Brad Ryan and his 89-year-old grandmother Joy Ryan are taking the country by storm, visiting U.S. national parks on an epic road trip (you can also follow their journey on their Instagram page, @grandmajoysroadtrip). But it hasn’t always been such a smooth journey for the pair.
Ryan, 38, and his grandmother had been very close when he was younger but their relationship became strained when his parents divorced in 2001. “It kind of ripped our family in two,” he explained to TODAY. “I didn't talk to her for ten years.”
Joy, who declined TODAY’s request to be interviewed for this article, is the mother of his father, and Brad stayed with his mother through the divorce.
Years later, Brad saw his grandmother at his sister’s wedding, and he knew he wanted to become closer with the woman he loved so much as a child. “To have that relationship hijacked by my parents' divorce, it was something that I suppressed how deeply that affected me emotionally,” he said.
Brad called his grandmother, who has survived leukemia and recurring episodes of pneumonia, and simply asked her, “Can you come over and teach me how to make that banana bread I love so much?
“It was awkward in the beginning when you miss out on a decade of someone’s life,” Brad, a veterinarian at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., said. “You have to start over. That’s what we did. It was a really long process, gradually building up trust again but that is what brought us to the open road.”
That road led Brad to learn that his grandmother — who has lived in Duncan Falls, Ohio all her life — had never seen mountains or the ocean.
“She said it very matter of fact to me one day: ‘It’s a shame I didn't get to see more of that in my life. I never had the chance to.'"
So Brad decided to do something about that.
In Sept. 2015, the pair took an impromptu trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“That’s when I realized she was capable of more than I thought,” he admits. “I mean, she climbed a mountain with me.”
After the success of their first trip, the pair decided to embark on another journey. They traveled to 21 national parks in just 28 days, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Sequioa and Canyonlands.
"It's everything you see on the surface: a lot of laughter, a lot of smiles, a lot of breathtaking landscapes. I saw her eyes come alive in a way that she would never be able to articulate with words," he said. "But on the flip side there were a lot of unanswered questions. So the 28 days were also about having difficult conversations, learning how to forgive each other, and gain more understanding about what went down."
So if their trip was in 2017, why are Brad and Grandma Joy going viral in 2019?
Brad explains that after a mini trip to Acadia National Park in June of this year, the park staff shared a gallery of pics from their visit on the park's Instagram account, which boasts nearly 250,000 followers. The timing of that post coincided with the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.
“I think the reason why it took off is because we were all so desperate for some light that day,” he shared. “It really hit me hard that people were so desperate for something to hold on to that day, and that we were the life raft they were choosing to hold on to. It really got to me.”
The post garnered more than 20,000 likes, and almost 1,000 comments.
"As we all have been reminded of all the darkness in the world in the last 24 hours through the loss of precious lives in Texas and Ohio this story really touched my heart," commented one person. "Thank you Brad for being a light!"
Whats next for the duo? They plan to hit the 20 remaining National Parks in the continental U.S. before they figure out how to get Grandma Joy to Hawaii.
“That’s her biggest dream,” Brad said. “So ‘Grandma Joy’s Road Trip’ will have to become ‘Grandma Joy’s Plane Ride’ at some point.”
On what he hopes people take away from their story, Brad shared, “You’re never too old to pack in a lifetime of adventure if you have the drive and willpower to make it happen. Our story is proof that if you can open your heart and create a vision for your future, anything is possible.”
“For her, it was the mountains. But if you are fortunate to still have your grandparents living, pick up the phone and find out what means the most to them. Ask them, ‘What is it that you wish you had done in your life that you hadn’t?’”