Who takes an almost-2-year-old toddler, an 85-pound golden retriever, and two indoor cats on a three-week vacation odyssey? Yep, we do.

It was a summer of 1999 adventure that sparked what was to become our annual Cavanagh Camping Trip.

The original participants were my husband, Brian, my daughter, Amanda, our golden retriever, Clancy, two cats, Sunny and Cassidy, and me.

We had at long last been given medical clearance to leave the immediate area. The previous 18 months had been spent in and out of Long Beach Memorial Hospital with Amanda. She has Down syndrome, and was born with numerous health issues. She was finally stable, with the aid of medical equipment to support her tracheostomy tube and the potential need for oxygen.

We wanted out! We were sick and tired of being tied to doctors, hospitals and routine. But we also wanted to bring the pets as we had major guilt for neglecting them while dealing with Amanda’s health situation.

Renting a 30-foot recreational vehicle from Cruise America RV Rental and Sales and motoring across America seemed the perfect solution. Our plan was to leave Redondo Beach, Calif., drive all the way to Pulaski, N.Y., and back home. We would take the northern route east and head through the belly of the country on the way back.

Google Maps did not exist. AAA ruled the vacation planning business. We contacted our local office to get TripTik travel planners for our desired stops: Yosemite National Park, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Corn Palace, Badlands, Mount Rushmore National Park. TripTiks are little flip books with a yellow highlighted line down the page mapping your route. In the days before Google Maps, excitement would build as you flipped through your TripTik, nearing the end of the booklet and arriving at your destination. We had a whole box full for this journey.

Packing the RV was our first adventure. We needed to take oxygen tanks, suction machines, mist compressor, portable crib, toddler seats and all kinds of other kid gear. Not to mention litter boxes, doggie bed, pet food. And then, oh yes, food, clothes, bedding, towels.

Everyone participated in their own way. Brian and I did the grunt work. We trudged back and forth from house to RV with boxes, suitcases, and bags filled to the top. Amanda clapped from her crib in the family room every time an item of hers went by. Our dog, Clancy, followed us wherever we went: up the stairs, down the stairs, out the door, into the RV, back through the garage into the kitchen. His job was to make sure we didn’t forget to take Clancy. And the cats sat on or in whatever it was we needed to pack next.

The most important item was the portable TV/VCR player. This was before every vehicle had its own DVD player. DVDs didn’t even exist. This was our sanity keeper. With hours upon hours of Barney, Elmo, the Wiggles, and Disney movies, Amanda was happily entertained. We were not leaving home without it.

Our first destination was San Simeon Creek Campground. Just north of the quaint town of Cambria, Calif., and south of Hearst Castle, it was a mere 245 miles from our home. With Los Angeles traffic, a predictably late start, and potty breaks, this was about as ambitious as we could get.

You might be thinking: Wait, didn’t the RV have a bathroom? But that meant having to use the chemicals and the dump stations at the campgrounds, and that seemed like a hassle and, to be honest, kind of gross.

Clancy could have slept all day on the king-size bed in the back of the RV. As part of his vacation, we were letting him “up on the bed,” which he supposedly was not allowed to do at home. I say supposedly because we would come home and find dog toys buried in the comforter and dog drool on the pillows.

Instead of sprawling in approved doggie leisure, he refused to leave the spot right between the two cabin seats in the front of the RV—the absolute hottest place in the vehicle as the engine was right beneath. He panted. He wiggled. He breathed hot doggie breath on the driver’s leg. But he was not letting either one of us out of his sight. Meanwhile, the cats obliviously snoozed away, intertwined in their carrier.

I had never driven anything bigger than our Ford Explorer Sport. Sitting in the captain’s chair and steering this monstrosity was frightening at first. But what became apparent very quickly was that the person driving, with ever-watchful Clancy at his or her side, was not sitting in the back watching Barney and the Wiggles, or answering questions, or getting snacks, or changing diapers. Being captain was the place to be. Once you got over the size, sitting above everyone else on the road and knowing you would win in a collision of any consequence evoked delusions of grandeur and power.

“Deb, are you getting tired of driving? We can switch.”

“Nope, I’m good.”

And by luck or happenstance, whenever we would switch and it was my turn to entertain the child, she slept. I was able to sit and knit, sprawl on the king-size bed and read a book, or actually nap myself. It was glorious. The swaying of the RV. The sound of a slightly snoring toddler. No house to clean or laundry to do. Pure heaven.

By the time we arrived at our campsite it was almost dark. Having only tent-camped in the past, it was an exciting experience to pull into a campsite and not have to do anything except put the rig in park. We almost didn’t know what to do with ourselves.

After Clancy was walked and all the four-legged critters were fed and happy, we were finally able to relax and dine ourselves. Sitting at our RV booth table we ate turkey and ham sandwiches, watermelon, and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. We could hear the rumble of the ocean and feel the breeze through the open windows. Clancy was positioned under the table, with the dual purpose of being in sight and catching toddler tidbits from the table. The cats sat in the windows with heads, eyes and ears darting in all directions due to unfamiliar sounds.

With a good number of pages down in our first TripTik, the whole family under one mobile roof, and the anticipation of the next day bouncing around in our heads, we toasted with our cookies the first night of our first-ever Cavanagh Camping Trip.

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