(CBS) – Joy Ryan, 89, lived a humble life in Duncan Falls, Ohio, “a small two-traffic light town,” said her grandson Brad Ryan. She had left the state before, but hadn’t seen much when she did.
Ryan told CBS News that every winter, his grandparents would travel from Ohio to Okatibbee Lake in Central Florida — meaning they’d drive through the middle of America and avoid the coasts. “I don’t know why they never went to the coast. I asked her this, but I never found out,” Ryan said.
Not only had Joy avoided seeing an ocean her whole life, Ryan said she never saw mountains or “sand dunes, a cactus a major river or pueblo ruins.” That is, until he found a way to show her those things.
Ryan grew up in the same small town as his grandmother and hadn’t traveled much either, until he went to college. He’s now a wildlife vet at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
His first big trip in college was hiking the Appalachian trail. When he told Grandma Joy about the trip, she was astonished. “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.”
Grandma Joy said she would’ve love going camping, and wished she had seen mountains — she doesn’t even know what those look like, except what she’s seen on TV, Ryan said.
“She was 85 years old, sitting in this tiny house, widowed for 20 years. Two of her three sons died in their 40s. She worked a minimum wage job until she was in her early 80s to make ends meet,” Ryan said. “So, there was definitely no surplus of money for her to go and do these things.”
He wanted to help his grandmother experience the world, but it wasn’t until a tragedy happened that he was motivated to do so.
When Ryan was finishing up veterinary school, a classmate committed suicide, which devastated the whole university. However, it put things in perspective for him. “I thought, ‘You know what, I need something to fill my cup right now. I want my grandma to have this experience.’ So, we took a very impromptu three-day trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
“During that trip, that’s when I started to realize how unconventional it is for somebody in their 30s, a grandson, to be traveling around with their grandmother. We definitely stood out like sore thumbs everywhere we went,” he said.
During that 2015 trip, fellow travelers would stop the duo and ask what state they were from and where they were going. “I knew that as we were traveling, [our story] was touching people’s hearts, but I didn’t know there were so many people who had regrets that they didn’t do more with their grandparents when they were alive.”
Ryan was inspired to spend even more time with Grandma Joy, and wanted to keep taking her to National Parks. Neither could afford to do a road trip around the country, so Ryan created the “Grandma Joy’s Road Trip” GoFundMe page.
That fundraiser helped them pay for their first major road trip: 21 U.S. National Parks in 28 days. “That was the big one,” Ryan said.
Since then, they’ve gone to Cuyahoga Valley National Park in their home state of Ohio and took a road trip south from Virginia to Florida, hitting four different parks. “And just about a month and a half ago, we finally checked off Acadia National Park up in Maine,” Ryan said.
“That puts us at 29 U.S. National Parks out of 61 that we hope to complete. And we’ve done 25,000 miles on the road in the last three and a half years — and we’ve gone through 38 states,” he said. That’s pretty impressive, considering Grandma Joy is now 89 years old.
“We’ve seen grizzly bears, we’ve been charged by a moose … it was harrowing. We’ve had all these dramatic experience and seen all this wildlife that she’s never set eyes on in Ohio,” Ryan said. Still, Grandma Joy gets a kick out of the simple things in life. “Her favorite animal that she’s seen so far are prairie dogs. Which is kind of comical.”
The whole experience has enriched her life, but Ryan says Grandma Joy has always been a positive person. “She’s the kind of person that, despite the fact that she’s had a lot of hardships in her life and she hasn’t seen a lot, she would’ve maintained a positive outlook the rest of her life, even if she hadn’t left the state,” Ryan said.
“She says she wakes up every morning and says ‘Thank you for another day,'” according to her grandson.
At some point in their travels, Ryan started seeing the sights through his grandmother’s eyes. “At her age, she’s very cognizant that at every moment, she’s probably seeing something for the first and last time, and that has dramatically changed the way I live my life as well,” he said.
The epic road trips have enriched Grandma Joy’s life, and there are still more to come. Next up: Hawaii and Alaska.