Ohio natives Brad Ryan and his grandmother Joy share their experience with mending their relationship, taking an epic road trip to visit all 61 U.S. national parks, having an Instagram following of over 20,000, and the best and worst parts of being on the road.
Grandma Joy and Brad at Indiana Dunes
Grandma Joy and Brad Ryan at Indiana Dunes National Park.

Grandmother-grandson duo Joy and Brad Ryan aren’t your typical Instagram-famous travel couple, but they’re definitely still #goals.

The two reconnected in 2011 after not speaking for 10 years following Brad’s parents’ divorce, and since then they’ve grown closer than ever through their road trip adventures.

After learning his grandmother had never seen mountains or traveled to the coast, Brad decided they should take a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in September 2015. After the success of that trip, they set the goal of seeing all 61 U.S. national parks. So far they’ve journeyed to 40, driving across the country for weeks at a time and gaining 26,500 Instagram followers along the way. Now on their sixth road trip, they just checked the Midwest off their bucket list. Here's what they said about their experience in an interview with Midwest Living.

Joy, what were your initial thoughts when Brad suggested traveling to all the U.S. national parks?

Why not try it? It's fun to chip away at a big goal like traveling to all the U.S. national parks. I honestly didn’t realize how many parks there were until I was in the thick of traveling. You can stare at a map of the United States your whole life, but you don’t grasp how big our country really is until you start driving.

What's the best part about being on the road? The worst?

Joy: Best— Meeting all the friendly and helpful people along the way. Worst—Too much fast food. I get so sick of that junk.

Brad: Best— I’m a wildlife veterinarian, so the best gift of the open road has been the diverse and thrilling wildlife encounters we’ve had along the way. We both get excited when a chipmunk crosses the road, so we’re perfect travel partners to that end. Worst—It’s a toss-up between sore butts and buggy windshields. 

Is there anything that has surprised you about how the other person travels?

Joy: I am surprised by Brad’s stamina behind the wheel. We have traveled over 30,000 miles across America, and Brad has driven every last mile.

What were you most looking forward to seeing in the Midwest? 

Joy: We have so many great U.S. national parks in the Midwest. I am excited about Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. I’ve always wanted to see it.

Why did you decide to create the @grandmajoysroadtrip account?

Brad: I tagged #grandmajoysroadtrip on all photos from our earlier road trips on my personal Instagram account. My motivation was simply to make my photos prettier and to network with other U.S. national parks enthusiasts. I set up an official account @grandmajoysroadtrip because I have taken so many photos. I felt the visual content deserved its own space to promote intergenerational travel and protection of our public lands. A lot of families relate to our story of lost time and are also reckoning with the urgency of now. We also have followers who cannot travel and are living vicariously through our journey. Many people are expressing a newfound interest and appreciation for our public lands in the United States. 

Grandma Joy at Voyageurs
Grandma Joy at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. Photo from @grandmajoysroadtrip

Have you met any of your Instagram followers/fans in person?

Joy: You better believe it! A woman walked up to me on the second day of our current road trip while we were at Indiana Dunes. She walked up to our picnic table and said, “Hello Joy. I follow you on Instagram and I love what you do.” One time felt like a fluke, but it’s happened several times.

Brad, when you first reconnected with Joy, was it nerve-racking reaching out after 10 years? Do you have advice for anyone who wants to reconcile with a family member?

I felt awkward and somewhat trepidatious when I first picked up the phone and called Grandma Joy. No matter how you approach it, you can’t just pick up where you left off when an entire decade has elapsed.

 Grandma Joy’s Road Trip is a story about forgiveness and reparation at its core. My first piece of advice to anyone seeking reconciliation is to know yourself and be clear about your intention for starting the forgiveness process.

Tough conversations are inevitable. They can wait. Grandma Joy and I started our journey in the kitchen. She taught me to make banana bread and raisin-filled cookies. I found it helpful to start from a place of childhood nostalgia. Baking also provided some cover so we didn’t have to work so hard to find our words. 

 You can’t stop what’s coming. Some conversations need to happen before we can turn the page. Don’t rush those conversations, but expect them to happen during long road trips.

How has your travel experience affected your relationship?

Brad: We can never get back what was lost, but ultimately we accomplished something greater. Mostly we just have fun, but we are closer than ever because of the tears we shed on the open road.

 Joy: He’s one in a million. People keep saying I’m the luckiest grandma. I sure know I’m lucky. I’ll tell you that.

Grandma Joy and Brad at Isle Royal
Grandma Joy and Brad Ryan at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Photo from @grandmajoysroadtrip

According to Brad, their current road trip is the “most comfortable” so far, thanks to Hyatt Hotels. After hearing Grandma Joy’s story earlier this fall, Hyatt reached out to help host the pair during their travels.