If you don’t like the view, change your lens.
That’s what Brad Ryan did after he finished years of higher education only to find out that becoming a veterinarian wasn’t the “end all, be all” he thought it would be.
“I was going through my worst depression in life, and I had been honest about the fact that I definitely had suicidal thoughts during vet school,” said the 38-year-old Ohio man. “When a second-year student committed suicide, I thought I needed to get out. And for me, Mother Nature was always my greatest healer.”
He drove to the Great Smoky Mountains for a reset with his octogenarian grandmother Joy Ryan, known as Grandma Joy, riding shotgun. That was four years ago. What started out as a single road trip turned into six, with a goal of visiting all 61 U.S. national parks.
Brad has been chronicling their adventures on social media, and the duo have become internet sensations with more than 33,000 followers on Instagram and several national news spots under their belts. Per Brad, Grandma Joy can’t go to the grocery store in their hometown of Duncan Falls, Ohio, without having people ask for a photo.
“We have been charged by moose, and Grandma has unfortunately run across a skinny-dipper on the side of a lake in Yellowstone National Park,” Brad said recently when he and Grandma Joy dropped by Chicago in between park visits. “We’ve had beautiful epic moments like being trapped in a bison herd for four hours at Yellowstone, walking through the redwood trees, watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. We could go on and on.”
In September the Ryans finished seeing their 31st park when they visited the country’s newest: Indiana Dunes National Park.
“We had a nice ranger who was very giving and patient with me, trying to plow through all that sand,” Grandma Joy said. “Oh, my word! That was a tad of a struggle, but we made it. She showed us all the different flowers. I have sassafras in my backyard, but I didn’t find out until yesterday that a sassafras tree has three kinds of leaves.”
Amid their adventures the Ryans have strengthened familial bonds. For years Brad thought by achieving his career goals, he would find validation and fulfillment, and his life would then take shape. He did all of that and still found that he was not the person that he wanted to be.
“It was sort of the Dorothy Gale (‘Wizard of Oz’) analogy, right?” Brad said. “Everything that I ever needed was right there at home the whole time, and I had lost sight of that.
“When you’re on the open road, it forces conversations to emerge that might have otherwise gone unspoken,” he added. “We had a whole family legacy that I didn’t know about and she would have taken to her grave. I think we just take that for granted as we push forward in life to pursue our careers. I definitely had.”
This was Grandma Joy’s first visit to Chicago. She was in awe of the city lights.
“I couldn’t believe all these people live in these great big buildings — millions of them,” she said. “It looked like Christmastime.”
Before the Ryans left for Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, we picked up some advice from Brad and life lessons from Grandma Joy. The interview has been condensed and edited.
>> On getting tired hiking through parks:
Sure, I get tired sometimes, but what’s the alternative? Stay home? I don’t think so.
>> On her view on life:
I look forward to life. I lost my boys and husband, but you just take it one day at a time, and you look around and see other people in a lot worse shape than you. So every morning I wake up and thank God for giving me another day and trudge forward.
>> On her favorite park, so far:
There is something special about every park. People just need to get out and go.
>> On the benefits of driving a Ford Escape hybrid while checking out nature:
We were going up this mountain, and when the fog went away, there was this tiny little bear cub walking along the edge, just as big as you please, and then he jumped down and began digging for worms. It was fun to watch him because he didn’t know we were there because the car was so quiet. He just took his time and wandered around.
>> On getting caught in the middle of a bison herd:
It was fun to just sit there and watch — there were little ones, big ones, middle-size ones. It’s amazing to see all these things that you see on the Travel Channel and then you see them in person. You can’t believe the difference when you see something in person. In every park, so beautiful, it was just amazing.
>> On her lessons to Brad:
You just have to be positive. The glass is half full, not half empty. Stop and smell the roses.
>> On grandma’s lessons:
She loves animals like I do — that’s one of the things that we connect on. She was the grandma who was adventurous enough to take her shoes off and get in the stream with me to lift up rocks to find little critters. That planted the seed and my love of nature and wildlife.
When she told me in her 80s that she had never seen mountains or the great, charismatic wildlife of the United States, that’s what broke my heart because I knew that if she had the financial means and the ability to go and see these things, she would have really soaked it all up. It just kind of haunted me. She makes the most of her life, and she’s always looking at life through a very grateful lens. I just felt what a missed opportunity if I couldn’t somehow show her the world. (Brad created a GoFundMe page to help pay for their travels; Hyatt will provide lodging for the remainder of the trip.)
>> On the completion of their road tripping:
(Earlier this month they completed 49 out of 61 parks.) “That’s every national park in the lower continental United States. At (this) point it’s Hawaii, Alaska and two in the Caribbean. The old Brad was completely disappointed if I didn’t complete 10 items on a to-do list when I visited a place. Now I’m not so distracted by the end goal — that’s a lesson I got from her.
When I had to slow down to her pace when we were visiting the parks, she would point out the designs on caterpillars, say, “Look at the roots on this tree. Doesn’t that look like a sculpture?” She’s able to point out all these things that I probably would not have seen. I’ve learned to live more presently because of her.
I dream about her seeing grizzly bears catching salmon by a river and watching caribou walking across the Arctic Circle and things like that. I hope that happens. It’s a constant battle that I have: Don’t think about that. Focus on these beautiful seagulls that are putting on a show for us on the shores of Lake Michigan. And we did. We sat there for two hours, and it was amazing.
Editor’s note: About a week ago the Ryans flew to Hawaii and have since visited Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park, marking their 50th and 51st national park visits.