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Grandma Joy isn’t slowing down. Now aged 94, she’s taken on a huge new travel challenge

Grandma Joy and her grandson Brad Ryan, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, spent eight years traveling to all 63 US National Parks.
@grandmajoysroadtrip via CNN Newsource
Grandma Joy and her grandson Brad Ryan, at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, spent eight years traveling to all 63 US National Parks.

By Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN

(CNN) — She didn’t get a passport until she was aged 91, but a year after becoming the oldest person to visit all 63 National Parks in the US, “Grandma Joy” Ryan is embarking on a new global challenge with her grandson Brad Ryan, 42.

The intergenerational duo, who went viral with their national parks quest in 2023, are now planning to travel to all seven continents in the world together.

“I don’t have many years left, [so] you hop to it,” Grandma Joy, now 94, tells CNN Travel via Zoom. “If you slow down, you don’t get anything done.”

Grandma-grandson duo

The pair have already ticked off three continents, visiting Banff National Park in Canada last year to “represent North America well beyond just our own country” and traveling to Africa, visiting both Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, in 2023.

Their most recent trip was to South America, where they traveled to Ecuador, spending time in the Galapagos Islands, as well as Chile.

“It was amazing to see those huge tortoises,” Grandma Joy says of the trip. “They could raise their shells up just like a convertible or something.”

While they’re pretty inseparable nowadays, the grandma-grandson duo were actually estranged for around a decade due to a family rift that occurred after Ryan’s parents divorced.

After reconnecting in 2010, they began filling each other in on what had transpired in their lives during their years apart.

While recounting his previous adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Ryan learned that his paternal grandmother “had never set eyes on a mountain.”

“That was one of her lifelong regrets,” he says. “Her travel had been limited to just a few road trips to Florida with my grandfather when he was alive.

“Her view of the world was always what she saw on the Travel Channel or just on the news.”

That conversation stayed with him.

A few years later, Ryan, who had been experiencing some challenges while at veterinary school, decided to take a weekend road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, and asked Grandma Joy if she’d like to join him.

“I just needed to get away and I wanted to do something that would fill my cup,” he explains.

Seed of joy

Thankfully his grandmother jumped at the chance of going on an adventure with her grandson and the pair headed off together in September 2015.

“At 85, she saw her first mountain, climbed her first mountain and went camping for the first time and fell off the air mattress a couple of times and didn’t complain,” adds Ryan.

While he admits that he assumed that traveling with an elderly person might “spoil the fun a little bit,” Ryan quickly found that this wasn’t the case. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

“It made the experience of being in the great outdoors much richer,” he says, explaining that having to move more slowly meant he was able to take everything in in a more meaningful way.

“I wasn’t rushing through the places that I was visiting. I was really taking the time to appreciate smaller details.

“The lens through which she is seeing the world is very different to most people my age. She doesn’t visit a place thinking, ‘Well, I’ll be back again,’ so there’s more presence.”

According to Ryan, that first trip “planted a seed of joy” inside him that had been missing, and he was thrilled to see how much Grandma Joy had enjoyed the experience.

Keen to keep their adventure going, the pair hatched a plan to travel to the other 62 US National Parks together.

Such a challenge would be a huge feat for most hikers, let alone an elderly woman with limited hiking experience, so they decided to take their time with it.

“It took us nearly eight years to do it,” says Ryan, explaining that they tend to take two-month long breaks between each trip. “But she made history last year.”

Of the many places that they visited together during that time, Grandma Joy was particularly struck by Old Faithful, one of the almost 500 geysers in Yellowstone, as well as Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

“It was a long haul but I enjoyed it,” she says. “And we met so many nice people along the way.

“Being an old person sitting on the porch, this makes you feel like, ‘Well maybe I did accomplish something.’ So I enjoyed every bit of it.”

Life-changing experience

The quest was also life changing for Ryan, as he was able to spend days on end hiking, camping and driving with his grandmother, who has been a widow for 30 years. Ryan’s father, who had been Grandma Joy’s last surviving son, passed away in 2023.

“She shattered my preconceived notions about what it means to be an older person,” he says.

“Because she wasn’t just sitting in the passenger seat looking out the window, although we did that too.”

Ryan goes on to describe how Grandma Joy went ziplining at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia and whitewater rafting at Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Alaska at the age of 91.

