Grandmother and grandson, Joy and Brad Ryan, first went viral in 2019 when the staff at Maine’s Acadia National Park shared a photo of the pair on the park’s official Instagram account. The rangers there were thrilled to see an octogenarian out hiking and adventuring and were charmed that she was doing it with her 30-something grandson—two rare occurrences.
But by the time they’d arrived in Acadia, Joy and Brad had already been traveling and visiting parks since 2015, working toward a goal of visiting all 63 National Parks together. Seven years later, they have seen 62, traveling more than 50,000 miles through 45 U.S. states. And they aren’t finished yet. With one park to go, Joy and Brad, now 92 and 41, have found a taste of fame, a new lease on life, and joy in each other’s company that not long ago neither had ever dreamed of.
Reconnecting and Finding a Mission
Adventuring wasn’t always part of Joy’s life. In fact, she spent over six decades in the same house in Duncan Falls, Ohio, not venturing any farther than an annual two-week vacation at a nearby lake. Her days consisted of housework, trips to the post office and the grocery store, and a nightly walk in the cemetery. And it would have continued that way had Brad not reached out to his grandmother after a decade of not speaking. The two went for a hike that turned out to be life-changing.
“In that process of reconnecting, she expressed to me that if she had any regrets in life, one of the biggest ones was that she didn’t get to explore the country and see some of the great national treasures that she had seen on the Travel Channel,” recalls Brad.
If somebody asks you to go somewhere, don’t say ‘no.’ You’ll have regrets down the road. Say ‘yes,’ and if you can’t go all the way, at least you tried.”—Joy Ryan, 92
“When I dropped her off at her house, I looked out from the porch and thought what it would be like if my entire life had been confined to that tiny slice of America and the world,” says Brad.
That moment gave Brad an idea. He’d take Grandma Joy to see the mountains. He started veterinary school shortly afterword and didn’t have time until a three-day weekend several years later, when he and Joy, then 85, drove seven hours to camp at Great Smokey Mountains National Park—Joy’s first time sleeping in a tent.
“It was a rainy evening, but despite the rain, we were laughing inside the tent,” Brad remembers. The trip “was medicine for both of our souls.” It spurred the idea that’s been taking them across the country ever since. “I wanted to keep the magic of that trip alive in my life. If I didn’t open the passenger door for her, she was stuck [in Ohio]. And if I went by myself, it wouldn’t have been as meaningful to me.”
Now, seven years later, Brad and Joy have been to every U.S. National Park except for one in American Samoa, which they plan to visit soon, 6,700 miles from Joy’s front porch. And while the visit to that final park is the first that requires Joy to get a passport, it’s only one in a long line of boundary-expanding elements of her multi-year world-class adventure.
“It’s just been such a wonderful thing,” says Joy as she lists some highlights of the last several years. “In the Virgin Islands, I saw all these sea turtles. We got to go down to Carlsbad Cavern. We got to see a whale. I’d never seen one except on the television.”
Finding Renewed Health and Vigor
For Brad, a highlight has been watching his grandmother get stronger and healthier despite her advancing years. When they reconnected in 2008, she was frail and unhealthy due to an undiagnosable ailment.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this would be someone I was whitewater rafting with a decade and a half later,” he says. “She went from very poor health to hiking and improved coordination and balance. We hear all the time there appears to be a reverse aging process that has occurred with her, and it seems to be true.”
“I’m a lot stronger,” Joy agrees. “And it changes your outlook on life; I’ll tell you that.”
“Pushing yourself physically in your retirement years, and more importantly, having something to look forward to in the coming weeks and months of your life promotes physical wellbeing,” adds Brad. “Most people get depressed about getting old because they focus on the limits—they don’t lean into the possibilities. That’s why our Instagram has gotten so many followers—because people see endless possibilities for their life beyond 70, 80.”
Joy and Brad’s audience finds inspiration in the intergenerational aspect of their story. Many older people would love to spend more time with their grandchildren, whether visiting natural areas or simply chatting over dinner. Brad is on a one-man mission to encourage younger folks to invest time in their older relatives.
“Culturally, it’s not cool, I guess, to hang out and travel with people who are that much older than you,” says Brad. “That’s a myth we’re trying to debunk. It’s a blast.”
And Joy’s message is that being open to new experiences can help older people connect with younger generations.
“If somebody asks you to go somewhere, don’t say ‘no,'” she advises. “You’ll have regrets down the road. Say ‘yes,’ and if you can’t go all the way, at least you tried.”
She encourages older adults not to be intimidated by physical limitations. At national parks, part of a ranger’s job is directing people to the trails that can accommodate them. All parks have some areas that even those using walkers and wheelchairs can enjoy.
“I do hope that people try to go to the park,” Joy says. “Everybody can go, and every park is beautiful. Everybody is friendly—everybody smiles and talks to you. It’s just a wonderful experience. If you can just go to one park, go.”
For these two, saying yes has been life-changing. Not only are the pair closer, stronger, and healthier, but they have also learned a lot about living a satisfying life, no matter how old you are.
“Neither of us is going to be here forever,” says Brad. “That’s what she’s taught me—go climb that mountain when you can.”
See where Joy and Brad have been and follow their progress on their Instagram account.
Photos courtesy of Brad Ryan and Joy Ryan.
This article is intended for general informational and educational purposes only, and should not be construed as financial or tax advice. For more information about whether a reverse mortgage may be right for you, you should consult an independent financial advisor. For tax advice, please consult a tax professional.