SAN ANTONIO – It’s been a journey like no other for Journey Castillo.
It started with a goal of visiting 21 of America's national parks by the time she was 1, but that wasn't enough for the unstoppable San Antonio, Texas, toddler. She's now on a mission to visit all 63 of the nation's natural wonders by her third birthday next year.
"I think with the experiences that she's had, it has stimulated her mind at a very young age," said Eric Castillo, Journey’s father.
Her parents describe her as active, fearless and outgoing. Once Journey learned to walk at 10 months, she could hike a mile on her own. She’s now hooked on exploring, never wanting to sit around the house.
"She's got to be moving," her dad said, noting it's the experiences and connections with nature that matter most.
Journey of crossed paths
Before the birth of their daughter, Journey’s parents were on separate expeditions in life.
Both divorced, they met in 2016 while watching the same sunset every week over a secluded area in their hometown of San Antonio. Their crossed paths eventually led to marriage four years later.
The dream of having a child together one day became a reality, but their worst fears were realized 10 weeks into their pregnancy. As the world was entering a pandemic filled with the unknown of self-isolation and the staggering death toll of COVID-19, Valerie Castillo was rushed to the emergency room after experiencing abnormal uterine bleeding.
"They did a sonogram and all the testing," she recalled. "They said, ‘We don't think this baby will make it.’"
A follow-up by her obstetrician would bring relief as their baby’s heartbeat had grown stronger and louder than ever. At that point, they knew they would name their warrior princess "Journey."
"As soon as she was born, this little girl was already a fighter," Valerie Castillo said. "She's already a survivor."
Journey of firsts
It only took two days after Journey’s birth before her parents asked her pediatrician if it was a good idea to tote their 7-pound, 7-ounce daughter around with them on a mountainous hike through Pikes Peak in Colorado.
"We wanted her little spirit to pick up on the energy of being outside in nature, to breathe in that fresh air and just to feel a different energy from being at home and in quarantine with all the stress," said Valerie Castillo, who would soon quit her 10-year advertising career after climbing the corporate ladder to spend time with family and travel.
The couple also decided to pause their successful tree service business to focus on seeing as much of the U.S. as possible.
Their first national park stop would be the Grand Canyon. That’s when the so-called "bug" hit.
"We realized that at that point that the national parks were wonders of the world, and that they were very special," Valerie Castillo said. "They had a lot to offer as far as the ecological systems and the history behind it."
Zion, Bryce Canyon and Sequoia would soon follow. However, it’s not a vacation for the Castillos. It’s a business trip, they said.
The family will fly into a city, grab a rental car and sometimes drive five hours to wherever the national park is located.
"It's one, two, three. Ready? Go," Eric Castillo said. "When we get out of the car, we just go. It might be raining, it might be snowing, but we have everything we need, and we let her experience it."
For the Castillos, it's not so much about Journey remembering these national parks, but the energy and healing she picks up from their geological landscape.
Journey to recovery
Some of America's greatest heroes have turned to natural parks for therapeutic wellness.
"There is a delight in the hardy life of the open," President Theodore Roosevelt said during a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, on Aug. 31, 1910. "There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm."
In 1884, Roosevelt’s first wife and his mother died the same day. Soon after, Roosevelt spent much of the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of the Dakotas. According to the White House, it’s where he wrestled with his sorrow while driving cattle, hunting big game and even capturing an outlaw.
"He founded the National Parks because the Badlands was the place that he went to recover," said Valerie Castillo about the man often called "the conservation president."
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America’s most famous naturalist and conservationist, John Muir, often called "the father of our National Park System," fought to protect Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier, while battling depression and psychosis.
The Castillos said they feel a new generation of outdoor culturalists needs to be taught the same value that similarly helped Roosevelt and Muir.
"We have these places today because these people made a conscious decision to not listen to the people that are the naysayers and create the impossible," an emotional Valerie Castillo said.
Whether people are 1 day or 100 years old, Journey’s parents feel others can accomplish their goals and have the same mentality.
"But they can’t do it on their own," Valerie Castillo said. "We want to prioritize the well-being of parents and their young families but also recognize those that are isolated by poor physical condition or age."
Journey to remember
Before she could even walk on her own, Journey sat under General Sherman, the largest tree in the world located in Sequoia National Park in California's southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.
She has trekked deep into caves and witnessed some of the deepest canyons and biggest lakes that her country has to offer. She’s seen the very-much-alive desert of Death Valley and let her feet touch the thick carpet of moss underfoot of Acadia’s dark and dense forest.
Will she ever remember these wonders? The chances are slim, her parents said, but the sense of urgency is there.
"She’s not going to have an opportunity to ever visit some of these places again in the same state as what they are today," Valerie Castillo said. "These places, just in our own experiences, are not protected. They're not going to be there the way that they are today."
The Castillos said they hope this journey gives their daughter a unique identity, helping her make her own impact in the world. They also feel while some kids grow up wanting to be an athlete or a doctor or lawyer, others might not know about the life of a park ranger who can influence the natural world.
It’s about changing the normalcy in life. If providing a passion for the great outdoors at a young age helps ignite an interest when Journey is distracted in her teens by social media and technology, her parents feel they've done their job.
"I think if we can inspire our kids to go that route, maybe that might be the solution to the holistic part of it," Valerie Castillo said. "We see them as the future."
Journey for more
Stop No. 47 on their bucket list is Glacier National Park in Montana's Rocky Mountains. Then, it really becomes difficult to visit the eight national parks in Alaska, the National Park of American Samoa in the heart of the South Pacific, followed by Hawaii and the Virgin Islands.
The Castillos had already checked the box on more than 30 national parks when they were inspired by 92-year-old Joy Ryan, also known as "Grandma Joy," and her grandson, Brad Ryan, who have been traveling across the U.S. to visit America’s 63 National Parks.
"There's a lot of people that wait until the very end of their life to go to these places," Valerie Castillo said. "Don't wait until the end, do it now. Do it with your family. Do it with your kids."
With just 16 stops left, Journey is now deep into the last leg of her adventure and will turn 3 on Sept. 19, 2023.
"We set a goal, and we made that goal very loud and clear for not just locally but for the world to follow her," Journey’s father said. "That inspires us to continue pushing and finish it."
When Journey crosses the finish line, the reward will be an achievement like no other – a spiritual closeness through the power of nature that has healed her and a thirst for more life adventures.