“I think we all have this sort of innate dread about getting older,” he says. “And we think about the limitations instead of the possibilities. She [Grandma Joy] reminds us of the possibilities that still exist.”

After reaching their final stop, the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific, last year, they were asked what they planned to do next, and eventually decided on attempting to travel to every continent in the world.

“That seems like a doable goal,” says Ryan. “So that’s what we’re doing now.”

The pair, who say they’re “still recovering” from their South America trip, are currently back in Ohio, but plan to visit Australia later this year.

While Down Under, they hope to “hop over to Asia” and possibly visit the national parks of India, or travel to Borneo “to see the orangutans.”

“We have a soft spot for the furry great apes of the world,” adds Ryan.

Once they’ve ticked Australia and Asia off their list, they hope to travel to Europe, where they have many friends.

“Antarctica is the one that’s like the wildcard,” admits Ryan. “We would love that, but getting there is challenging.

“I’d like to end big, and I think Antarctica would be the cherry on top of this adventure.”

The pair acknowledge that there are many people that won’t have the “economic means” to explore the world in this way, pointing out that they started their first challenge with just “a little bit of money” and spent a lot of time eating ramen noodles.

However, they’ve since picked up various sponsorships, which has allowed them to continue traveling comfortably.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” adds Ryan.

After spending so much time on the road together, grandma and grandson have become closer than ever.

Intergenerational connections

“We’re in each other’s pockets all the time,” says Grandma Joy. ”We’ve had all of these adventures, so there’s something to talk about, that’s for sure.”

Being able to share so many special moments with Grandma Joy has also meant that Ryan has been able to ask questions that he’s never had the opportunity to before.

“What I’ve come to learn is that we can free ourselves from future regret by making a choice to connect with older generations while they’re still here,” he says.

While they clearly get on famously, the pair’s significant age gap has inevitably led to the occasional clash, especially when it comes to their different tastes in music.

“I tried to learn to enjoy his kind of music,” says Grandma Joy, who has three other grandchildren. “I can’t figure out how he calls it music, but whatever.”

When asked what she’s learned about herself through traveling with her grandson, she quips, “I guess I’ve got more patience than I thought I had.”

In the nearly 10 years since that trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Ryan has noticed a big change in Grandma Joy’s physical health, explaining that she was quite “wobbly” in the beginning but has become a lot more capable.

“There’s a lot of variability in terms of what people are up against at that age,” notes Ryan. “But for some people, I think it’s a matter of being active again.”

He points out that he and Grandma Joy have “done as long as 45 days on the road” together at times.

“That certainly takes a toll on anybody, let alone somebody her age. I know if I’m tired, she must be 10 times as tired.”

After climbing mountains, going on safaris and hiking through the wilderness, Grandma Joy has no plans to slow down, although she does enjoy stopping for a break every now and again.

“I’ve got two new knees and I’m going to have to get them replaced, I think,” she says. “They’ve got too many miles on them.

“I don’t have diabetes, and I don’t have anything wrong with my heart. So really, I’m in good shape for an old woman.”

When she’s not traveling with her grandson, Grandma Joy sometimes does puzzles with her neighbor and watches local high school football games from her home in Duncan Falls, Ohio.

“I don’t miss nothing,” she says.

Willing spirit

The pair have been chronicling their travels on their Instagram account, grandmajoysroadtrip, and Ryan says that followers often make comments like, “My grandmother would never do that.”

He stresses that their situation has only been possible because Grandma Joy has “a willing spirit” and gets as much of a kick out of their travels as he does.

“Every once in a while someone somebody says, ‘Don’t you think you should wrap this up?  You’re putting her in compromising positions,’” he adds.

“And there’s no regret that comes from going out and remembering that your life is still happening right now.”

Reflecting on their previous estrangement, Ryan hopes that their story will show that “you can go pretty far after forgiveness happens.”

“A lot of life happens in a decade,” he adds. “And our message is certainly that we should try to free ourselves from grievance and find grace for people when we can. Life is very short.”

As for Grandma Joy, she’s enjoying making up for lost time, and now has several stamps in her first ever passport.

“I just take one step at a time, one day at a time, and thank the Lord every morning for giving me one more day,” she says.

“I try to be an optimist. The glass is half full, not half empty. And the people that you meet along the way lift your spirits.

“You see people in worse shape than you, and I just think ‘I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.’

“Not everybody’s lucky enough to have a grandson that’s willing to drag them around.”

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