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Choosing Joy at Any Age

Our journey began when my Grandma Joy and I were chatting about my 2009 Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I enthralled her with my tales of sketchy hitchhikes and close encounters with bears, and then she expressed her profound regret that she never got to see a mountain in her 80-plus years of life. Her words broke my heart… and changed the course our lives forever. 

During my final year of veterinary school, I invited Grandma Joy to join me on a weekend getaway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She was 85-years-old when we drove through the night and set up our tent in a downpour at 1:00 a.m. at the Elkmont Campground. It was her first time sleeping in a tent, and not only did she see her mountain the next day, she climbed her first mountain too

Up until this moment, my relationship with nature was always defined by how many miles I could crush in a single day; I was never satisfied until I could climb the next highest peak as fast as possible. But hiking with an octogenarian taught me that I was racing through life instead of basking in it. She was more in touch with her mortality and approached every summit view as if it was her first and last. Walking at a slower pace revealed the beautiful intricacies of lichen and insects and countless other wonders of nature that I had been overlooking my whole life. I felt a sense of joy I didn’t know I was missing as nature opened up a whole new world of possibilities for my grandmother. And so we decided to drive a little further and see as many U.S. national parks as possible.

We were over 25,000 miles into our journey with 29 national park visits under our belt when Acadia National Park shared a photograph of Grandma Joy and I standing on the shore of Sand Beach with our arms outstretched on their Instagram page. We were shocked when the image went viral around the world and Grandma Joy’s Road Trip quickly became a national and international news story.

Grandma Joy is now 90-years-old and we have visited all the U.S. national parks in the lower 48 states, Hawai’i, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We also hope to explore the eight national parks of Alaska and National Park of American Samoa to complete our goal of visiting all 62 U.S. parks. We document our journey on Instagram and Facebook to celebrate intergenerational travel and affirm that there is no expiration date on a life of adventure.

We are grateful for the opportunity to serve as Hello Ranger ambassadors for Age & Ability. In the coming months, we will cover topics ranging from park accessibility to the best intergenerational hikes within the National Park System. We have met so many diverse people from around the world, but sadly we have not met many grandparents exploring the natural world with their grandchildren. If you’re like us, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened your eyes to the simple things we always took for granted: traveling to new lands, chatting with strangers on a trail, and giving your grandparents a hug. It is our greatest hope that you will follow our lead and explore the U.S. national parks with your loved ones when it is safe to do so again. It doesn’t matter how old you are, we all have the ability to soak up the wonders of Mother Nature. We all have the ability to choose Joy.

Header photo: Courtesy of @grandmajoysroadtrip

Brad Ryan is the founder of Grandma Joy’s Road Trip. After learning his octogenarian grandmother had never seen a mountain or an ocean, he began traveling with her to all the U.S. national parks. Four years later, Grandma Joy is now 90-years-old, and they’ve made up for lost time having checked 53/62 national parks off their bucket list. They share their journey on social media to promote a dual message of the value of intergenerational travel and environmental stewardship.

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