every day."
That year, she met her best friend Kristen McKelvey, who accompanies Ashley on her trip to revisit her old home site.
Kristen remembers how Ashley would visit, and sometimes she would use their shower. Then her brothers started coming over to shower, too.
In return, Kristen would "go camping" with them.
Ashley points to a rock outcropping and tells how she and her brothers used to climb it.
"I used to tell my brother I was going to race him up there," she says motioning to the hills separating the river from Mound House. "We were going to look for wild horses."
In a way, she says, living outside had its advantages. Once the family got the money together, they moved to an apartment.
"At least we had a roof over our heads, but it was a studio," she says. "At least we had space out here."
And it helped shape who she is.
"Looking back on this stuff, I'm kind of glad it happened. I'm independent and a strong person, and a lot of people aren't at my age," she says. "If it didn't happen, I don't know where I'd be. Nobody has my outlook on life."
The structure Ashley missed at home, she found in school.
"I'm so paranoid to get below a B," she says. "I get really frustrated." She will graduate today with a grade-point average around 3.7.
School was her priority, and she made sure to stay away from drugs. Although her mother got clean and has stayed off meth for more than five years, Ashley says she was determined to never repeat those mistakes.
"It scares me so much," she says. "I'll never try it."
In part, though, her success is a tribute to her mother, she says. Ilona worked full-time at often physically demanding jobs to pull her family out of hard times, and she always made sure her children went to school. They now live in a home in east Carson City.
"I like when my mom sees the good things in life," Ashley says. "I know she's proud of me."
In high school, Ashley was introduced to the culinary arts program. She received a scholarship to participate and competed at the national level. Eventually, she wants to go to college and major in culinary arts and business management.
First, she plans to serve in the U.S. Army. She will report to basic training in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on July 11.
"I'm so excited to travel," she says. "I've only been to a couple of states in my life. I want to see what the whole world has for me."
Part of that, she hopes, is a family.
"I cannot wait until I'm a mommy," she says. "I love kids."
But she doesn't want to raise them the way she was raised.
"I wouldn't want to do anything particularly the same. I just want my kids' lives to be stable. I want to have a career and stuff. I want to be 100 percent ready."
She can't predict exactly what will happen after she graduates, but she does have confidence in her ability to handle what lies ahead.
"I came from like a slump, and I want to make my life the best I can," she says. "I have no expectations, but I know if I push myself I'll be great. I can see myself doing so much in life."
• Contact reporter Teri Vance at email@example.com or 881-1272.
• Carson High School graduates at 10 a.m. at the Carson High School football field. The school is at 1111 Saliman Road in Carson City.
• Virginia City High School graduates at 10 a.m. inside the school's gymnasium. Virginia City High School is located at 95 South R Street in Virginia City.
In Sunday's Nevada Appeal view a list of both school's graduates.