How National Parks Reconnected This Duo with Nature—and Each Other

A grandmother and grandson find a way to mend their broken relationship, one national park at a time

Grandma Joy and Brad at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North DakotaPhotograph by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Grandma Joy and Brad at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota

Avoiding people in a small town requires the skills of a spy. So Brad Ryan moved like a ghost, taking precautions to stay far away from the woman who had broken his heart. He had not seen or spoken to Grandma Joy in six years.

Brad, 27, had returned to Duncan Falls, Ohio, where he was born and raised, only because he wanted to enroll at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Already paying off student loans, Brad needed to save money and take a series of upper-level chemistry and physics classes at a local college before applying to vet school. He lived with his mother in his childhood home and worked nights as a waiter in a local restaurant.

He was halfway through his evening shift when he felt his cellphone vibrate. It was his mother. His younger sister had announced her engagement and a wedding date had been set for a Duncan Falls church.

Brad’s heart sank. He loved his sister, but there was no way he’d attend the wedding. Grandma Joy would be there.

The early years with Grandma Joy

Despite Joy Ryan’s first name, there wasn’t much joy in her life. She grew up in a home with no electricity, running water or plumbing. She attended a one-room schoolhouse. Engaged at 16 and married at 18, she had her first child—Brad’s father—at 21. Two more boys followed, both of whom met tragic ends. Her youngest son died of a drug overdose. The second passed from brain cancer.

She was a housewife, sold Avon products to women in town and baby­sat for other mothers. When the kids moved out of the house, she took a job behind the deli counter in a grocery store.

By the time of the wedding, she was 78 and a widow for 14 years. She was content but lived a small life that stopped at the edge of the county line. Other than a vacation to Florida and a trip to see relatives in Louisiana, Joy had never traveled far from Duncan Falls, a town that for most of her life had only a single traffic light. So she felt blessed when her oldest son and his wife moved nearby and had a baby.

“Brad was my first grandchild,” she says. “He was at our house all the time.”

Grandma Joy’s first-born son was a hunter and star high school athlete. His son did not follow in his footsteps. Brad wanted to hold animals.

Joy and 2-year-old Brad en route to a fishing camp in 1983Photograph by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Joy and 2-year-old Brad en route to a fishing camp in 1983

“My earliest memory of her is when I was 3,” says Brad. “We’d walk to Blue Rock State Park, which is close to her house. She’d help me lift rocks in the creek to find crawfish. We’d hold them in our hands and talk about how beautiful it was being in nature. No one else in my family thought like that.”

As he grew older, Brad, who later came out as gay, was the victim of teasing and bullying. He felt alone. Grandma Joy was the one person in his world he could count on.

The breaking point with Grandma Joy

By the time Brad left for college he’d grown emotionally distant from his father and, ultimately, they had no relationship. His parents split and then divorced. It was then that Brad learned that his father had been having an affair, and that Grandma Joy had known and never said a word.

In 2002, Brad came home from college to confront his father. When he arrived, he found Grandma Joy by his father’s side. The two men argued. Brad remembers his father grabbing his arm and verbally threatening him. Brad turned to his grandmother, hoping for help or just a kind word. He got neither.

"I didn't know what to expect. Was he still mad?"

“I yelled at her,” he says. “I asked her how she could be proud to have this man as her son.”

Grandma Joy remained impassive. “I was shocked,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what to do.”

“That was the end of my relationship with Grandma Joy,” he says.

Over the next six years, he’d come to accept it, and he no longer thought about it. And then, the wedding. He considered leaving town, but he didn’t. It was his sister’s big day. Of course he’d go.

Reunited at a wedding

From where he sat in a pew, Brad saw his grandmother, thin and gaunt, walk unsteadily into the Duncan Falls church. She had not been well, he learned from a friend there, and was barely able to stand. Brad reluctantly walked over to her.

“I was surprised to see him,” says Grandma Joy. “He gave me his arm, and I took it.”

Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National ParkPhotograph by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park

The two didn’t say much, just a few pleasant words. No hug or smile to show they were kin. They were simply two people attending a wedding.

“This was not the venue or occasion to contend with the demons in our relationship,” Brad says. “I simply wanted to get her to her seat.”

