Together, Grandma Joy and Brad Ryan have been to 53 of America’s national state parks — and their journey’s not over yet.
The Adventure Begins
Brad Ryan and his grandma were born 50 years apart in the same small town of Duncan Falls, Ohio. Brad didn’t leave until he was 20, traveling to Africa for his veterinarian studies and living in the Appalachian Mountains for a stint. His grandma never left. Her travels were limited to an annual trip with her husband to go fishing in Florida. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a traveler’s spirit. Growing up, she found adventure wherever she could.
“My grandmother had a farm across the road from where we lived and they had cows and chickens,” she said. “We used to go over there and pick berries and gather nuts. We used to hike and go down the hills.”
This is where her love of nature began. When her grandson was little, she passed this onto him with trips to Cutler Lake in Blue Rock State Park where they’d look at crawdads. But as he got older and his parents divorced, they drifted apart. That’s until he called her in 2015 and they reconnected.
“One day in vet school he got down in the dumps,” Joy said. “And because he always likes to go out in nature to feel better, he called me up and said, ‘You wanna go camping?’”
Joy, by then a widow agreed. “I said, ‘Sure, whatever you want to do, I’ll be glad to do it.’ And that’s how we started out.”
From Stem to Stern
When Brad asked his grandma to go on an impromptu trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he didn’t know what to expect. He just knew that he wanted her to have an adventure.
“I just hated that my grandma, who has this huge zest for life, this willing and able spirit in her 80s at the time...had never seen a mountain,” he said. “So many seniors get left behind. I think it’s just the norm that people leave their small towns, get an education, start their lives somewhere and may see their grandparents at the holidays and that’s it.”
On their trip, Grandma Joy finally saw her first mountain at the age of 85 — but she didn’t stop there. She climbed it, too.
“All I had to do was invite her along and create a new story for her life,” Brad said. “I was able to give her the adventure of a lifetime and she gave me a new goal in life and a new purpose.”
Since then, they’ve been to 53 of America’s 62 national parks, gaining media attention in June of 2019 when Acadia Park rangers shared a photo of them exploring the park. It was their 29th park.
“We took off right after that happened and did all the national parks in the Lower 48,” he said. “We got to go to Hawaii and do the two national parks there, and on Jan. 1 we got to go to the Virgin Islands and went down to St. John's International Park there.”
As she puts it, they’ve been “all over the United States, from stem to stern.”
Their journey has been an impressive one, but it’s not over yet. They had plans to visit the eight national parks in Alaska and one in American Samoa before COVID-19 halted traveling, but even with their trip paused, they’re optimistic. It’s an optimism that has been with Grandma Joy since she started this trip, even when it got difficult.
She’s had to have knee surgery and keeps a cane, ibuprofen and pain cream nearby. At times she’d stop and sit for a few minutes to catch her breath, but she always got back up.
“I didn’t complain,” she said. “It was just a beautiful place to be. To see the sun come up in the morning and hear the birds singing. You have to be optimistic when you see all these beautiful sights. I always wanted to see what would happen around the next curve or the next hill and what we would see at the next park. You’re just so glad that you got to be there.”
As far as Brad can tell, Grandma Joy’s adventures have made her stronger. He’s noticed that her stamina and coordination have improved over time. This is why they both believe anyone can go out there and explore the national parks, regardless of age. Many parks can be enjoyed while driving and some are even handicap accessible, he shared.
“People might say ‘You’re too old, you can’t do that,’” Joy said. “I say ‘Forget that!’ Do it anyway. Do it today or you’ll regret it tomorrow. It doesn’t hurt to try something once, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to do it again. But if you don’t try, you don’t know whether you enjoy it or not.”
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