Grandma Joy, now 94 years old, is still going strong as she takes on a big new travel adventure

Calista Alma
April 09, 2024

At 94 years old, Grandma Joy shows no signs of slowing down. Despite obtaining her passport at the age of 91, she became the oldest person to visit all 63 National Parks in the US just a year later. Now, together with her grandson Brad Ryan, 42, she is embarking on an even bigger adventure: traveling to all seven continents of the world.

The dynamic grandmother-grandson duo gained viral fame in 2023 for their national parks quest and have since set their sights on global exploration. With three continents already checked off their list, including visits to Banff National Park in Canada and various destinations in Africa and South America, they are determined to see the world.

“I don’t have much time left,” says Grandma Joy, now 94, during a Zoom interview with CNN Travel. “If you slow down, you don’t get anything done.”

Their journey is not just about ticking off destinations; it’s about bridging a familial gap that once separated them. After a decade of estrangement due to family issues, they reconnected in 2010 and began sharing their life experiences. Ryan was surprised to learn that his grandmother had never seen a mountain, sparking a desire to show her the world beyond her limited travels with his grandfather.

Their adventures, from hiking the Appalachian Trail to exploring the Galapagos Islands, have been transformative for both of them. For Ryan, it was a chance to break free from the challenges of veterinary school and rejuvenate his spirit. For Grandma Joy, it’s been a fulfillment of lifelong dreams and a testament to the power of familial bonds.

Their story serves as a reminder that it’s never too late to embark on new adventures, especially when they’re shared with loved ones.

Fortunately, his grandmother eagerly embraced the opportunity to embark on an adventure with her grandson, and in September 2015, they set off together.

“At 85, she experienced her first mountain, conquered her first climb, and ventured into camping for the first time, even enduring a few tumbles from the air mattress without complaint,” Ryan recalls fondly.

Though initially apprehensive about how traveling with an elderly companion might impact the experience, Ryan quickly discovered the opposite to be true.

“It enriched the outdoor experience significantly,” he reflects. Slower pacing allowed for a deeper immersion and appreciation of their surroundings.

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

He notes that his grandmother’s perspective on the world differs greatly from most people his age. “She doesn’t approach a place thinking, ‘Well, I’ll be back again,’ so there’s more presence.”

For Ryan, that inaugural trip “planted a seed of joy” within him that had been missing. He was thrilled to see how much Grandma Joy had relished the experience.

Eager to continue their adventure, the pair hatched a plan to visit the other 62 US National Parks together.

Given the enormity of the challenge, especially for an elderly woman with limited hiking experience, they decided to approach it gradually.

“It took us nearly eight years to do it,” Ryan explains, detailing their habit of taking two-month breaks between each trip. “But she made history last year.”

During their travels, Grandma Joy was particularly captivated by iconic sights like Old Faithful in Yellowstone and Katmai National Park in Alaska.

“It was quite a journey, but I relished every moment of it,” she reflects. “And we met so many nice people along the way.

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

The journey was a profound catalyst for Ryan, offering him the opportunity to share endless days hiking, camping, and driving with his grandmother, who had been a widow for three decades. With the passing of Ryan’s father, Grandma Joy’s last surviving son, in 2023, their bond grew even stronger.

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

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

Ryan marvels at Grandma Joy’s adventurous spirit, recalling her fearless endeavors like ziplining in West Virginia and whitewater rafting in Alaska at the age of 91.

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

Having concluded their remarkable journey at the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific, they set their sights on a new goal: to travel to every continent.

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

Although still recuperating from their South America expedition, they plan to venture to Australia later this year. From there, they hope to explore Asia, possibly visiting the national parks of India or encountering orangutans in Borneo.

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

Their future aspirations extend to Europe, where they have many friends. However, Antarctica remains the ultimate wildcard, presenting a formidable challenge to reach.

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

Acknowledging the privilege of their journey, they recognize that not everyone has the financial means to embark on such expeditions. They started their first challenge with modest resources, relying on frugality and occasional sponsorships to sustain their travels.

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

Through their shared experiences on the road, grandma and grandson have forged an unbreakable bond, closer than ever before.

“We’re practically inseparable,” Grandma Joy chuckles. “With all these adventures, we never run out of things to talk about.”

The depth of their shared experiences has allowed Ryan to ask questions he never imagined posing before.

“What I’ve realized is that we can prevent future regrets by choosing to connect with older generations while they’re still with us,” he reflects.

Despite their strong bond, their significant age difference occasionally sparks clashes, particularly in matters of music taste.

“I tried to appreciate his music,” Grandma Joy admits, who boasts three other grandchildren. “I can’t quite grasp how he calls it music, but to each their own.”

Reflecting on her personal growth through traveling with her grandson, she quips, “I guess I’ve discovered I have more patience than I ever imagined.”

In the nearly decade since their trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Ryan has observed a marked improvement in Grandma Joy’s physical health, noting her initial instability contrasted with her current vigor.

“There’s a wide range of challenges people face at that age,” Ryan observes. “But for some, being active again makes all the difference.”

With journeys lasting up to 45 days at times, Ryan acknowledges the toll such adventures take, especially on Grandma Joy.

“After climbing mountains, going on safaris, and trekking through wilderness, Grandma Joy shows no signs of slowing down,” Ryan remarks, though he acknowledges her appreciation for occasional breaks.

“I’ve got two new knees that are wearing out,” she admits. “They’ve clocked too many miles.

“Thankfully, I’m free from diabetes or heart issues. So, all in all, I’m in good shape for an old lady.”

When not globe-trotting with her grandson, Grandma Joy fills her days with puzzles with neighbors and cheering on local high school football teams from her home in Duncan Falls, Ohio.

“I don’t miss a thing,” she proudly declares.

Documenting their adventures on their Instagram account, grandmajoysroadtrip, the pair often receives comments like, “My grandmother would never do that,” Ryan reveals.

He emphasizes that their unique journey has been made possible by Grandma Joy’s “willing spirit,” as she derives just as much joy from their travels as he does.

“Occasionally, someone suggests, ‘Shouldn’t you wrap this up? You’re putting her in compromising positions,’” he acknowledges.

“But there’s no remorse in seizing the moment and realizing that life continues to unfold.”

Reflecting on their past estrangement, Ryan hopes their story demonstrates that “there’s immense potential for growth after forgiveness.”

“A decade holds a wealth of experiences,” he reflects. “Our message is clear: we should strive to release ourselves from resentment and extend grace whenever possible. Life is fleeting.”

For Grandma Joy, every stamp in her first-ever passport is a testament to making up for lost time.

“I take life one step at a time, one day at a time, and express gratitude to the Lord every morning for granting me another day,” she shares.

“I maintain an optimistic outlook. The glass is half full, never half empty. And the people we encounter along the way lift our spirits.

“When I see people facing greater challenges, I remind myself how fortunate I am.

“Not everyone is blessed with a grandson who’s willing to whisk them away on adventures.”

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