You might not be able to imagine a 92-year-old sleeping in a tent, climbing a mountain, or riding rapids, but for Joy Ryan, this is her life.
In 2015, Joy and her grandson Brad Ryan went on the trip of a lifetime: they went to all 63 national parks in the United States.
Joy was in her 80s at the time, and she worked at a deli in their hometown of Duncan Falls, Ohio, for the minimum wage. She wanted more, though.
Brad, 41, tells PEOPLE, “She had a huge, adventurous spirit, but she never really had the means to do much in her life.” “The Travel Channel was really her link to the rest of the world.”
The original plan was to go to the Great Smoky Mountains in 2015. However, after a great time at the national park, they decided to keep going.
Brad says, “When we got to the park at 1 a.m., it was pouring rain.” “She had never been in a tent before, but she helped me set up the tent by holding an umbrella over me.
We blew up the air mattress, and she fell off a few times, but she kept laughing the whole time.”
The next day, Joy, who was then 85, and her grandson climbed their first mountain together.
“That’s when I started to realize that she was giving me just as much as she thought I was giving her,” Brad says.
“Not only from the experience, but also from being on the road and talking to her through the night about her own struggles in life, really learning her story, and being able to get that inspiration for being strong.”
Even more amazing is how much the two have been through together.
“We hadn’t talked to each other in almost a decade when I finally decided to try to get back in touch with her,” Brad says.
After his parents’ “ugly” divorce, Brad says, “I felt bad for my mom and I felt betrayed just as much as she did.”
At the same time, Joy tried to help her son, Brad’s dad. Brad says, “I think it’s natural for moms to support their sons.” “I guess she just went down with the ship.”
Dr. Robin H. Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, tells PEOPLE that there are many reasons for estrangement, but “bitter divorce” is a common one: “It’s very common to feel bad things like anger, sadness, a sense of betrayal, and hurt.”
“These things could go on forever, for years, or for a short time,” she says.
Brad didn’t realize how bad the situation was until 10 years after the divorce.
“She was in such bad shape when she went to my sister’s wedding that she pretty much had to be carried in,” he says about his grandmother. “I felt terrible because when I was young, we were very close.”
Brad says Joy was losing a lot of weight and feeling very tired, and doctors were giving her many tests to find out what was wrong.
“When I saw her, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be the guilt I have to carry with me for the rest of my life.’
I had stopped talking to my close grandmother, and she was about to die. “I was sure that we wouldn’t see each other again after the wedding.”
But Joy got better by some miracle, and Brad found that their once-loved connection hadn’t changed much despite the distance.
Brad called his grandma and asked her to teach him how to make banana bread. This was the start of their sweet reunion.
Joy says that the phone call with her grandson was a surprise. “I didn’t think you’d just drop from the sky, but there you were. I don’t want to fight with my grandkids.”
After a few phone calls, they went on a short hike in their hometown, where she told Brad she was sorry she had never seen any of the country’s natural wonders.
“It was a heartbreaking realization that she had been left behind and had never seen mountains, glaciers, deserts, or humpback whales,” he says. “We’ve now been able to fill her life with all of these things.”
This was the first step toward their trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Joy says, “We just went on one trip at a time.”
She adds, “I’m very lucky to have a grandson like mine.” “I wouldn’t give him up for anyone,” she said.
The Ryans have now driven about 50,000 miles and flown to Hawaii, Alaska, and the Virgin Islands as part of their exciting adventures.
Along the way, they got stuck in Yellowstone National Park with a herd of bison.
They learned how to stay safe around grizzly bears in Katmai National Park at “Bear School.” In Channel Islands National Park, they saw humpback whales and dolphins swimming close to them.
In Great Sand Dunes National Park, they rolled down sand dunes. In Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, they had a rough ride because of the rapids.
Joy even broke the record for the oldest person to finish the ziplining course in New River Gorge National Park.
Brad says of his grandma’s reactions to each crazy thing they do together, “I look pale and scared, but her endorphins are just floating.”
“One time I turned around and saw her sitting next to an alligator with her feet in the water.”
Joy and Brad didn’t start getting a lot of attention until they were already halfway through this experience.
Now, their joint Instagram account, “Grandma Joy’s Road Trip,” has almost 65,000 followers who are following and supporting them on their journey.
Their fans have even helped them pay for trips that aren’t as easy.
“It’s been a mix of people being kind and some businesses helping out,” Brad says.
After seven years, Joy and Brad are getting close to the end of their trip. They only have one national park left to visit: the South Pacific Ocean’s National Park of American Samoa.
Brad says, “We have a U.S. territory, and on three of the islands there is a U.S. national park.”
Even though the two people haven’t found a sponsor for their trip yet, they have set up a GoFundMe to help them get to where they want to go.
Joy is 92 years old, but she feels more alive than ever because of their travels, and it shows.
“Every time I post a picture, someone says, ‘Is it just me, or does she look a lot younger than when you started taking pictures of her when she was 85?’” Brad says.
“I don’t think that’s a trick of the eye. I think that the things we’ve done together have given her the key to the fountain of youth.”
Even though this might be over soon, Joy and Brad don’t want to slow down.