WASHINGTON (WJLA) — In fall 2015, Brad Ryan needed some joy in his life. He was in his fourth grueling year of vet school, and a fellow student had recently committed suicide, leaving the community shaken.
Brad paid a visit to his 85-year-old grandmother Joy, who still lived in his tiny hometown in Ohio. After he told her stories about his overseas travels and outdoor adventures, she expressed a regret that broke his heart.
"She said, 'I haven't seen the ocean, or the mountains,'" Brad said.
Brad and Joy had gone hiking together in Ohio's state parks, but she hadn't accompanied him on any of his bigger adventures. On a whim, he asked his grandmother to hike the Smoky Mountains with him.
That hike kicked off an ongoing adventure to 29 national parks and the most far-flung corners of the contiguous United States. Brad and Joy have been charged by a moose in Glacier National Park, almost blown off a cliff in Canyon Overlook, and seen bears and elk up close. Joy has loved all of it.
"When we hiked Smoky, I realized what we were doing had an effect on people, because this is not a very common occurrence, for grandchildren and grandparents to do this," Brad said. "And the idea of being forgotten, left alone in your life without any adventure, it felt unethical to me. I hadn’t heard the story of her life, and it gave us a chance to share those stories."
Brad says that his grandmother's awe at the natural majesty they've witnessed together has made him better appreciate it himself. His grandmother, who has lost two of her children and been widowed for decades, keeps a joyful outlook that has had a profound impact on him.
"Seeing it through my grandmother’s eyes, who every morning wakes up and is thankful to be alive, has taught me how to live," Brad said. "With her, I’ve had to slow down and see it in a different way, which has made it a lot more rich. I love my grandma so much, and it’s just really giving me a lot of peace that when she eventually does pass on, I can go back to these places and feel her spirit, feel connected to her, that she set her eyes on these same things."
Brad tracks his progress across the country with Joy on his Instagram as well as a Facebook page, and is planning to continue their adventures. He now lives in D.C. and works at the National Zoo, but wants to go with Joy to every national park that he can.
He hopes that their journey together inspires other young people to reach out to their grandparents.
"I want people who are younger to know, you aren’t too cool to hang out with your grandparents," Brad said. "I think we’ve lost that as a society. There’s so much perspective and knowledge we stand to gain from our elders."