Only a few people have seen the entire National Park Service system, and only one of them has seen each and every one of the 419 NPS sites consecutively: Mikah Meyer. The 33-year-old is wrapping up his three-year trek across all 50 states and five U.S. territories on April 29, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. For most of the trip he’s been living out of the converted windowless van he dubbed Vanny McVanface (Boaty McBoatface’s land-bound cousin). Unfortunately, McVanface couldn’t make it to Guam, Hawaii, or any other islands; but otherwise, McVanface and Meyer have traveled from sea to shining sea, from Acadia National Park on the Maine coast to Rosie the Riveter/World War II Homefront National Historic Park in Richmond, California.
There’s one hitch that could extend Meyer’s trip completion date, which is that the number of official NPS sites is a moving target. There are still nine Authorized Areas that have been legally designated as public lands but haven’t technically become sites yet for various reasons, and could gain NPS site designation any day. Eight sites have been added since Meyer started his trek in 2016, and he’s visited those too. So theoretically, Mikah could be lacing up to traipse the Lincoln Memorial, then get a press release that there’s a brand-new national monument in Mississippi he still needs to see.
Meyer began his three-year journey on April 29, 2016, the 11th anniversary of his father’s passing. Meyer, who’s from Lincoln, Nebraska, had started taking road trips around the end of every April to remember his dad, a Lutheran pastor who loved a long drive. In 2011, he and a friend drove to the Grand Canyon, which sparked in Meyer an urge to visit every NPS site. For Meyer, his father’s early passing—he died suddenly, at age 58 of cancer—was also a wake-up call. “I wanted to do something that would inspire other people and share this lesson I had to learn the hard way,” says Meyer. “Here I am at age 30, not knowing when I’ll die, and I’m gonna take this time to complete one of my life goals because I might die younger than I hope.”
That’s how it started, anyway. Meyer’s dad is still the inspiration for the trip, but over the three years, Meyer himself has become a noteworthy figure on Instagram as a gay outdoorsman.
Mikah didn’t expect he’d become known as a gay outdoorsperson, because he didn’t expect being a gay outdoorsperson would be all that unique. His search for corporate sponsorship highlighted how rare LGBT public figures are in the outdoors world, even as recently as 2016.
Meyer had been saving up since that first Grand Canyon trip in 2011. But even with that, national parks experts estimated he’d saved only about one-fifth of what it would take to complete the trip. But Meyer made the leap of faith to start the trip anyway. Or, as he characterized it, a leap of naiveté. Meyer assumed he’d have no problem getting sponsorship money based on the concept of his trip, as 2016 was the 100th anniversary of the NPS and he’d be breaking a world record. “I thought, I’d just look up whoever the ‘Gay Bear Grylls’ is, see who sponsors him, and reach out to those people.” But there was no Gay Bear Grylls.
Despite that fact, in the year leading up to the trip, Meyer took several meetings with marketing officers and CEOs of outdoor brands and nonprofits in search of sponsors. He found that after promising conversations, the companies would suddenly cut communication. Meyer speculates this was due to being what he calls “gay on Google:” a quick internet search of his name yielded results that indicated he was queer. He did get one outdoors nonprofit to partially support him. But 11 months into that sponsorship, he got a call informing him that his contract would be terminated immediately because he was posting too much LGBT coverage on his blog and social media. (Meyer is not legally allowed to say the name of this nonprofit.) “My worst fears did happen,” says Meyer. “My assumption was, to be outdoorsy in America does not mean to be gay.” After getting dumped, Mikah did his best to mask his queeness on his social media—no rainbow flag, no mention of sexuality, just a guy enjoying the great outdoors—in hopes that such discretion would attract sponsors. But still, no one called.
So Meyer got creative. Before the trip, he had been working as a professional singer at the Washington National Cathedral—he has a Master’s in music and voice performance—so he began to perform at churches on the road. He’s now sung at over 150 churches across the states. “I have an entire show now where I show pictures from the parks and my travels and tell stories from the road and sing in-between,” says Meyer. “It’s kind of like a Dolly Parton concert.” And it worked—about 90 percent of Meyer’s funding comes from individuals who hear his stories. The shows kept Meyer’s expedition alive.
About eight months into his trip, Meyer starting getting messages from gay outdoors enthusiasts, park rangers, or other NPS employees saying things like, “I’m gay and I love the outdoors and I’ve never seen anyone like you.” In early 2017, Meyer got a message from a closeted gay teen on Instagram, thanking him for his visible queerness, and for inspiring him to be extraordinary. This was a turning point for Meyer. “I wiped the tears off my smartphone, and at that point I said, ‘Eff it! The outdoors companies aren’t sponsoring me anyway. This kid needs me, these other people need me.’” So he started posing with the rainbow flag frequently and enthusiastically. He starting advocating for queer representation in outdoors brands. The message of the trip morphed from a simple carpe diem to an attempt to create the outdoorsman role model he couldn’t find before.
Meyer will unveil a complete ranking of all the NPS sites on his blog once his mission is complete. But he said his favorite sites were the most unique: “You can see snow-capped mountains a lot of places in America. But you can’t experience something like Badlands National Park anywhere else.” Meyer particularly loved sites that weren’t over-crowded or over-Instagrammed, so he often prefers national monuments to the more-hyped national parks.
While the trip itself may be ending, Meyer wants to continue traveling, exploring, and inspiring young LGBT kids to do the same. “I want to keep doing travel that breaks stereotypes, and show people this openly gay outdoorsman who they thought likely didn’t exist.” Meyer says in this journey he’s found what is called in the Lutheran church, his vocation: that career where his greatest talents meet the world’s greatest needs. His pastor father probably would’ve liked that.