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Ageless Adventures: Grandma Joy's Remarkable Journey at 94


At 91, Grandma Joy finally obtained her passport. A mere year later, after achieving the extraordinary feat of becoming the oldest person to grace all 63 National Parks in the United States, she's setting her sights on a new global odyssey alongside her grandson, Brad Ryan, aged 42. This dynamic intergenerational duo, whose remarkable journey captivated the world during their national parks quest in 2023, now sets their compass for the seven continents.

I don't have many years left, you hop to it," Grandma Joy, now a sprightly 94, shares with CNN Travel via Zoom. "If you slow down, you don't get anything done.

Their journey has already spanned three continents. From representing North America by exploring Banff National Park in Canada to venturing into the heart of Africa, where they wandered through Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, the duo's wanderlust knows no bounds. Their recent escapade took them to South America, where they marveled at the wonders of Ecuador, including the majestic Galapagos Islands, and traversed the breathtaking landscapes of Chile.

Reflecting on their South American adventure, Grandma Joy fondly recalls encountering the colossal tortoises of the Galapagos Islands. "It was amazing to see those huge tortoises," she muses. "They could raise their shells up just like a convertible or something.

Their bond, however, wasn't always this strong. A decade of estrangement followed a family rift stemming from Ryan's parents' divorce. Reconnecting in 2010, they embarked on a journey of reconciliation, sharing the experiences that had shaped their lives during their time apart.

Ryan's revelation of his grandmother's unfulfilled desire to behold a mountain sparked a transformative idea. Prompted by his own challenges in veterinary school, he invited Grandma Joy on a weekend excursion to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "I just needed to get away and I wanted to do something that would fill my cup," he explains.

Thus began their extraordinary journey, a testament to the enduring power of familial bonds and the indomitable spirit of adventure.

Gratefully seizing the opportunity for adventure, Grandma Joy eagerly joined her grandson on their maiden voyage 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," Ryan fondly recalls. Despite initial concerns that traveling with an elderly companion might dampen the experience, Ryan discovered quite the opposite.

It made the experience of being in the great outdoors much richer," he reflects. Moving at a slower pace allowed him to immerse himself fully in the surroundings, savoring each moment and appreciating the intricate details. "The lens through which she is seeing the world is very different from most people my age," Ryan observes. "She doesn't visit a place thinking, 'Well, I'll be back again,' so there's more presence.

That inaugural journey ignited a spark of joy within Ryan, filling a void he hadn't realized existed. Witnessing Grandma Joy's delight, they resolved to embark on a monumental quest: visiting the remaining 62 US National Parks together. Recognizing the enormity of the challenge, especially for an elderly woman with limited hiking experience, they opted for a leisurely pace, taking two-month breaks between each expedition.

It took us nearly eight years to do it," Ryan shares. "But she made history last year." Amidst the myriad destinations they explored, Grandma Joy found herself particularly captivated by the awe-inspiring sights of Old Faithful in Yellowstone and the rugged landscapes of Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. "It was a long haul but I enjoyed it," she reminisces. "And we met so many nice people along the way.

For Grandma Joy, the journey was not just about traversing the wilderness; it was a reaffirmation of purpose and accomplishment. "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.

The quest was equally transformative for Ryan, who cherished the opportunity to spend uninterrupted days hiking, camping, and driving with his grandmother, her resilience and spirit defying age stereotypes. Reflecting on the profound impact of their adventures, Ryan acknowledges, "She shattered my preconceived notions about what it means to be an older person.

Amidst their travels, Grandma Joy wasn't content with merely observing from the passenger seat; she embraced every opportunity for adventure with unwavering enthusiasm. Ryan recounts how, at the remarkable age of 91, she fearlessly went ziplining in New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia and braved the rapids while whitewater rafting in Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Alaska. "I think we all have this sort of innate dread about getting older," Ryan reflects. "And we think about the limitations instead of the possibilities. She reminds us of the possibilities that still exist.

