Perhaps one of the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves is how do I want to live my life as I get older? For those who choose optimism and adventure, it’s important to have people around who care enough to help live a vibrant life in their years of retirement freedom. For one nonagenarian affectionately known as Grandma Joy, that supportive and encouraging adventurer is her grandson, Brad Ryan.
Before October 2015, Grandma Joy only lived vicariously through Ryan’s outdoor travels in nature. She was a widow who had lived alone for 20 years. She listened to stories of his trip to the Appalachian Trail and expressed regret that she’d never seen mountains and deserts and other wild places in her life. Ryan, who was an Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine student at the time, wanted to make sure she knew some amazing wild places, and invited her to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. He thought that their adventure there together would be a one-off excursion to satisfy her need to see big scenery; but, that land transformed their lives and planted the seed to keep exploring.
“Over the past seven years, we have driven nearly 50,000 miles to 62 of the 63 U.S. National Parks,” Ryan tells My Modern Met. After that first epic ride, he started a GoFundMe page that paid for a road trip that lasted a month in summer 2017, during which they saw 21 national parks. Together, they have visited places of natural wonder including the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Joshua Tree National Park in California, the New River Gorge Park in Lansing, West Virginia, and Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. In 2021, they visited the eight national parks of Alaska, where they encountered wild animals, went white water rafting, and hiked near glaciers. Grandma Joy and Ryan are also members of the exclusive “Denali 30% Club”—the minority of visitors who actually get to see North America’s tallest mountain when the weather is clear enough.
Traveling with anyone, but particularly someone who is family, brings a lot of joy, togetherness, and sometimes unexpected and unique challenges. “The open road was ultimately our healer,” says Ryan, who currently lives in D.C. “Grandma Joy’s Road Trip offered countless moments of inspiration and gratitude. But we had painful and uncomfortable conversations too. Memories crawl out of the shadows while you’re being hypnotized by the passing landscapes. Every relationship is an amalgam of sweet and sour, and we have rumbled with all those emotions. It is the only path to peace.”
In 2019, Ryan thought he'd share their travel adventures with friends and family, and started Instagram and Facebook accounts to post their amazing pictures. Their undertakings ignited a spark in people from across the world, and their Instagram account now has over 60,000 followers. As their story spreads, Ryan and Grandma Joy hope that they'll inspire others to go out and seek exploration and adventure. At very different ages—Grandma Joy is 92 and Ryan is 41—and separate stages of life, they are still kindred spirits in their enthusiasm, love of nature, and their embracing, optimistic attitude. “I have been privileged to witness the boundless possibilities that exist for my life if I am fortunate to live as long as Grandma Joy,” Ryan explains. “It’s ridiculous to feel despondent about growing older when you’ve been whitewater rafting with a 91-year-old woman. I’m focused on possibilities now, not limitations.”
Grandma Joy and Ryan have nearly come to the end of their epic adventure to see all the national parks in the U.S. They have yet to explore one more, situated 6,700 miles from their hometown of Duncan Falls. This will be their last national park, but we are sure, not their last adventure. “We plan to visit the National Park of American Samoa, which is our 63rd and final U.S. National Park,” says Ryan. “She dreams of going to Ireland. I dream of taking her to Africa. After seeing Grandma Joy explore so many natural wonders, no dream feels impossible anymore.”