@grandmajoysroadtrip Brad and Joy in Channel Islands National Park in 2019 (Photographer: Cheryl Hutchison)
The thought of a 92-year-old sleeping in tents, scaling mountains and riding rapids might seem unimaginable, but for Joy Ryan, it's nothing short of reality.
In 2015, Joy and her grandson, Brad Ryan, set out on the adventure of a lifetime: to visit all 63 U.S. national parks. Joy was in her 80s at the time, working a minimum wage job at a deli in their hometown of Duncan Falls, Ohio. But she was hungry for more.
"She had a huge, adventurous spirit, but never really had the means to do much in her life," Brad, 41, tells PEOPLE. "Her connection to the world was really through watching the Travel Channel."
While the initial plan was to visit the Great Smoky Mountains in 2015, their great experience at the national park made them want to continue the journey.
"We got to the park around 1 in the morning, and it was pouring rain," Brad says. "She had never been in a tent before, but she held the umbrella over me and I put the tent together. We blew up the air mattress and she fell off a couple of times, but she laughed through every bit of it."
The next day, Joy, then 85, climbed her first mountain alongside her grandson.
"That's really when I started to realize that she was giving me just as much as she felt I was giving her… not only from the experience, but also being on the road, talking to her through the night about her own struggles in life, really learning her story and being able to get that inspiration for being resilient," Brad says.
@grandmajoysroadtrip Joy in Kenai Fjords National Park in 2021
Making it even more remarkable is how much the duo has overcome together.
"We were estranged for almost a decade when I finally decided to reach out to her and try to heal that relationship," Brad says.
After an "ugly divorce" between his parents, "I felt hurt for my mom," says Brad, "and I felt betrayed equally as my mom felt betrayed."
Meanwhile, Joy tried to support her son, Brad's father. "I think it's natural for moms to stick by their sons," Brad says. "She just kind of went down with the ship."
@grandmajoysroadtrip Joy and Brad in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2015
Dr. Robin H. Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, tells PEOPLE the reasons for estrangement may vary, but "bitter divorce" is a frequent factor: "Negative emotions such as anger, sadness, sense of betrayal and hurt are very common."
"These situations may last forever, years or only a brief time," she adds.
For Brad, it took 10 years after the divorce for the depth of the situation to finally hit him.
"She showed up at my sister's wedding pretty much needing to be carried in," he says, referring to his grandma's fragile health at the time. "I felt horrible because we were very close when I was a young boy."
@grandmajoysroadtrip Brad and Joy in Virgin Islands National Park in 2020
Joy was experiencing severe weight loss and fatigue, and doctors were frequently testing her to determine the cause of the unknown illness, Brad says.
"Seeing her, I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be the guilt that I have to carry with me the rest of my life; that I stopped speaking to this grandmother who I was close to, and she's about to die,'" he adds. "I fully expected to not see her again after the wedding was over."
However, Joy made a miraculous recovery — and Brad found their once-cherished connection hadn't faded despite the distance.
The touching reconciliation began with Brad calling his grandma and asking her to teach him how to make banana bread.
"Well, it was surprising," Joy says of the phone call with her grandson. "I didn't expect you to just come out of midair — and there you were. I don't want to be at odds with my grandchildren."
@grandmajoysroadtrip Brad and Joy in Big Bend National Park in 2019
Their relationship progressed from phone calls to a small hike in their hometown, during which she told Brad she regretted never seeing the country's many natural wonders.
"It was a crushing revelation that she had been left behind and never got to see mountains, glaciers, deserts and humpback whales," he says, "and all of the things that we've now been able to color her life with."
At this moment, the seed was planted for their Great Smoky Mountains trip.
"We just took one trip at a time," says Joy.
RELATED VIDEO: Grandma Goes Viral for Getting First Tattoo at 82
"I'm really blessed to have a grandson like I have," she adds. "I wouldn't trade him for anybody."
The Ryans have now driven roughly 50,000 miles and flown to Hawaii, Alaska and the Virgin Islands for their exhilarating adventures. Along the way, they've been trapped in a herd of Bison in Yellowstone National Park. "Bear School" taught them how to stay safe around grizzly bears in Katmai National Park. Humpback whales and dolphins swam past them in Channel Islands National Park. They rolled in sand dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Rapids gave them a bumpy ride in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Joy even broken a record for the oldest person to complete the ziplining course in New River Gorge National Park.
"All of these things we do, I look pale and terrified, but her endorphins are just floating," Brad says of his grandma's reactions to each wild experience. "I turned around once and she was sitting right beside an alligator, feet dangling in the water."
@grandmajoysroadtrip Joy in Glacier National Park in 2017
It wasn't until Joy and Brad were halfway through this experience that they started going viral. Now, their joint Instagram account, "Grandma Joy's Road Trip," has almost 65,000 followers who are watching and supporting their journey. Their following has even allowed them to fund their more difficult trips.
"It's been a combination of generosity from the public and from some corporations, too," Brad says.
After seven years, Joy and Brad are nearing the end of their journey with only one national park left: the National Park of American Samoa, located in the South Pacific Ocean.
"We have a U.S. territory and there's a U.S. national park on three islands there," Brad explains.
While the duo does not have a sponsor for the trip yet, they have set up a GoFundMe so they can reach their destination.
@grandmajoysroadtrip Joy and Brad in Denali National Park in 2021
At the age of 92, Joy is feeling more energetic than ever thanks to their explorations — and it shows.
"Every time I post a photograph, somebody comments, 'Is it just me, or does she look visibly younger than when you started when she was 85?'" Brad says. "And I don't think that's an optical illusion. I think that the experiences that we've had have literally unlocked the fountain of youth in her."
While this experience might be ending soon, Joy and Brad have no desire to slow down.
@grandmajoysroadtrip Brad and Joy at Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in 2019
"She has her passport now for the first time at age 92," Brad says. "We need that to get to American Samoa, but we have a lot of friends to the north, and they say that Canada is calling. She's always dreamed of going to Ireland, and I've always dreamed of taking her to Africa."
Regardless of where their adventures take them, Brad and Joy will always be thankful for what this experience has given them.
"He's taken me places that I see on the Travel Channel, and I never dreamt I'd end up there," she says. "It's been the most amazing journey, and I've been able to see wondrous things."
"It's pushed both of us outside of our comfort zone," he adds. "I think that's important for anybody at any age."