Spreading Joy

Photo: Brad Ryan

Meet the Ohio grandma tracking to visit all 63 national parks.

Joy Ryan is known as Grandma Joy to her 61,000 Instagram followers—and to her grandson, Brad Ryan. After a divorce in the family, Brad and Joy didn’t speak for nearly a decade. Then during his 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Brad had time to reflect, and he decided to reach out to his grandmother. In one of their conversations, he learned that his then 85-year-old grandma had never seen a mountain. He decided to remedy that void, taking her on a 2015 trip from their hometown of Duncan Falls, Ohio, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The outing turned into Grandma Joy’s Road Trip, the duo’s quest to visit all 63 American national parks together. Seven years later, the Ryans, now 92 and 41 years old, have one park left: American Samoa, which they plan to visit in April 2023. A trained veterinarian, Brad takes vacation days and time off between jobs to make the time, and GoFundMe donations plus sponsorships to help fund the effort.

PUBLIC LANDS: Grandma Joy, is it true that you didn’t see a mountain until you were 85?  

GRANDMA JOY: Yeah. You see these little things that are supposed to be. But a mountain with ice on the top? No, indeed.

How was that first trip to the Smokies? 

Brad said, ‘Grandma, I’m gonna go down to the Smokies, would you like to go?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not doing anything.’ He said ‘We’re gonna sleep in a tent,’ and I said ‘I’ve never done that, but there’s a first time for everything.’ It was raining and about 1 o’clock in the morning and I’m chasing him with an umbrella while he’s trying to put the tent up. Then he said, ‘There’s a mountain, do you want to try to walk up it?’ I said ‘Sure, let’s go.’ We had to hang on to cables and walk over logs. When we finally got up there, there was a group of college kids. I got a big cheer when we got to the top.

Your trip has obviously struck a chord. 

BRAD RYAN: People that meet her are oftentimes very emotional. There’s a lot wrapped up in why people connect to our story and to her example. I think that obviously there’s nostalgia involved and just that universal, warm fuzzy feeling that they get about their grandparents both living and passed. There’s that anomaly of intergenerational connection and travel in our current era that makes it newsworthy. I think the other element is the universal fear of aging, dying. We’re conditioned as a society to value youth and to think of age as being this inevitable decline and this slow progression towards limitation. And so there is this obvious euphoria that people get when they see a 91-year-old woman whitewater rafting in Alaska. 
JOY: Well, I hope we’re trying to wake people up. When people get to be 60, 70 years old, life’s not over. I was 85 (when we started). And I’m 92 now.

What’s your advice for intergenerational adventure? 

BRAD: Think of the possibilities that exist at every park and don’t focus on the limitations. Don’t think about all the things you could be doing if you weren’t being limited by your grandparent being with you. It’s a different kind of magic. We’ve shown it. (National parks) might not even be somebody else’s passion. Grandma Pat’s road trip may be to the museums of America or to the stadiums of America. It’s giving them that connection and that reason to keep living.

JOY: Well, give it a try. You don’t have to go 600 miles the first day.

How did the idea of visiting all 63 national parks come up? 

BRAD: The only two national parks that I visited were the ones I hiked through on the AT, the Smokies and Shenandoah. I’d always wanted to see Yellowstone and Glacier and Yosemite and Joshua Tree. When I get an idea in my head, I obsess over it. As soon as I started reading about the parks, I was like, I wonder if she’d do that with me.

For each of you, what has been your favorite national park and why? 

JOY: Everybody asks that. Every park is unique. We enjoyed Carlsbad Caverns because everything down there is beautiful and huge and has taken millions of years one drop of water at a time to make. It’s mind-boggling, it really is. I must have been down there for two hours. Everybody else just walked through. 
BRAD: My favorite park was Katmai National Park in Alaska. It was our last of eight stops in Alaska. I had a huge sense of relief when we got there. Everybody said we’d never get to all eight in two and a half weeks. We sailed through by sheer luck. We were able to see one of the greatest wildlife spectacles, 35 brown bears fishing.

What do people say when they recognize you out in the parks? 

BRAD: ‘Are you Grandma Joy?’ 
JOY: ‘Can I have a picture with you?’ Sure, I guess if you want to. People say, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ What are you gonna say, get the heck out of here? It’s hard to put your mind around when you’re used to being in a tiny town and you’re just an ordinary person. It’s hard to get used to that kind of thing.

Did you ever doubt you would make your goal? 

JOY: No! You gotta think positive. 
BRAD: The only doubt is what doubt hangs over all of our heads. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed. All we can do is live in a hopeful state of mind where we set that intention. I try to stay grounded in the present and be grateful for everything that has happened. 

What’s next? 

JOY: Brad said we can always start in Canada! 
BRAD: They’ll probably keep adding (national) parks. I talk about an unfinished business tour, like Wind Cave wasn’t open when we went to Wind Cave National Park. The elevator was broken. If you do a Google search for the best state park in every state, you realize how many amazing places get overlooked just because of the name.

Have you heard of the other famous outdoorsy Ohio grandma, Grandma Gatewood (the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 1955 at age 67)?

BRAD: She’s an AT legend. I thought that Grandma Joy would do something like that. She’s the new Grandma Gatewood. 

JOY: We’re made of pretty good stock around here, aren’t we?  

It sounds like you two are a good team. 

JOY: Yep. If it weren’t for Brad, I’d still be sitting on the front porch. I appreciate everything he’s done for me. Everybody likes him. 
BRAD: She’s a step above the rest.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.