Brad went through the niceties. He posed for family pictures and made the rounds, but he knew he was moving on, getting away from Duncan Falls. He’d always wanted to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail, and in February 2009, six months after the wedding, he did just that.

The isolation on the trail, the physical and emotional demands, turned out to be a spiritual experience. His thoughts were his only companion, and he found himself thinking a lot about his grandmother and the time they spent at Blue Rock State Park looking for crawfish. It puzzled him why that memory in particular stayed with him.

Mending a broken relationship

In 2011, after getting his master’s at Ohio State University, he returned home to visit his mother. He decided to call Grandma Joy. It would be their first real conversation in nearly a decade. She invited him over.

“I answered the door, and there he was,” says Grandma Joy. “I didn’t know what to expect. What did he want? Was he still mad? It had been so long … I’d given up on ever seeing him again.” She did what came natural to her. “I gave him a big hug.”

They walked into her kitchen. “It was familiar and yet strange,” says Brad. “It looked the same. But I was looking at a woman who had aged.”

They made small talk. Brad said she looked good. Her health, she said, had improved. Then an awkward pause.

“I needed an icebreaker,” says Brad. “I asked if she wanted to go to Blue Rock State Park. It was a bit of a walk, but she told me she stayed in shape walking on the cemetery grounds ­behind her house.”

The General Sherman Tree at Sequoia National ParkPhotograph by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
The General Sherman Tree at Sequoia National Park

On the way there, Grandma Joy admitted she had many regrets in her life. One of them, she says, was that aside from this state park, she’d never had the chance to see what she called the great outdoors. When they arrived at the creek, the special place where long ago they’d searched out the crawfish, they stood silently, lost in thought. A loud splash broke the silence. The tail of a massive beaver gliding below broke the water’s surface. Stunned, they both laughed.

“We looked at each other,” says Brad, “and we both realized we were still the same people.”

Reconnecting with nature—and each other

Brad left Duncan Falls and by September 2015 was deep in the rigors of veterinary school. Between grueling classes, lab work and shifts in the school’s veterinary hospital, he was feeling stressed. He needed to step away from school. Then he thought of Grandma Joy, Blue Rock State Park and her sadness of not seeing more of nature.

“I was overwhelmed,” he says, “with what I perceived would be a lifelong regret if I didn’t reach out again.”

He came up with an idea even he knew was crazy. On his next free weekend he’d make the 400-mile trip from the veterinary school to Duncan Falls to take Grandma Joy on a camping trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Left: Climbing the Alum Cave Train in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Above: Whitewater rafting in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National ParkPhotographs by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Left: Climbing the Alum Cave Train in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Right: Whitewater rafting in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Brad knew it was impractical. Grandma Joy was 85. To get to the park they would have to drive 500 miles through the night. It would be the first time in her life she’d camped and slept outdoors.

He called his grandmother and filled her in on his outlandish proposal. In the long pause that followed, Brad expected, for all the right reasons, that it just wasn’t practical.

The old lady surprised him by asking, “When do we leave?”

They arrived at the campground at around 1:30 a.m. in the middle of a rainstorm. Brad scrambled to set up the tent. Finally successful, they climbed inside. Grandma Joy’s air mattress kept deflating.

“Brad would get it filled up, and then I’d slip off,” she says. “It was like a Laurel and Hardy movie. I got to laughing. Then Brad got to laughing. It felt like when he was little, and we did everything together.”

Left and right: California's Channel Islands National ParkPhotographs by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Left and right: California’s Channel Islands National Park

The skies cleared the next day, and Brad asked his grandmother if she felt like making the three-mile hike to reach the bluff. They set off. She clung to cables when they crossed a ravine and avoided slipping on the wet trail. She moved with the pace of an 85-year-old woman looking at coupons while moving down the aisle of a grocery store. People passed her, and Brad asked if she wanted to turn around.

“I’m getting up that hill if it kills me,” she told Brad. When they finally got to the top, the 20 or so hikers there gave her an ovation.

That night Brad made a campfire. He and his grandmother sat next to each other, feeling the warmth and looking at stars. Brad and Grandma Joy opened the lockbox of their past. They talked about families and parents, about loss, pain and regret. They told each other they’d wasted too many years being estranged. They talked about Brad’s relationship with his father.

