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Planting Sparks of Joy During a Pandemic

On the morning of January 1, 2020, my Grandma Joy and I departed from the John Glenn International Airport in Columbus, Ohio, bound for Virgin Islands National Park. We recently finished our quest to visit all the U.S. National Parks in the lower 48 states and Hawaii, and just as we experienced at each new park stop along our journey, our visit to St. John was teeming with new experiences.

Grandma Joy faced her fear of water and kayaked in the crystalline waters of Maho Bay. She chuckled gleefully each time a green sea turtle penetrated the surface to inhale a fresh gulp of air before returning to feast on sea grass. I hiked the Ram’s Head Trail in the morning rain with my new friend, Juice — it was the most magical hike I have ever experienced, complete with rainbows, a bounty of Turk’s head cacti, and hermit crabs rolled back on their shells to face the sky and quench their thirst as fierce waves crashed into the rocks at the bottom of the cliff wall where I stared in every direction, mouth agape.

We returned to the mainland with full hearts and boundless gratitude. We were excited to plan for our summer trip to visit the eight U.S. National Parks in Alaska right around the time we heard about the coming plague.

COVID-19 has been a burden for us as much as it has been for all of you. Since March, my Grandma Joy and I have been socially distancing in our hometown in southeastern Ohio. My greatest concern is the mental toll that prolonged loneliness takes on the human soul. Over the course of four and a half years, we drove over 40,000 miles on the open roads of America. We shared intimate conversations in the confines of my Ford Escape on every major highway and countless backroads. I held her hand so she didn’t lose her balance walking along rocky trails of Acadia National Park or the shifting sand beneath her feet on the beachy shores of Dry Tortugas National Park. And now it has been nearly eight months since I’ve given her a hug. 

In the months since this pandemic changed the course of all of our lives, I have done my best to keep that spark of joy alive in my grandmother’s heart. She is 90-years-young now. I call her often. Sometimes we walk together on opposite sides of the road. Instead of focusing on the deep divisions dredged up by the election, our conversations transported back in time to the pre-COVID era when we didn’t realize how unbounded we really were. We can still hear the blow from the humpback whale’s spiracle off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park. We can still taste the poutine that warmed our soul after our boat tour of Voyageurs National Park on that chilly fall day. Golden aspen leaves shaking in the wind, an endless sea of volcanic rock, and hugs from a stranger on a remote trail — memories as precious as gold dust. 

We thought we would be watching grizzlies fish for salmon in Katmai this summer. My heart desperately craves seeing my Grandma Joy awe-inspired beneath the Northern Lights. It remains our dream to visit every U.S. National Park together, but we are at the mercy of fate like everyone else. If nothing else, COVID-19 has been an impactful teacher in our lives. The cliché expression, “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” rings true.

The notion of getting on an airplane, dining in a restaurant, or hugging new friends feels foreign. We are surrendering to this new normal out of mere need to survive with our sanity intact. A vaccine is on the horizon. We fully believe we will see all of you again when it is safe to journey out of our homes.

We never imagined 2020 would play out the way it has, but aren’t we lucky to still be alive? Our dream is still very much alive, too. In the meantime, please call your parents or grandparents and plant seeds of hope. Imagine the day in the not-too-distant future when you can open the passenger seat, invite your family to join you, and head out to see the redwoods and prairies. All we have to hold on to right now is our dreams. We would love to know where you’re going.

Much love,

Brad (and Grandma Joy)

Header photo: by Brad Ryan

Brad Ryan is the founder of Grandma Joy’s Road Trip. After learning his octogenarian grandmother had never seen a mountain or an ocean, he began traveling with her to all the U.S. national parks. Four years later, Grandma Joy is now 90-years-old, and they’ve made up for lost time having checked 53/62 national parks off their bucket list. They share their journey on social media to promote a dual message of the value of intergenerational travel and environmental stewardship.

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