For the past seven and a half years, grandma and grandson duo Joy, 93, and Brad Ryan, 42, have had one goal — to visit every single one of the United States National Parks, all 63 of them.
They finally did it.
Last week, they reached their final destination, setting foot in the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific. Not only was it a dream come true but it also landed Grandma Joy in the history books as the oldest person to visit every U.S. National Park. Go Grandma Joy!
However, the journey wasn’t just about ticking off destinations on a checklist or making a world record, it was a journey of love, connection, reconciliation, and healing.
The Road That Brought Them Here
In 2015, Joy, then 85 years old, was working at a minimum-wage job at a deli in Duncan Falls, Ohio according to PEOPLE. A mother of three and grandmother of four, the extent of her traveling had consisted of going on fishing trips with her late husband and watching the Travel Channel.
Joy spent a lifetime living in the same small town, without ever seeing a mountain or dipping her toes in an ocean. That is, until her grandson, Brad, came along and changed it all.
After being estranged from each other for nearly a decade following the “ugly divorce” of Brad’s parents, he reached out to Joy to rekindle their once close relationship.
It was during one of their frequent conversations that Brad learned his grandmother regretted not traveling more. Shortly after that, a fellow student at veterinary college took his own life.
“It hit me really hard and took a mental toll, I empathized with being in a dark place myself and I was feeling hopeless,” Brad told the BBC.
Brad called his grandma and asked her if she wanted to go on a road trip to the Smoky Mountains. Her response? “What time are you picking me up.”
The Start of a Great Adventure
It was meant to be a one-off, but it turned out to be the start of a great adventure. Bit by the wanderlust bug, the intergenerational duo decided to pack their bags and hit the open road.
And so began “Grandma Joy’s Road Trip.”
In 2019, they decided to share their travels with the world, documenting them on Instagram where they have amassed nearly 80,000 followers along for the ride.
Their adventures took them from Alaska to Hawaii. The Grand Canyon to the Florida Everglades. Yellowstone to the South Pacific. And literally every single National Park in between.
They slept in tents, went white water rafting and ziplining, scaled mountains, rolled down sand dunes, got trapped in a herd of Bison, sat beside an alligator, and were even charged by a moose.
They saw caverns and deserts, the Redwoods, and waterfalls. Additionally, they visited the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the White House, Wrigley Field, and more.
But the journey wasn’t just a physical one. It was a psychological one too.
“It gave me a purpose in life that my academic and professional accomplishments never could,” Brad said. “Nature allowed us to heal some deep wounds in our relationship and we have been able to forge an unbreakable bond. We taught each other how to forgive.”
Defying the Assumptions of the Limits of Aging
Grandma Joy’s life hasn’t been without heartache. She lost her husband of 45 years, Bob, to cancer in 1994. A week later, she took a job stocking shelves at the local grocery store to make ends meet.
Two years later, she lost her two youngest sons and she lost her third son, Brad’s father, just two weeks before the duo accomplished their mission.
Yet through it all, she has managed to live up to her name and find JOY. “She has already lived from a place of gratitude and joy. And that’s a choice that she made,” Brad said. “That’s a power that we all have and a choice that we all have. And I think that’s been my greatest lesson.”
As we get older it can be harder to find that joy and chase our dreams. We get caught up in thinking it’s too late, we’ve missed our chance.
But as Grandma Joy proves, the only time it’s really too late is the moment we take our last breath and reach our life’s final destination.
And while Grandma Joy and Brad are looking at the end of one great adventure, they are facing it with gratitude.
“Reaching our 63rd and final U.S. National Park is bittersweet, with an emphasis on the ‘sweet.’ Standing at the finish line in American Samoa affirms that seemingly impossible goals are in fact possible if you pursue them with passion and pure intention,” Brad told Good Morning America.
“Grandma Joy has taught the world that you are never too old to show up and live the adventurous life of your dreams.”
What’s Next for Grandma Joy and Her Grandson Brad?
Over the past seven years, Grandma Joy and Brad traveled over 50,000 miles and they’re not stopping now. It may be the end of a chapter but it’s not the end of their story. Up next? The world.
“Now that we have visited every U.S. National Park, we have our eyes set on the world, hopefully reaching all seven continents,” Brad said. “We are headed to Kenya for a National Geographic expedition in July. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Grandma Joy flying through space or walking on the moon. This is what 93 should look like if we’re lucky enough to live as long as she has.”
As Grandma Joy says, “It’s amazing what you see out there. Give you a whole different outlook on your life, I’ll tell you that.”
Life is an adventure, go out and live it.