Following their triumphant completion of their journey through the National Park of American Samoa, the duo pondered their next endeavor. Eventually, they settled on a daring aspiration: to traverse every continent on Earth. "That seems like a doable goal," muses Ryan. "So that's what we're doing now.

Currently regrouping in Ohio after their adventures in South America, their sights are set on Australia, with plans to venture into Asia, possibly exploring 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 with a chuckle. After exploring Australia and Asia, Europe beckons, where a network of friends eagerly awaits their arrival. "Antarctica is the wildcard," Ryan admits. "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.

Acknowledging the privilege of their globetrotting lifestyle, they recognize that economic constraints prevent many from embarking on such journeys. Their own odyssey began modestly, fueled by limited resources and many meals of ramen noodles. However, with the support of various sponsorships, they now travel comfortably, grateful for the opportunities bestowed upon them.

Through their shared experiences on the road, Grandma Joy and her grandson have forged an unbreakable bond. "We're in each other's pockets all the time," Grandma Joy quips. "We've had all of these adventures, so there's something to talk about, that's for sure." For Ryan, these adventures have not only deepened their connection but also provided a platform for asking questions and sharing moments that might have otherwise remained unexplored.

Reflecting on their extraordinary journey, Ryan shares a poignant insight: "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." Despite their close bond, the duo's significant age gap has occasionally led to musical disagreements. "I tried to learn to enjoy his kind of music," Grandma Joy remarks, with a playful smirk. "I can't figure out how he calls it music, but whatever.

Traveling together has been a revealing experience for both. When asked what she's discovered about herself through their adventures, Grandma Joy quips, "I guess I've got more patience than I thought I had." Over the nearly 10 years since their inaugural trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Ryan has witnessed a remarkable transformation in Grandma Joy's physical capabilities. "There's a lot of variability in terms of what people are up against at that age," he observes. "But for some people, I think it's a matter of being active again.

Their endurance is truly remarkable, with journeys extending up to 45 days on the road. Despite the toll it takes, Grandma Joy shows no signs of slowing down, though she does appreciate the occasional rest stop. "I've got two new knees and I'm going to have to get them replaced, I think," she chuckles. "They've got too many miles on them.

When not traversing the globe, Grandma Joy enjoys simpler pleasures like puzzles and local football games in Duncan Falls, Ohio. Their adventures are documented on their Instagram account, grandmajoysroadtrip, where followers often express disbelief at Grandma Joy's audacity. Ryan emphasizes that their journey is only possible because of Grandma Joy's willing spirit and genuine enjoyment of their travels.

Despite occasional concerns from well-meaning observers, Ryan insists that Grandma Joy is always a willing participant. "Every once in a while someone says, 'Don't you think you should wrap this up? You're putting her in compromising positions,'" he shares. Yet, their shared adventures continue, a testament to the enduring spirit of adventure and companionship that binds them together.

And there's no regret that comes from going out and remembering that your life is still happening right now." Reflecting on their tumultuous past, Ryan sees their journey as a testament to the power of forgiveness and redemption. "A lot of life happens in a decade," he muses. "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.

For Grandma Joy, each day is a gift, a chance to embrace the adventures she once thought were beyond reach. With several stamps now adorning her first passport, she approaches life with gratitude and optimism. "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 shares. "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.

Despite the challenges and setbacks, Grandma Joy remains resolute in her positivity, acknowledging the abundance of blessings in her life. "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." Her gratitude is palpable, a beacon of hope and resilience that continues to inspire all those who cross her path.

In conclusion, Grandma Joy's indomitable spirit and unwavering optimism serve as a guiding light, illuminating the path of forgiveness, gratitude, and boundless adventure. Through their remarkable journey, she and her grandson, Ryan, have shattered stereotypes, defied limitations, and forged an unbreakable bond built on love, forgiveness, and shared experiences.

Their story is a testament to the transformative power of connection, forgiveness, and the pursuit of adventure at any age. As they continue to traverse continents and create cherished memories together, Grandma Joy's mantra of taking life one day at a time, with gratitude and optimism, resonates deeply, reminding us all to embrace the present moment and cherish the journey, wherever it may lead.