The U.S. has 61 National Parks—including several hidden gems—but some people haven’t been to a single one. Until 2015, Joy Ryan was one of those people. Her adult grandson, Brad Ryan, told her about a hiking trip he once took on the Appalachian Trail, and Joy said that in her 85 years, she had never seen a mountain—except on TV—or an ocean. When her husband was still alive, the couple would drive to a lake in Florida, but avoided the coast.
“She told me at that time that she really, really regretted that she didn’t get to do more of that type of thing and have more experiences in life,” Ryan told CBS News. Joy, now 89 years old, lives in Duncan, Ohio, a “two-traffic light town.” She spent most of her life working a minimum wage job and raising three sons, two of whom died young. She’s a leukemia survivor, and in recent years has battled pneumonia.
In 2015, when Ryan was attending veterinary school, one of his classmates committed suicide. To cope with the tragedy and because life is short, he invited Joy on a three-day camping trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, where she finally got the chance to see some mountains in real life. The adventure went well enough that in 2017 it inspired the unlikely pair to start a GoFundMe campaign so they could hit up all 61 parks. Flash forward to 2019, and the duo has visited 29 parks, and counting.
So far, they’ve visited 38 states—Alaska and Hawaii are next—and driven 25,000 miles in the past three and a half years. One time a moose chased them, but according to Joy, of the animals they've seen, a prairie dog is her favorite.
Ryan told the BBC that this time with his grandma has inspired him, and he’s liked looking at the world through her eyes. “It helped me to slow down—the way she would notice the little things like the color of the mushrooms on the ground,” he said. “I was focused on goals, like climbing the mountain, but sometimes it’s not all about the epic views; it’s about enjoying those little moments, too.”
To see where they end up next, you can follow Grandma Joy’s Road Trip on Instagram.