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How a 93-year-old visited every national park and healed a family rift in the process

Joy Ryan and her grandson Brad at the National Park of American Samoa. The pair visited all 63 U.S. national parks together
Ari Daniel
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Ari Daniel
Joy Ryan and her grandson Brad at the National Park of American Samoa. The pair visited all 63 U.S. national parks together

Two weeks ago, 93-year-old Joy Ryan set a world record.

In her words, "I'm the oldest old lady to ever visit every national park."

In just eight years, she and her 42-year-old grandson Brad Ryan managed to go to all 63 national parks, an adventure they've documented on Instagram. Their final stop was the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific, some 6,700 miles from their home in Duncan Falls, Ohio. The pair received certificates from the park commemorating their achievement.

In a way, the journey began 21 years ago when Brad's parents got divorced, and he became estranged from Joy. It wasn't until 2008, at his sister's wedding, that he saw her again. She was 78 and she didn't look good.

"She came into the church and she was gaunt," Brad recalls. "Very unsteady. It was hard to see this woman that was so important to me in my formative years on the cusp of dying, knowing that there was so much anger and distance between us."

But over a period of months, Joy recovered. And Brad, who'd just finished hiking the Appalachian Trail where he'd been thinking through what mattered to him, worked up the courage to call Joy and suggest they make raisin-filled cookies together.

However, "there was a little too much awkwardness for my liking," he says. "You can't pick up where you left off, I learned that quickly."

The best thing I ever did

Still, they stayed in touch. Then, in 2015, when Brad was in vet school, he found himself in a dark place. "It's so hyper-competitive... and I had boards and then this young man committed suicide," he says. "I knew where he had been and it scared me how close I had come to that."

That's when Joy remembers receiving a call from Brad. He "wanted to know if I wanted to go down to the Smoky Mountains and stay in a tent," she says. "And I said, 'Yes, I'll try it.' I'd never been in one before."

Brad saw it as a chance to right himself. "There are a lot of things I've gotten wrong in my life," he says. "The best thing I ever did was to call her that day."

Grandma Joy was 85 at the time. She'd never even seen a mountain before. But she and Brad set out to summit one of the park's peaks along the Alum Cave Trail. It was two and a half miles to the top.

"She was very, very wobbly," Brad says. "Her balance and coordination were very poor." But when she finally reached the top, she says with a laugh, "There was this big group of college kids and they all gave me a rousing cheer!"

Joy and Brad were hooked. They visited one national park after another, and Joy kept getting stronger.

They went zip lining in New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. "She broke the record for the oldest person to complete the course by almost a decade," says Brad. Joy's favorite part was doing the zip line in tandem with the guides. "I had these handsome men. They was really something," she says with delight. "You oughta seen 'em! Give me a hug and down we went!"

In Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska, the two signed up for a white water rafting trip. They thought it was a class 1 river, but it turned out to be a class 3. It was Brad who got cold feet. He looked over at his grandmother. "She looked disappointed that I was thinking about wriggling out of that experience," he says. Their guide reassured them that he'd get them safely down the river, and so they did it. "It was great," says Joy. "You just have to hang on, that's all."

When the pair got to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado, Joy told Brad she wanted to roll down one of the dunes. Brad couldn't believe it. "I said you are going to break a hip," he recalls. "And she goes, 'Kiss my grits,'" and down she went. In a video that Brad took, once she reached the bottom, he yelled out playfully, "Have fun getting back up!"

Finally, their goal of reaching all 63 national parks was in reach with just one remaining — the National Park of American Samoa. When their airplane landed in mid-May, the flight attendant announced to the passengers what the grandmother-grandson duo were about to achieve. The plane erupted in applause, a chorus of support that grew as they made their way the following day to the park. The tropical sunshine welcomed them.

After spending over a week in American Samoa and Samoa, on their final day, they returned to the national park to visit their favorite spot one last time — the Pola Island Trail. Joy and Brad gingerly made their way along a path in the rainforest, beneath a cathedral of green vines and flowers. Joy wore her sandals ("That's all I got with me — it's either that or my bare feet") and Brad was right beside her, holding her hand and helping her navigate the rocks and the roots.

Joy stopped in front of a plant with enormous leaves. "Oh my word," she said. "I never saw anything like it in my whole born days."

After a few more paces, the short trail opened onto a stunning view on the north side of the island. Massive stone archways stood off to the left and a crashing ocean tumbled ashore.

"Isn't that magnificent? Oh! It's so pretty, I love that. It's like it's a dream," Joy said.

Over the last eight years, Brad and Joy have had little dust-ups to be sure. But this tour of the national parks has healed the rift that once separated them. "You can't hold grudges forever," says Joy.

And there were times that the parks spoke to them personally. For example, several summers ago, when they hiked amongst the redwoods in Redwood National Park in California, Joy says those towering trees made her feel about two inches tall. It was when she looked up that she noticed something.

"They've been struck by lightning," she recalls. "And you think: that takes courage, after you've been struck by lightning to say, 'I'm gonna keep on growing.'"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.

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