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Since I've spent a lot of time travelling and writing about it, people sometimes ask me what trips are like when you're no longer a single footloose backpacker but the mother of a four-year-old boy.

On a month-long camping trip through Quebec to the Saguenay and Gaspésie - much longer than other trips we've taken as a family - I discovered that certain elements are definitely missing. Gone are the carefree days of anything-might- happen, the long and lazy café mornings that might turn into café afternoons, the late nights of unexpected parties, the exhilaration of meeting someone interesting on a mountaintop.

Instead, this is what it's like:

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Twenty minutes after leaving your Wakefield, Quebec, home for the 2,500-kilometre journey in your camper van, it becomes clear that your son doesn't like the van or the long drive. "I can't see the cars on the road, Mommy. You're in the way." Since cars and all other vehicles are important to your son, you turn your seat so as not to block his view, an angle that will give you a kinked neck for the next month.

You and your husband soon discover that when you enter a new town or city, it isn't cafés or museums you seek out, but the local playground. You discover that eastern Quebec has some damn fine ones. They're not filled with the usual, ultra-safe play structures, but, in Quebec City, huge geodesic domes of rope and metal and, in the village of New Richmond, a Danish play structure with an obstacle course so challenging that every muscle in your body throbs after playing on it.

Then, in the old-fashioned resort town of Rawdon, north of Montreal - where your father lived for two years as a boy - you come upon what is surely the world's best playground. Under a grove of old white pines, kids rush between a fast and joyfully outdated metal slide, a high swing set and monkey bars. You can imagine your dad here as a boy in the 1930s, oblivious to the Depression, running down the sandy hill and plunging into the lake, with no knowledge yet under his young freckled skin of you or of his grandson, now running down the same beach.

When you and your son go up the elevator of the Château Frontenac to see the view, he doesn't get off with you. (Later, he will say it was because he was mad at you.) You turn around to see the door closing as he shouts "Mommy!" in a haunting tone you've never heard him use, and then hear his cries fade into nothing as the elevator descends. Frantically, you try to bring it back up, but wait what feels like a decade for it to open again.

When it does, your son isn't there. You get back on and check all 16 floors below you. Finally, you reach the lobby full of hundreds of people in 17th-century costumes - the Nouveau France Festival has just had a parade outside the hotel - and run out of the elevator calling your son's name as the crowd of merrymakers looks at you curiously. A woman dressed as a New France barmaid tells you in French that she has just taken your son to the front desk. When you see him, small and surrounded by strangers trying to get him to say his name, he runs into your arms and bursts into tears, telling you between gulps of air that he'll never again, in his whole life, stay on an elevator by himself.

After two weeks on the road - you take all the slow, back roads - somewhere near the fjords of the Saguenay, you realize that the scores of CDs, tapes and iPod music you spent hours assembling for the trip have not been listened to at all. Instead, you've heard the book-on-tape of Stuart Little from beginning to end approximately 117 times and can recite any line on demand.

Although your husband threatens to hurl it out the window if it's played even once more, you find yourself secretly listening to it even when the others aren't in the van. First you and then your husband and son find yourselves speaking in the same breezy Connecticut accent as the actress who narrates the novel, quoting all of the erudite little mouse's best lines when appropriate: "Dirty weather ahead!" Or, "I blow into a town and blow right out again, here today, gone tomorrow, a will o' the wisp."

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When you take a three-hour Zodiac whale-watching tour near Forestville on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, four times you see a humpback hurl its massive body out of the water, turn and crash back down. The adults all holler in unison, unable to contain their glee, becoming kids again.

Your kid, though, has developed a sudden interest in the tires of his toy truck. At one point, when the whale unexpectedly rises up so close to the boat that you hear and feel its thunderous breath, your son shouts, "Mommy, how do you think that cable-car train in Quebec City worked?" "Pulleys," you yell out over the racket of the ecstatic adults, blowing whale and crashing waves. "Pulleys!"

When travelling with a child rather than travelling solo, all the wild is deleted - the highs and lows of travel all ironed out flat. Yet, there is something happily familiar about the rhythm of this trip. It reminds me of camping with my family as a kid. Every summer we'd pack up our Ford Falcon station wagon and set out for weeks at a time. Once, when I was four, my son's age now, we drove from Ontario to B.C.

It never occurred to me that those camping trips might not have been relaxing for my parents, with my sister and I squabbling in the back seat. But this is what you do if you're a parent: You instill a love of the world in your child, and through it all, you have fun in a different way than you used to, and you don't mind the playgrounds, the early nights, the lack of spontaneity. For now, you're no longer a will o'the wisp, like Stuart Little on his voyage, but that's okay, because someday your child might be.

Laurie Gough's latest travel book is Kiss the Sunset Pig.

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