National Park

San Antonio couple teach one-year-old to enjoy nature, one national park at a time

A month before the pandemic hit, Valerie and Eric Castillo spent a long weekend worrying about a frightening prognosis. At 10 weeks, doctors feared that future mum Valerie’s pregnancy would go full term.

During their appointment on Monday, doctors revealed their baby had a strong heartbeat, and the Castillos decided they would expose their baby girl to the habits of their Native American ancestors. They would embrace mountains, waterfalls, sand and snow.

They named it Journey – their inspiration for exploring places they felt alive.

Two days after Journey was born, the Castillos saw their pediatrician, who said a trip would be fine rather than staying isolated at home. Their first destination was at 14,115 feet at Pikes Peak in Colorado. Eric carried Journey in a baby carrier on a sunny trail above mountains shrouded in puffy white clouds.

“We could see her little eyes open and take it all in,” Valerie said. “She was so conscious, even a few days old. She has adapted so well.

A 22-year Air Force veteran, Vincent T. Davis embarked on a second career as a journalist and found his calling. By observing and listening to San Antonio, he finds intriguing stories to tell about ordinary people. He shares his stories with Express-News subscribers every Monday morning.

When they now arrive at the parks, Journey recognizes the visitor center signs and gets excited.

The family’s goal is to visit all 63 US national parks across America.

They have already been to parks such as Sequoia National Park in California, Acadia National Park in Maine and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. At the 17th stop, the couple, both 39, decided to share their experiences. They founded the Journey Go Explore website, where their daughter’s travels encourage families to stay in shape by getting outside to enjoy the sun and fresh air.

The site offers a blog and photos of their trips to each national park. They got private messages and an outpouring from people who said if Journey is hiking trails they need to get out there and do it.

Still, the Castillos understand that not everyone can make it to parks across the country. They suggest starting at national and local parks, where they take Journey for daily hikes. Every day she trains at San Antonio parks, including her favorites, Friedrich Wilderness, Eisenhower and Denman Estate.

Fitness, sports and nature have been constants for the San Antonio natives, who are arborists and own Dream Outdoor Services, a local arborist business.

Eric, who graduated from Marshall High School in 2001, played basketball. Ten years later, he pursued his dream of playing college football. With no previous experience, Eric was an extra at the University of the Incarnate Word, playing on the Cardinals football team until he was 31 years old. Valerie, a trail runner, played basketball, volleyball and football in high school.

They are the defenders of sport and the camaraderie, of fair play and of the well-being that the activities provide. But in the age of social media, cellphones and video games, the couple want to expose Journey to alternatives.

“We started this as a gift, to inspire her that she had done all of these things at a younger age,” Valerie said. “When she’s older, she won’t be afraid anymore.”

They hope to change the trajectory of Journey’s future and that the explorations may provide him with a better quality of life later on. Eric said they would be happy with the career she chooses, but they may consider it as a ranger or arborist.

“People say she won’t remember it,” he said. “I disagree. She will feel that energy, carry it as she gets older, and maybe create something where she can have an impact.

Last Tuesday morning, they were traveling from Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky to Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Their sons, aged 15, 14 and 7, accompanied them on their journey to their first urban park.

Travel is not just sightseeing and memories. They research and map their destinations, often isolated from each other. There’s plane tickets, rental cars, and finding the right gear for their little explorer. Often there is no cell phone service or Wi-Fi. Despite modern conveniences, they have bonded over distant outcrops, vistas and landscapes that they hope remain open and free of ruin.

“It won’t just take one village; it’s going to take the whole world to change things,” Valerie said. “If we have a voice, we’ll use it and shout loudly. It’s not just fun for us. It’s a mission. We think it’s the future, but it’s happening now.

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