‘Grandma’ Joy and her grandson draw near to accomplishing goal to visit every National Park

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DUNCAN FALLS, Ohio (WOUB) — The Alum Cave Trail isn’t an easy hike.

It’s among the steepest in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ascending routes are crisscrossed by the precarious bulging roots of old-growth trees, and hikers clutch but a cable handrail up a wet, slippery rock staircase through the deep chasm of Arch Rock.

In 2015 85-year-old Duncan Falls, OH resident “Grandma” Joy Ryan journeyed up the Alum Cave Trail, fellow hikers high-fiving her all the way. She received a standing ovation when she made it to  the craggy rock overhang of the Alum Cave Bluffs.

The view from the bluffs is notoriously scenic, and just months prior Grandma Joy had never seen anything like it — outside of in the movies.

Grandma Joy and her grandson, Brad Ryan, have spent the last seven years attempting to visit every National Park in the United States. Their long and winding journey has made them bona fide social media stars and has taught the duo more about each other, and about life, than they ever had anticipated.

The hike up Alum Cave Trail was a part of the duo’s first attempt at what would become a massive, years-long project. It started during Brad’s fourth year in veterinary school.

At the time, Brad explained, he was in a “dark place.” He had just lost a classmate to suicide. Throughout his time in vet school Brad struggled with his own mental health, and the reality of his classmate’s death shifted Brad’s priorities.

“The truth is, life is fleeting for all of us,” he said. “Mortality is a fundamental truth of life. The sooner you can appreciate that, the sooner you can tap into the beauty of your conscious existence, and you’ll have more golden years because of it. You don’t have to wait until you are in your 70s or 80s.”

A call to adventure comes to Duncan Falls

Brad estimates you could drive all the way through Duncan Falls in less than five minutes. It’s a two-traffic light kind of town.

It’s the place Joy has always called home. It’s where she grew up, where she raised her children. It’s also where she owned and operated a small gift shop with her late husband, Bob, for over a decade.

Bob died in 1994, after 45 years of marriage. Only a decade later two of her middle-aged sons died. After Bob’s death Joy started working at a deli counter at a supermarket. She would work that minimum wage job until she was finally able to retire in her 80s.

Retirement for Joy meant spending time at home and continuing her habitual nightly strolls in the cemetery.

Brad said he felt like they both could benefit from a shakeup from their day-to-day.

“Her daily routine was just so depressing to think about — when I knew we could be driving through bison herds in Yellowstone and walking along the redwood trees of California,” he said. “Those visions took root in my brain and I realized it was doable. It’s a matter of filling up the gas tank and driving.”

So began the duo’s first intense set of visits to National Parks. They camped in a tent all throughout, something which was entirely new to Joy. She took to it with a kind of ease and enthusiasm Brad said he never could have predicted.

“That first trip was a beautiful experience because I didn’t know that at age 85 my Grandma Joy was capable of climbing mountains and doing the adventurous things that she ended up doing,” he said. “I thought that we would just be driving around and looking at the historic sites and things like that, but she really shocked me in a really good way.”

The trip concluded, but the duo already knew they were far from finishing their journey.

A journey brings two generations together

“It’s amazing what you learn when you’re out together driving or camping,” Joy said. “You talk about things that you don’t have time to talk about any other time.”

Memories would roll along like the road under their tires, leading from one almost forgotten place to the next.

Memories of toddler Brad feeding seagulls with Joy at a fishing camp; a few years later, Brad and Joy splashing through a stream, catching crayfish and frogs.

Brad learned his great-grandfather, Joy’s father, saved a pony from being shot after it developed debilitating sores on its back from hauling coal carts. He brought it back to their family farm where Joy’s mother nursed it back to health. They kept the pony on the farm for the rest of its life.

“You don’t realize that these aspects of our personality and our soul, they don’t just appear out of thin air,” Brad said. “And oftentimes it’s through these cultural traditions or these values that are handed down from one generation to the next. So somebody who loved horses 100 years ago ended up having a great-grandson who was a veterinarian. And that’s probably not a coincidence.”

The Ryans bring along fans on social media

Brad started documenting their journey on Instagram early on, but it wouldn’t be until they’d been at it for three years that the rest of the world would take notice.

“We had 29 parks under our belt, had seen almost half of them by then,” Brad said. “We had already traveled over 25,000 miles. I knew how magical what we were doing was, but I didn’t know that it would ever become what it became.”

In 2020 The Rachael Ray show featured Brad and Joy, surprising them with a donation from workwear company Carhartt to help fund their travel to the eight National Parks in Alaska.

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for being interviewed by the national news, by BBC and Al Jazeera,” Brad said. “And nothing can prepare you for seeing your grandmother’s face next to a headline that’s in German or Arabic. But at the end of the day I think that love for family and nostalgia for grandparents is this universally held feeling. So I was and was not surprised that Grandma Joy became an Instagram celebrity.”

Brad says his grandmother is just as inspiring to him as she is to the thousands of people who follow Grandma Joy’s Roadtrip on Instagram.

"Grandma" Joy Ryan and her grandson Brad Ryan pose during one of their trips to Alaska's National Parks.
“Grandma” Joy Ryan and her grandson Brad Ryan pose during one of their trips to Alaska’s National Parks. []
“I’ve learned so much from her, just by osmosis,” he said. “I know if I had experienced the things she has, I would be pretty bitter. I’d be pretty depressed. But she learned a way to look at life and her circumstances and hold the sweet and the sour in both hands and still be grateful and show up every day with a sense of optimism and potential. That’s what she’s done. She’s chosen to be joyful.”

Brad and Joy only need to visit one last park before they can say they’ve visited them all: the National Park of the American Samoa. They’re raising funds for the trip via GoFundMe.

However, Brad says the goal of visiting every National Park with his grandmother has always been kind of arbitrary, second to the experiences they’ve had together and the bond they’ve formed, regardless of where exactly they are on a map.

“I’ve learned so much from her, just by osmosis. I know if I had experienced the things she has, I would be pretty bitter. I’d be pretty depressed. But she learned a way to look at life and her circumstances and hold the sweet and the sour in both hands and still be grateful and show up every day with a sense of optimism and potential. That’s what she’s done. She’s chosen to be joyful.” – Brad Ryan

“I think that there’s a wisdom that comes with age that you can actually absorb if you choose to spend more time with people of another generation and don’t make gray hair and wrinkles a disqualifier for friendship and connection,” Brad said.

Although they’re both looking forward to making the trip to the final National Park on their list, Brad said what they’d both like to see the most is “more Grandma Joys on the open road and in our National Parks.”

“Get out there and open your passenger door to somebody who needs an adventure, because that is the key to the fountain of youth,” he said. “It’s having hope, it’s having connection. It’s having something to look forward to around the next corner. Life is still happening for all of us. And there are many, many, many people who have been left behind, and they’re probably sitting in their living room right now watching the same television show that they watch every single day. And if they could get out and see a waterfall or a bear or an epic mountain landscape that’s going to do more for them than you’ll ever know.”

For those who can’t hit the road like Brad and Joy starting in early December and through to the New Year, WOUB-TV will broadcast a series of features about our country’s National Parks. These include “Yellowstone Symphony” December 7 at 8 p.m. and “Ken Burns: National Parks” December 29 at 9:30 p.m. and January 1 at 6:30 p.m.