She told Brad she understood that he felt she was siding with his father. “But I also said I’d feel bad if I died and didn’t have anything to do with my son too. And I told Brad I loved every bit of him.”

Badlands National Park in South DakotaPhotograph by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Brad realized his grandmother might not have the introspection necessary to understand how the past had affected him. But he knew now that his grandmother loved him, and he loved her.

“And that was enough,” he says.

That night in the tent Grandma Joy reached over to touch Brad’s hand. She knew that back in Duncan Falls her friends were watching TV and complaining about aches and pains.

“Here I was, in the middle of nowhere, with my grandson,” she says. “I thanked him. I had tears in my eyes. But they were good tears.”

Longing for nature walks with Grandma Joy

The camping trip over, Brad dropped his grandmother at her home and returned to school. He graduated and got a job in New Hampshire at an exotic pet veterinary practice. But in the quiet moments, he found himself thinking about a way for Grandma Joy and him to do it again

“I wanted her to see Old Faithful, walk among giant redwoods and experience sunrise at the Grand Canyon,” he says.

The United States has 63 national parks. He and Grandma Joy had crossed one off the list. Brad thought they should next go to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. While looking at the map, he discovered that Badlands National Park was in South Dakota.

“I was amazed,” he says. “We could drive just a little farther and see two parks. Then I saw that Grand Teton National Park is right next to Yellowstone. And Glacier National Park is not too far away in Montana.”

"I've seen things I didn't know existed in this world."

Brad became obsessed. “I began calculating the distance to drive from one park to the next.” In 28 days, they could visit 21 national parks in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Kentucky. He called Grandma Joy.

“He told me we’d be staying in that tent again,” says Grandma Joy. “We’d be driving all these miles.”

She was 88. What more did she need out of life? This trip.

A trekking grandmother and grandson

Grandma Joy and Brad have now visited 62 national parks, logging more than 50,000 miles on his car. The difference in their ages made no difference.

“Age doesn’t change the way one beholds the incandescent glow of Zion National Park’s vermilion sandstone cliffs at sunset,” he says.

Grandma Joy’s favorite stop was in Katmai National Park in Alaska to watch the annual salmon run at Brooks Falls. More than 35 bears were vying to catch leaping salmon, fattening up before it was time for them to hibernate.

“The most thrilling experience I’ve ever had,” she says. “I chuckled when I watched one smart bear stay in the back and wait until another guy got the fish. Then he ran over and took it away from him.”

Left: Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve. Right: Alaska's Noatak National Preserve in the Arctic Circle.Photographs by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Left: Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. Right: Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve in the Arctic Circle.

Traveling far from Duncan Falls was life-changing for Grandma Joy, who once thought an adventure meant walking into the woods to pick flowers. “I’ve seen things most people have never seen,” she says. “I’ve seen things I didn’t know existed in this beautiful world.”

The open road also provided the time for the pair to share their life ­stories. “I learned about his school,” says Grandma Joy. “Operating on animals. What he saw on the Appalachian Trial. All those things I never would have known about.”

She, too, had her own surprises to share. Her first job out of high school, she told him, was as a telephone switchboard operator in a nearby town. She admitted that she and some of her co-workers eavesdropped on the line when calls were routed to the local house of prostitution.

“She recounted the wealth of dirty secrets that had remained locked in her brain for 70 years,” says Brad. “Grandma Joy even spilled names. I laughed so hard I came close to driving off the road.”

Brad and Grandma Joy finally take it easy atop Hurricane Ridge in Washington's Olympic National Park.Photograph by Brad Ryan, @grandmajoysroadtrip
Brad and Grandma Joy finally take it easy atop Hurricane Ridge in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

Brad says he has learned a lot traveling with his grandmother, the most important thing being that life is about choices made. “At any given moment we all face a choice,” he says. “What you choose can lead us on a new path.”

For Brad it began many years ago when he decided to go to his sister’s wedding, knowing he would have to see the woman who had once caused him such pain. Now they’re not just traveling partners, not just a grandmother and grandson, but friends.

They plan to visit the last park on their list, the National Park of America Samoa, sometime in 2023. And then?

“Canada,” says Brad. “That country has 37 national parks!”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest