News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Joy Ryan, 93, is the oldest woman to visit every U.S. national park

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Ninety-three-year-old Joy Ryan has set a world record.

JOY RYAN: I'm the oldest old lady to ever visit every national park.

MARTÍNEZ: All 63 national parks. And she did it with her grandson, Brad, who's 42. Here's NPR's Ari Daniel.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Joy and Brad Ryan gingerly walk along a path in the rain forest beneath a cathedral of flowers and green vines. Joy's in sandals. And Brad's right beside her.

BRAD RYAN: All right. Hold on to my hand.

J RYAN: Had to get over that root. Look at those big leaves. I never saw anything like it in my whole born days.

DANIEL: This is the National Park of American Samoa in the South Pacific, some 6,700 miles from their home in Duncan Falls, Ohio, and the last part to secure Joy that world record.

B RYAN: Look at that. And then everything gets bright again.

DANIEL: Massive stone arches stand along the island's north side, where the Pacific crashes ashore.

J RYAN: Isn't that magnificent?

B RYAN: It's amazing. Yeah.

J RYAN: Oh, it's so pretty, just like it's a dream.

DANIEL: This journey that culminated here - it began 20-odd years ago, when Brad's parents got divorced and he became estranged from his grandma, Joy. It wasn't until his sister's wedding that he saw her again.

B RYAN: She came into the church, and she was gaunt, unsteady. It was hard to see this woman that was so important to me in my formative years on the cusp of dying, knowing that there was so much anger and distance between us.

DANIEL: But over a period of months, Joy recovered, and Brad worked up the courage to suggest they make raisin-filled cookies together.

B RYAN: But there was a little too much awkwardness for my liking. You can't pick up where you left off. I learned that quickly.

DANIEL: Still, they stayed in touch. Then in 2015, when Brad was in vet school, he found himself in a dark place.

J RYAN: Brad was feeling depressed and not very happy with hisself, and so he called, you know, if I wanted to go down to the Smoky Mountains and stay in a tent. And I said, yes. I'll try it.

B RYAN: There's a lot of things I've gotten wrong in my life. The best thing I ever did was to call her that day.

DANIEL: Grandma Joy was 85. She'd never even seen a mountain before, but she and Brad set out to summit one of the park's peaks. It was 2 1/2 miles to the top.

B RYAN: She was very, very wobbly. Her balance and coordination were very poor.

J RYAN: And when I got to the top, there was this big group of college kids, and they all gave me a rousing cheer (laughter).

DANIEL: Joy and Brad were hooked. They visited one national park after another, and Joy kept getting stronger. They went zip lining in West Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

B RYAN: Woo-hoo.

J RYAN: I had these handsome men give me a hug, and down there we went.

DANIEL: Whitewater rafting in Alaska.

J RYAN: Good gravy. What a trip.

DANIEL: Joy even rolled down a sand dune in Colorado.

B RYAN: And I said, you are going to break a hip. And she goes, kiss my grits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

B RYAN: Have fun getting back up.

DANIEL: Brad and Joy have had little dust-ups along the way. But this tour of the national parks - it healed their rift.

J RYAN: You can't hold grudges forever.

DANIEL: At times, the park spoke to them personally, like when they hiked amongst the towering California redwoods, feeling two inches tall, and Joy looked up and noticed something.

J RYAN: They've been struck by lightning. And you think, that takes courage, after you've been struck by lightning to say, I'm going to keep on growing.

DANIEL: For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.