When Brad Ryan was young, he used to spend time with his Grandma Joy.
"My Grandma Joy and I would go to Blue Rock State Park near our hometown, and I would catch crawdads in the stream. I always knew my Grandma Joy and I shared a reverence for nature and wildlife," Ryan tells MNN. "I remember sleepovers at her house when she would teach me to make cookies."
The two became estranged when Ryan's parents divorced, but then ran into each other 10 years later. Realizing how much he adored his grandmother and missed that lost time, he conceived an epic plan to spend time with her. The pair decided to start traveling, and now they're on a mission to visit all the U.S. national parks.
"Grandma Joy's Road Trip was about making up for the tragedy of a decade of lost time, and allowing Mother Nature to serve as our ultimate healer," Ryan says.
'It would have been nice to see the mountains'
About eight years ago, Ryan was telling Joy about his 2009 Appalachian Trail thru-hike and his many adventures living in the wilderness.
"Her eyes softened and then she matter-of-factly said, 'I regret that I didn't get see more things in life. It would have been nice to see the mountains,'" Ryan recalls. "My heart broke for her."
It wasn't until a few years later that the duo took an impromptu trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. After a grueling academic and work schedule, Ryan needed an escape to nature. He never forgot his conversation with Grandma Joy.
"I called her and said, 'Are you doing anything this weekend? I want to drive down to the Smokies. How do you feel about sleeping in a tent?' Her response was decisive, 'When are you picking me up?'"
They arrived late at night in the rain with Joy holding the umbrella while Ryan set up the tent. At 85, she had never slept in a tent before, but she climbed 2.3 miles on a trail, receiving high-fives all the way.
Visiting every corner of the U.S.
"It was a life-altering trip that provided more purpose and fulfillment than anything I had ever done academically or professionally," Ryan says. "Two years later I set up a GoFundMe called Grandma Joy's Road Trip in the spirit of making up for lost time and proving that you're never too old to pack in a lifetime of adventure and travel."
In the past four years, the adventurous duo has traveled more than 25,000 miles across 38 states. So far, they've visited 29 of the 61 U.S. national parks, with much of the adventure documented on Instagram.
"We have driven to every corner of America. We have seen the very best of America, and we have met dynamic and kind people from all over the world," Ryan says.
"We were trapped in a bison herd for over four hours in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. We have watched the sunrise over the Grand Canyon. We have stared up at the towering sequoias of California that were standing long before Grandma Joy was born."
Each park is special
With so many awe-inspiring destinations, it's hard to pick a favorite.
"My personal favorites are Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Joshua Tree National Park in California, and Zion National Park in Utah, although Grandma Joy and I agree that picking a favorite National Park is a futile endeavor," Ryan says.
"Every U.S. national park is a sacred space. Each one contains something unique and awe-inspiring that you can't see anywhere else. Grandma Joy often brings up Petrified Forest National Park as one of her favorites. The transformation of wood to stone showcasing so many vibrant colors is symbolic to Grandma Joy. The most spectacular creations in nature take place on a time scale that far exceeds the human lifespan on earth. We should never lose sight of our infinitesimal place in time and space."
Great traveling partners
The duo plans a road trip once a year, although this year is an exception. In June, they traveled to Acadia National Park in Maine where the photo of them above on Sand Beach brought global attention to their expedition. In September, they're hitting the road again to visit the remaining 20 parks in the continental U.S. before they figure out how to get Grandma Joy to Alaska, Hawaii, America Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
They get along great on the road, says Ryan, 38, who is a veterinarian with the Smithsonian Global Health Program at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. His grandmother, 89, lives in a small town in rural southeastern Ohio called Duncan Falls.
"Grandma Joy and I are not such an unconventional duo as it may appear to people on the surface. There is nothing we would rather do than explore the great outdoors," he says.
"You never know what's going to come out of her mouth, and it's usually hilarious. She is open-minded and full of heart. I wouldn't want to travel the country with anyone else at this point. Of course we get tired and have our grumpy moments. There have been difficult moments that we had to work through, but ultimately we get to where we need to be."
'We need to hear news that makes us feel good'
While on the road, the pair often connects with fellow travelers around the country. And, although Ryan and his grandma have been on their quest for four years, their story only recently went viral. Acadia shared their photo on Instagram on the morning Americans woke up to the news of the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.
"The comments on our photo came in fast and furious, and they were all variations of the same theme: We need to hear news that makes us feel good. The world is exhausted by the status quo political toxicity and division. We are bombarded by images of violence and suffering," Ryan says.
"I knew Grandma Joy's Road Trip gave me a sense of purpose in life, but I never imagined it had the power to penetrate the masses on one of the worst news days in recent memory. The viral nature of our story proves what Grandma Joy taught me along this journey: We do have the ability to choose joy in the face of tragedy and adversity."