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adventures with dogs

We’ll Be Home For Christmas

Every year in December, my black Volkswagen Atlas is packed with suitcases and metallic-wrapped gifts for the 2,200-mile trip from my home in California, to my family in Ohio. Reserved in the back seat is a designated spot for Luna, my three-year-old Portuguese Water Dog who has become my yearly companion for the 32-hour-long journey.

I never fathomed I’d be driving cross-country (and back!) so often, but visiting home for 2-3 weeks at a time during the holiday season has transformed into a meaningful annual adventure with Luna that I fondly look forward to.

Luna the water dog sits in the back seat of her car ready for a road trip.

Traveling has always been important to me, and when you have a dog, your main form of travel quickly becomes road trips. My partner and I introduced Luna to long car rides early on as a puppy, and today, she’s always eager to hop in for a ride. That being said, there are a few things I plan for to make her journey as smooth as possible.

Pre-Trip Prep

Each year I take a different route back to Ohio, cutting across different states and experiencing a different piece of the U.S. each time. On our last trip, I mapped out a route spanning nine states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

When packing up the car, I always make a special space for Luna, somewhere she’ll have enough room to lie down or stretch out. For enduring long car rides, comfort is key. I always bring gear that will make her more comfortable, like a dog bed, blanket, and a pillow. In a large travel tote, I also bring plenty of extra food, fresh water, collapsible bowls, her favorite toys, training treats, two leashes, waste bags, a brush, a dog car harness, and extra towels in case she gets muddy or wet on excursions.

Luna pokes her head out of Emma's car window, smiling and panting.

Before leaving, I also check her records to make sure she’s caught up on all of her vaccinations, and I pack any medications she might need, like her eye drops, just in case she gets an infection.

Day 1

In the early afternoon, we headed from the salty California coastline into the arid landscape of the Sonoran Desert with wide-open spaces and distant mountain ranges. When mapping out my cross-country route, I try to prioritize finding a few dog parks along the way with good reviews. That way, I know there will be somewhere she can get stimulation and exercise. We had another four hours of driving that day, so I chose a fenced in park she’d be able to run and play before stopping at our hotel.

Luna plays with a Gnawt-a-Stick in a dog park.

Typically, I decide where I’m going to stay for the night just a few hours before. Places like Holiday Inn Express or La Quinta usually have occupancy and a relatively low pet fee. But, if you’d like the security of having a place booked beforehand, you can easily divide your trip into segments and plan where you’ll stay each night. Every hotel will have its pet policy stated online, and sites like BringFido are also great for scouting out a pet-friendly hotel in advance.

Day 2

The next morning, we got an early start and drove east toward the rising sun fanning across the desert. To keep Luna (and myself) from going too stir-crazy, I like to break up the drive every three to four hours. Along the route, I look for State Parks or National Parks we can visit. Of course, every park has its own policy when it comes to pets, but typically there are a few trails that welcome furry companions.

We stopped at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, which was great for exercise. You can even rent a plastic disc for sand sledding. I knew that sand was destined to be trapped in her thick wavy fur, so using the Ruffwear Dirtbag Seat Cover was great for preventing mud, sand, and other elements from getting all over the seats.

Luna sits at a beautiful overlook.

Day 3

Our final day was an 11-hour haul from Oklahoma to Ohio. Portuguese Water Dogs are incredibly high-energy, so I know the more exercise I can fit in, the more content she’ll be during long stretches. Before hitting the road that morning, I found another local dog park for her to burn off some morning energy. Then we rolled on, watching the plains turn to farmland, and farmland turn to rolling hills dusted with frost.

Since loud music can cause stress and anxiety for lots of dogs, I turn on mellow music like lo-fi or folk that not only keeps her calm, but me too. I’ll hear certain songs now, and it instantly takes me back to a memory of driving with her.

Luna sitting by a lake in Mark Twain State Park.

To add some more adventure to one of our final rest stops that day, we decided to take a hike in Mark Twain National Forest, which has lots of dog-friendly trails. Luna has a habit of finding and chewing sticks, so on hikes, I love to bring the Ruffwear Gnawt-A-Stick that she can hold onto or fetch.

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The driveway to my childhood home signals the end of another cross-country journey. Luna, now a seasoned traveler, bounds out of the back seat, her tail wagging with the excitement of reuniting with familiar faces. I can't help but appreciate the richness that this tradition has added to my life, and I’ll always treasure the adventures and quiet moments of companionship with her during the long journey on the road.