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 almost 24,000 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 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.”
The Ryans just finished seeing their 31st park – the country’s newest, Indiana Dunes National Park.
“She showed us all the different flowers,” Grandma Joy said. “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.”
Before the Ryans left for Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, we picked up some advice from Brad and life lessons from Grandma Joy.
▪ On her view on 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 getting caught in the middle of a bison herd: “It’s amazing to see all these things that you see on the Travel Channel and then you see them in person.”
▪ On grandma’s lessons: “She was the grandma adventurous enough to 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’d never seen mountains or the great, charismatic wildlife of the United States, that’s what broke my heart . ... I just felt what a missed opportunity if I couldn’t somehow show her the world.” (He created a GoFundMe page to help pay for their travels.)
▪ On slowing down to her pace: “She’s able to point out things that I probably would not have seen. I’ve learned to live more presently because of her.”