My grandma Joy was 80 years old when she joined me for a short day hike in Blue Rock State Park near our hometown of Duncan Falls, Ohio. One of my earliest childhood memories was catching crayfish at a stream in Blue Rock where we now walked together. My parents’ divorce 10 years prior had shattered our family and my grandma and I hadn’t spoken in nearly a decade when we turned to Mother Nature for a path toward reconciliation. There was no picking up where we left off; we were faced with only one choice: start from scratch and create something beautiful from the rubble.
I can still feel the gut punch of her words standing on the shore of Cutler Lake: “If I had one regret, it’s that I didn’t get to see more of the great outdoors in my life,” Grandma Joy said. “I would have loved to see a mountain.” I promised her I would take her to the mountains.
I dropped her off at her house, where she lived for more than six decades. I absorbed the stale view from her front porch and thought of the expansive views I’d experienced thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. The sunset of Grandma Joy’s life deserved mountain sunsets and more.
My life was moving in a different direction, however. Months later, I started a dual-degree program at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. It wasn’t until 5 years later that a small window opened to take our first road trip, in September 2015.
‘Let’s give it a whirl’
Grandma Joy picked up the phone and I asked, “How would you like to go camping with me in the Smokies this weekend?”
A few hours later she was seated in the passenger seat of my Ford Escape Hybrid, headed south. We drove 7 hours into the night, and arrived at the Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain. She held an umbrella over my head as I assembled our tent and inflated the air mattress.
The rain stopped in the late morning. The blue smoke of Tennessee mist lifted and Grandma Joy took in the view of her first mountains. And then she climbed a mountain with me, defying all expectations.
The mutual joy we experienced on this first road trip was transformational for both of us. We showed each other that we could begin again. Hearing her optimistic perspective on life in the aftermath of losing two of her three sons helped me reevaluate my own capacity for resilience. Witnessing Grandma Joy push herself to the top of the Alum Cave Trail was the inspiration I didn’t know I needed.
There was a purpose to my life beyond graduating from school and paying off my student loans. I thought this road trip was going to be a “one and done” adventure to absolve me of any guilt later on in life, but I couldn’t ignore the profound healing of the open road. I wanted more for both of us.
During the day, I stared at my Rand McNally. When I closed my eyes, I imagined Grandma Joy standing in front of Old Faithful. And if I drove a little further, I could watch her walking in the shadows of California’s giant redwoods. I could watch the sunrise with her over the Grand Canyon. The more I learned about U.S. national parks, the more driven I became to set a new course for our future.
“How would you feel about going to see all of the national parks?” I asked her casually one day.
She shrugged and said, “Let’s give it a whirl.”
Sweet and painful
In the summer of 2017, we loaded up our SUV with camping gear and an abundance of ramen noodles and headed west for Badlands National Park in South Dakota, the first of many new worlds we would experience together. We meandered through a maze of variegated buttes, stopping to admire a pair of bighorn sheep on the edge of a cliff wall. Grandma Joy laughed giddily at the antics of prairie dogs. Bison and pronghorn coexisted on the prairie.
Our next stop was Yellowstone National Park, where my vision transformed into a lived experience immortalized on my phone: Grandma Joy met Old Faithful. Grand Teton National Park was next. Then Glacier National Park in Montana, where we were charged by a moose, thanks to some tourists who got a little too close with their cameras.
We spent 28 days on the open road and checked 21 national parks off our list. The redwoods took our breath away. The Grand Canyon invaded our souls. These memories helped wash away much of the pain and resentment from our past, but that’s not to say that we didn’t have tough conversations too.
The open road has a way of dredging up sweet and painful memories in equal measure. Just as we had done in the Blue Rock State Park streams looking for crawdads, we left no stone unturned. There’s no healing without conflict. There’s no transformation without hope. The open road summoned conversations that would not have occurred otherwise. It was our alchemy.
The next summer, we took a day trip to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the sole national park in our home state of Ohio. Later in the summer, we roadtripped to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park before venturing south to check South Carolina’s Congaree National Park off our list. It was a new world where cypress knees jutted vertically from the earth like zombie hands, which could be perceived by some as the perfect set of a horror movie. Grandma Joy expressed her gratitude for its unique beauty. She told me she felt God there.
We got caught in Tropical Storm Gordon en route to Everglades National Park in Florida, but the rain eventually stopped, as it always does. We lost count of the alligators we saw while hiking the Anhinga Trail. We drove as far south as we could—to Key West—and then took the Yankee Freedom Ferry 70 miles west to Dry Tortugas National Park, surrounded by crystalline blue waters.
The following summer, we roadtripped to New England’s sole national park, Acadia. A photo taken of us with our arms reaching for the sky on Sand Beach went viral on Reddit, and overnight our personal mission to visit every U.S. national park was embraced by the world.
Today, we’re on the cusp of completing our once-seemingly impossible goal. We’ve driven 50,000 miles across the lower 48 states, Alaska, Hawaii, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We’ve visited 62 of the 63 national parks in the U.S. (there were only 59 when we started our journey in 2015). We plan to visit our final park, National Park of American Samoa, in April of 2023.
Our impossible dream has been debunked with each new adventure. Grandma Joy hiked across the Arctic tundra in Alaska. She stood on volcanic rock on the Big Island of Hawaii. I clung to her as we rafted down Class III rapids in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and soaked up her radiant smile as she ziplined through hemlock canopies in West Virginia’s New River Gorge at age 91.
Grandma Joy’s road trip has been my greatest teacher and healer. Living joyfully is a choice. Saying “yes” and stepping outside your comfort zone can instantly change your entire life’s trajectory. Getting older doesn’t necessitate an inevitable descent towards limitation. Infinite possibilities abound on the highways and byways of the U.S. Climb that mountain while you can, but never forget that life is happening now. Adventure and wrinkles can go hand in hand.