My Grandma Joy and I were born 51 years apart in the same small town in southeastern Ohio. We didn’t have access to mountains, deserts, or oceans, but we appreciated the tiny slice of nature in our backyard. I remember Grandma Joy taking off her shoes to join me in the stream at our local state park. We didn’t see much besides a few crayfish, minnows, and frogs, but so began my lifelong fascination with wildlife; a seed she nurtured which took me all the way to graduate school in South Africa, veterinary school, a position at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and across the United States on an intergenerational road trip known around the world.

Over the past four years, we have traveled to 53 of the 62 U.S. National Parks. The many months we have spent immersed in nature provided literal opportunities to learn about the natural, geologic, and cultural histories of the lands we briefly inhabited. For example, experts on our Road Scholar educational adventure at Channel Islands National Park taught us how life evolves on islands in very specific ways that don’t apply on the mainland.

Mother Nature has unparalleled patience; enough to see the 14-foot tall Columbian mammoth become an entirely new species, the pygmy mammoth, which shrank to at least half its original size over tens of thousands years. Finite resources necessitate smaller bodies, and so life must evolve or go extinct.

We noticed from our very first trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that a guy in his 30s hanging out with a woman in her 80s tends to draw attention. Some people stared. Most people smiled politely. And some people came right up to us and asked, “So what’s this all about?” I smiled back and said, “She’s my older sister.” I assume most people got the joke.

Grandma Joy’s Road Trip would never be a viral story if intergenerational travel was more common. We were societal rule breakers on a personal mission to find healing and pack in a lifetime of adventure on our own terms. Nature taught us time and again that all the fuss about age is much ado about nothing.

Meandering down a trail in northern California, we stared up at the canopies of towering redwood trees that can live to be 2,000 years old. The intricate cave formations in the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park were constructed drop by drop over millions of years. And if that’s not enough perspective, you can touch exposed rock at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota that is half the age of the Earth. We’re talking billions of years!

What I’m telling you is that in the eyes of Mother Nature, Grandma Joy and I are the same age. She may have more wrinkles, but I’m catching up to her in grey hairs. We are traveling together in the same infinitesimal moment in time and space. Flecks of dust on a larger fleck of dust floating through infinity, I can only reason that we’re not such an odd couple in the scheme of things.

If you’d like to get a start on exploring all of America’s National Parks — or just have a few in mind — check out our collection of National Parks learning adventures across the U.S.


About the Author
Brad Ryan is a wildlife veterinarian, avid outdoorsman, and the grandson half of the viral internet story known as Grandma Joy’s Road Trip. You can see more of his US National Parks journey with Grandma Joy at their official Instagram page @grandmajoysroadtrip.

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