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Grandmother and grandson visit 62 national parks on adventure of a lifetime

Joy Ryan, 92, had never seen a mountain. So her grandson decided to take her to every site that has ‘national park’ in its name.

Brad Ryan with his grandmother, Joy Ryan, during a 2019 visit to Channel Islands National Park in California. (Cheryl Hutchison)

Brad Ryan paused to take in the scene before him: mountains with perfect peaks, a lush valley and an endless expanse of untouched Alaskan wilderness.

What awed him most, though, was not the Arctic tundra in front of him; it was his grandmother who was hiking through it.

“Grandma Joy is a bit of a superhero,” said Brad, a D.C.-based veterinarian. “She is not your typical 92-year-old.”

Their trip last August to Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska was one of many journeys Ryan has embarked on with his paternal grandmother, Joy Ryan — whom he calls “Grandma Joy.” They are on a shared mission to visit 63 U.S. national parks together. Since they started the effort in 2015, they’ve made it to 62.

“It’s beyond anything I could ever have imagined in my life,” said Joy, who lives in Duncan Falls, Ohio.

His emotional support animal is an alligator. They sleep in the same bed.

Together, they’ve marveled at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and slept beneath the stars at Joshua Tree National Park in California. They did the bridge walk at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in Lansing, W.Va., rolled down a dune in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and watched brown bears catch salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park in Alaska.

“All of it has been magical,” said Brad, who moved to D.C. in 2018 and consults with various veterinary hospitals in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. “I’ve been able to see so much of the country and meet so many people with my grandma by my side.”

The national park project began spontaneously seven years ago. Brad was stunned when his grandmother — who he knew was deeply fond of nature — told him she’d never seen a mountain in person.

At the time, he was beginning his final year of veterinary school at Ohio State University, and Joy had been a widow for 20 years and was living alone in the same tiny town where she grew up.

“I wanted to be able to offer an opportunity for my grandmother to see that first mountain,” Brad said.

So he asked Joy — then 85 — if she would be interested in a road trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.

Her response: “What time are you picking me up?”

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In October 2015, they packed up Brad’s Ford Escape Hybrid and hit the road, driving through the night. Once they arrived at the park, “she not only saw mountains, but she climbed mountains with me,” said Brad. “Even when the rain was pouring down, she was smiling.”

Before their first trip, Brad was struggling with his mental health, he said, and his grandmother taught him to be resilient.

“I was trying to do something to help her, and she ended up saving me in the process,” he said. “From there, we just realized there was more that we wanted to see and do together.”

His grandmother agreed.

“Every time he wants to do something, I’ll go,” Joy said. “I’ve seen things that people have never seen in their whole life. It’s just been amazing.”

Growing up, Brad described his relationship with his grandmother as “idyllic.”

“We were very close throughout my childhood,” he recalled, saying he has vivid memories of catching frogs with her at their neighborhood park in Duncan Falls.

“My grandma was the one who was very adamant about me being out in nature, and I think my love of animals, in part, came from the exposure that I got to nature from her,” Brad said.

But their bond fractured when Brad was in college, amid his parents’ divorce. There was a 10-year period where he and his grandmother didn’t speak.

“Over time, I eventually reached out to her, and we had to really start our relationship from scratch,” Brad said.

Rebuilding their bond, he said, was accelerated as they began spending countless hours on the open road. Side by side, they’ve driven nearly 50,000 miles.

“What would be a typical grandson-grandparent relationship turned into the closest friendship I could ever imagine having with somebody,” Brad said. “I don’t think there’s any stone we’ve left unturned, in terms of sharing our life stories.”

“I wouldn’t trade him for anybody,” echoed his grandmother. “He is my best friend. That’s for sure.”

After the first trip, which Brad paid for, he started a GoFundMe page, as he knew they couldn’t afford to visit all the national parks on their list. They raised nearly $3,000 in one fundraising round, and close to $9,000 in another. The funds paid for a month-long road trip in the summer of 2017, during which they saw 21 national parks.

“We were being very conservative with our money and trying to see as much as we could,” said Brad, who also contributed some of his own savings.

In June 2018, they visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, and later that summer, they did a nine-day road trip to see several parks, including Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Biscayne National Park in Florida.

In 2019, Brad began chronicling their journey on social media to share with family and friends. Once their story started appearing in local news, various companies and travel agencies began reaching out with offers to sponsor their trips, Brad said.

Plus, “we’ve had a lot of private citizens that made donations, too,” he added, explaining that numerous strangers also offered to host them at their homes. “This whole thing has been fueled by generosity.”

Joy believes their story resonates with strangers because it showcases what’s possible.

“I think we just kind of wake people up,” she said.

In September 2019, the pair embarked on a 45-day road trip, visiting 20 national parks across 14 states. They took longer trips, such as that one, while Brad was between jobs, and for shorter excursions, he used vacation days.

On each trip, Joy — who worked at her local grocery store until she was in her early 80s — embraced challenges such as climbing mountains, sleeping in tents and white-water rafting.

“I’m always willing to try something different,” said Joy, a mother of three children, and a grandmother of four.

With Brad by her side, she said she feels safe.

“He’s very considerate. He always holds my arm,” Joy said. “He is the sweetest boy. He just makes my heart sing. I wish more grandmas had grandsons like him.”

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Although Brad has had to modify some of their adventures to suit his grandmother’s needs and abilities, “there are lessons to be learned by slowing down, too,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I ask if she wants to do something, she says, ‘we’ll give it a whirl!’ ”

That’s because, “I never think about how old I am, I just do it,” Joy said.

In between trips, “we try to see other noteworthy places,” said Brad, who took his grandmother to D.C. in March to see the cherry blossoms.

Within the next year, they are planning to make it to the last national park on their list: the National Park of American Samoa. The final stop, they both said, will be bittersweet.

“It will be a glad day and a sad day,” Joy said. “We’ll start going to the state parks.”

Indeed, Brad plans to continue showing his grandmother the country, and perhaps even the world. Doing so, he said, has been the most rewarding thing he has ever done.

“As a grandson, watching her life story unfold completely differently than it otherwise would have, it gives me peace,” Brad said. “She finally got to start living the life of adventure she had always been waiting for, and deserved.”

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