Veterinarian, grandma one stop away from completing epic road trip
Duo’s quest to see all U.S. national parks spurred by finding passion outside the workplace
November 30, 2022
Dr. Brad Ryan and his grandmother Joy Ryan have driven 50,000 miles together. They’ve also flown to Alaska, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands—all toward reaching their goal of visiting all 63 U.S. national parks. And now they are closing in on their last stop: the National Park of American Samoa, located in the U.S. territory in the South Pacific. American Samoa is 6,700 miles from their hometown in Duncan Falls, Ohio.
As they prepare to check the final park off their bucket list, Dr. Ryan, who is a professional services veterinarian for Antech Diagnostics, spoke with AVMA News about his memories and lessons learned along the way.
It all started in 2015 with a weekend trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Dr. Ryan was in his fourth year of veterinary college at The Ohio State University and seeking some time in nature to decompress from the mental health challenges he was facing.
Knowing how much his grandma Joy loved the outdoors, Dr. Ryan asked her if she’d like to join. It was there she climbed her first mountain at age 85.
“I wouldn’t have called her to join me if she hadn’t been such an influence in my life for love and reverence of nature,” Dr. Ryan said.
In 2017, they visited their next national park, Badlands National Park in South Dakota, where they saw bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and jackrabbits. It would be the start of a 21-park circuit around the U.S. that year.
“Brad came up with the idea, but I was game for the adventure from the moment we began researching all our spectacular national parks,” grandma Joy said.
Dr. Ryan said many of their best memories from the parks are of the wildlife they saw. The pair sat on the shores of Fishercap Lake in Glacier National Park in Montana at dusk to watch moose. They saw elk bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park. They observed humpback whales in front of their boat in Channel Islands National Park off the Southern California coast. Grandma Joy nearly sat down next to an alligator in the Florida Everglades. While landing in Katmai National Park in Alaska, “we saw a giant brown bear sticking out of the water like a periscope,” Dr. Ryan said.
They attended bear school and had a terrifying but exhilarating time hiking trails. The reward at the end of the hike was a scene of 35 brown bears at Brooks Falls grabbing salmon as they leapt out of the water on their journey up the river. It was something grandma Joy had always wanted to see.
“I’ve had so many great wildlife encounters, but to share something on that scale—one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world—with someone who is 91 was the cherry on top,” Dr. Ryan said.
The two started out camping but switched to hotels a few years ago. Just after they visited Virgin Islands National Park in January 2020, the pandemic kept them off the road for a little more than a year, but since then the two returned to traveling in full force.
Staying in focus
Early in their travels, Dr. Ryan decided to document their visits to national parks on social media, which turned into a viral sensation that resonated with fans worldwide. Grandma Joy is now 92 years old, and her adventures with Dr. Ryan have gained nearly 70,000 Instagram followers and more than 21,000 fans on Facebook.
The hashtag #GrandmaJoysRoadTrip shows moments of hiking the Hall of Mosses Trail through the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park, and even zip lining at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. Grandma Joy’s favorite adventure was whitewater rafting at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in south-central Alaska.
“I felt free and exhilarated. It was unlike anything I’ve ever attempted in my life. It made me feel like I was a kid again,” she said.
Until their trips together, grandma Joy's only real connection to the great outdoors was watching nature documentaries. “Lots of people saw their own grandparents in grandma Joy, or it reminded them of a missed opportunity, but anyone can still make the most of now and create some magic in their own families,” Dr. Ryan said.
He is often asked in TV interviews how the journey began.
“The honest answer required me to talk about my mental health struggles. Through all that I found empowerment,” Dr. Ryan said. “At vet school, I was suffering in silence, making comparisons all the time, struggling with self-doubt. I had no idea that our first road trip would be connected to any broader conversation in wellness and veterinary medicine.”
While traveling, he learned that when grandma Joy was growing up, her father brought home a pony he found with a terrible sore from hauling a wagon of coal. Her mother nursed it back to health, and Tony the pony lived the rest of his life on their farm.
“I got to learn a lot about her life and my family history,” Dr. Ryan said. “In the process, I learned something about myself in terms of why I became a veterinarian and the influence of intergenerational traditions and values that are passed down.”
He and grandma Joy have had the opportunity to heal wounds in their own relationship and within their family, and they’ve found their way together through their own private struggles.
Dr. Ryan said veterinarians tend to attach some self-criticism to finding work-life balance. But his journey with grandma Joy has taught him to set boundaries and prioritize his mental health. He said he’s a different person than he was seven years ago and has found his way within the profession.
In his current position, he travels to veterinary hospitals all over the country discussing tests that Antech is launching. He also now does public speaking engagements.
Dr. Ryan stressed the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving. He said: “You can be a healthy striver and also juggle a few different balls in your life at the same time. Proving your worth and getting to the top of the pack isn’t what makes you a whole person.”
The 63rd and final stop on the Ryans’ journey is in American Samoa. The national park there, spread across the islands of Tutuila, Ofu, and Ta‘ū, is the most remote park in the U.S. national park system. The Ryans are currently raising money on GoFundMe for travel expenses to visit the three islands in April 2023.
Dr. Ryan explained that many of the islands in the region are culturally rooted in family and community. He’s excited to go and experience a different culture with grandma Joy.
“How amazing that this road trip will end somewhere that is not only a tropical paradise, but this is the one that is most culturally tied to love of family,” Dr. Ryan said. “It’s very poetic the way that we can wrap it up in a land like that.”
And now that grandma Joy finally has a passport, Dr. Ryan is looking forward to someday taking her to national parks in other countries.
“This journey isn’t complete yet, and we have 62 national parks worth of incredible memories,” Dr. Ryan said. “This above and beyond exceeded expectations for how far we would go.”
“We’ve traveled this far, so I want to finish what we started,” said grandma Joy. “The joy is in the journey.”
Indeed, the Ryans emphasize the journey is about not only the places they went and the people they met but also the conversations that came out of the experience of being on the open road together for months at a time.
“The beauty of a road trip and being in nature is that it’s a neutral, nonjudgmental space to reflect on your life and see the potential for the future,” Dr. Ryan said. “We have a lot of power to change the course of our lives through simple choices we make. When you do start to put your career in perspective and find a purpose for life outside work, you can show up and be a better version of yourself.”
Dr. Brad Ryan was previously a guest on the AVMA podcast, “My Veterinary Life,” in 2020. He shared his veterinary career journey along with his travel adventures with grandma Joy.
To see more photos of Dr. Ryan and grandma Joy’s adventures at U.S. national parks, see our online photo gallery.
A version of this article appears in the January 2023 print issue of JAVMA.