The kitchen rattles so loudly I fear the microwave will fall off the wall and smash to bits, and I have to brace myself against the sink in order to grab some lemonade from the fridge. The animals, though, don’t seem to mind. One dog has been wedged into a corner under the table for most of the day; the other is snoozing peacefully on the couch. One cat lazes on the bed, another watches the road from atop a triple-tiered kitty perch, and the third lies on the floor just behind my husband, who is driving us all east on a rough stretch of I-80 at 65 miles per hour in cruise control.
Soon, we’ll stop for the night in a random Wal-Mart parking lot, pulling in beside a dozen or so other RVs gathered there. We’ll walk the dogs on the lot’s weedy edges, and then we’ll open a carton of wine, cook some pasta and catch up on email and the day’s news using our jerry-rigged Wi-Fi network. We’ll fall asleep in our bolted-down queen-size bed, and I’ll dream we’re hurtling through space or bobbing across the ocean.
I’ve never had a burning desire to drive across the country in an RV. But how else do you relocate with five pets? As our pet count increased over the years, it was a question we’d occasionally entertained as a thought experiment: “What will we do if we ever need to move?” At some point we’d had four dogs, and as recently as last winter we’d reached three dogs and three cats. The answer to the hypothetical question was rarely more than a laugh and a shake of the head, with an occasional bid for chartering a private jet (after first winning the lottery).
Then the phone rang in late spring, and the question became an actual dilemma. I’d applied for a fellowship thousands of miles away, but believing my chances were slim, I hadn’t concerned myself with logistics. So when the program director called with good news -- nine months’ paid time off from deadlines to study at a top university -- my immediate reaction was one of dread. Never mind the challenge of finding a landlord in the new city that might welcome, or even allow, our pets. How on earth were we going to move them all there?
“Surely you can find someone to leave the cats with while you’re away,” my parents said. “Maybe a friend would take care of the dogs for you?”
“We left Superstar with neighbors when we moved,” my mother-in-law pointedly reminded my husband about some family cat from long ago.
“Are you really going to take them all with you?” any number of our friends asked.
Well, actually, yes. We were. Sure, we fantasized about packing light and catching a plane to our destination, settling into some handsomely furnished apartment and having no responsibilities for the year. But that didn’t really seem fair. Four out of five of our animals came from a shelter; they’d already been ditched at least once. The previous owner of our grey tabby moved away and left her -- nursing her kittens -- in the empty apartment. Even if we found them homes with people they already knew, who could predict how they’d feel? I remembered reading about pets in the United Kingdom’s three-month quarantine (a requirement for animals arriving from the U.S.) that died from heartbreak. You can’t explain to a dog or cat that you’ll be back. We felt a responsibility to keep our little family together -- especially since we weren’t actually moving to another country.
We were also committed to making the move itself as stress-free as possible, for all of us. But what should that entail? I sought advice from our vet, who pointed out that air travel might turn out to be the best option for the cats; assuming cars and planes would both cause stress, at least the plane trip was fast. Road travel would take at least three days.
But flying came with its own set of nuisances. One of us would be stuck driving alone with the dogs; the other would be arriving, with three cats and no car, to an unfurnished apartment. Driving made no sense either. How would we fit five animals, plus luggage, in a Subaru wagon? What chaos would ensue each time we opened the door? How well would the air conditioner work in the searing August heat?
We became obsessed with the logistics. We made spreadsheets; we entertained entrepreneurial fantasies of FedEx for animals. I had flashbacks to SAT problems about ferrying various animals across a river. One night, while mulling our options for the millionth time, I joked that we should buy an RV. A quick Web search revealed a price tag of about $30,000. Surely we could rent one? By the time we began making arrangements, we no longer cared that it would cost more than twice any of our other options, at a time when we were trying to save money. As far as we were concerned, there was no other way. It was RV or bust.
We didn’t even balk when we learned that cats weren’t allowed in the vehicle we’d reserved. Nothing a vacuum cleaner and some vigilance couldn’t fix, we decided. I had visions of one particular orange tabby venting his feelings about the whole event on the driver’s seat. But what was life without some risk? What was life without our pets? We had one goal -- a low-stress road trip for all involved -- and we weren’t going to let some nagging little rule stand in our way.
So we did it. We rented an RV, hitched our car behind it, and carted our ark across the country: through rest stops sparse with grass for the dogs to walk in, down six-lane highways, with books on CD and cats on the armrests, and in and out of those Wal-Mart parking lots. In the end, nobody complained -- not the dogs at having to tolerate 96 hours of motion sickness; not the cats and their angry bladders; not the RV rental boss, who has (as of yet, fingers crossed) no clue of our pussycat contraband. The adventure cost us a few thousand dollars more than expected. But that’s the thing about family: even when it’s four-legged and furry, you never leave it behind.
Hilary Rosner’s writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Popular Science, The New York Times, Newsweek, OnEarth, and many other publications.