On the Road with Mikah Meyer, the First Person to Visit Every National Park Site in One Trip

Mikah Meyer White Sands April 2017
White Sands National Monument Mikah Meyer

On April 29, 2016, Mikah Meyer embarked on what would become a three-year road trip that, when completed in 2019, would make him the first person to visit every single National Park Service site in one continuous journey (there were 419 at the moment he completed his quest). And while he obviously enjoyed his multi-year road trip, it was really about self-discovery, inspiring others to chase their dreams, and honoring his father’s memory. What began in Washington, D.C. at the Washington Monument would also conclude in the same city, but involve climbing the steps to The Lincoln Memorial to cross the proverbial finish line. 

We first met Mikah before he completed his journey and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to interview him as he begins the next chapter (or adventure).

TM: When did the journey begin? Why was that date significant?

MM: My dad passed on April 29, 2005, and for over a decade that day has been one of sadness and loss. Much in the way his death has inspired me to pursue more life, I wanted to take a date that had been horrible for so long and repurpose it into a date that was triumphant.

TM: What inspired you to take this journey?

MM: Too many people say “I’m gonna do this with my life,” then kick the can down the road so long they’re physically unable to do the thing(s) they once dreamed about.

As a way to honor my father who died before getting to retire, and the experiences/road trips I wish we would’ve gotten together, I wanted to do something that was on my bucket list while I was more likely to be alive to do so. And in turn, use it to hopefully inspire others to complete their dreams while they are still alive to do so.

Too many people say “I’m gonna do this with my life,” then kick the can down the road so long they’re physically unable to do the thing(s) they once dreamed about.

I kept a model Volkswagen (my dad’s favorite brand) Beetle on the dash of my van throughout the park journey. It was already on the dash of his car when he passed, so I’ve kept it with me in every vehicle I’ve driven since, as a reminder that even though he can’t be on my road trips physically, he’s there in other ways.

TM: How many National Park Service sites were there when you set out in 2016? Where did you kick off the journey?

MM: When I kicked off my journey at the Washington Monument on April 29, 2016, there were 411 National Park Service sites. One point five months before I was scheduled to finish, Congress passed a law that immediately added a new site (changing the then-current number from 418 to 419). I spent the final weeks of my journey terrified that any day a federal land transfer would happen and a new site would become official the morning of my scheduled finale.

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Though I initially chose the Lincoln Memorial as my Final Site 419 so I could look back at the Washington Monument knowing it had taken me going to every corner of the country to reach that short distance, I didn’t realize how many other special meanings this Finale location would come to take. That I’d be standing under the gaze of a President who’s name inspired that of my hometown, and whose legacy of civil rights would come so perfectly to fit this journey whose mission grew to advocating for LGBTQ people. And that my past in Lincoln, Nebraska as the son of a Lutheran minister would play such a large role in this journey. Since the main reason I lasted beyond my savings and stayed on the road for three years was primarily due to money raised by singing, speaking, and—yes even though I swore I’d never be like my dad and be a pastor—preaching at over 100 churches across America. Sharing my story growing up in Lincoln as a closeted gay man of faith who never had an example that I could be both, and who wanted to use this journey to provide others the role model I always wanted. And finally, that an impossible journey begun out of a desire to share with people the need to live for today; to appreciate time while we have it; to spend time with loved ones while we have them; and mostly, to follow your DREAMS! That that journey born out of the death of a father who devoted his life to ministry provided by Martin Luther, would end in the spot where a man sharing Martin Luther’s name gave a speech known by so many as “I Have a Dream.” That this place would provide the completion of an impossible dream that became possible.

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Fortunately, on April 29, 2019, three years to the minute after I began my journey and on the 14th anniversary of my father’s passing, I finished my project by climbing the steps of my final site: The Lincoln Memorial.

The Manual: What was the total mileage driven over the course of the last three years?

Mikah Meyer: 75,000 driving miles.

TM: How did you fund your time on the road?

MM: I spent nearly a decade working multiple jobs and saving up with this goal in my crosshairs for when I turned 30. Because national park experts told me I’d still only saved 1/5 of what it’d take to pull this off, I had to constantly fundraise to stay on the road. That came in the form many digital workers have come to utilize — trying to earn ad revenue on my blog and social media by creating sponsorship-worthy content. But in an unplanned twist, I started being asked to speak about my journey while I was still on it. I gave nearly 150 speeches across the United States while visiting the parks — which became another scheduling variable to weave between the 419 site visits — but allowed me to fundraise enough to complete the quest.

Mikah Meyer Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park Mikah Meyer

The best part was it taught me how to tell a story audiences across demographics would want to hear, and now I make my living by traveling around the country giving presentations to corporations, colleges, civic groups, and churches about the lessons learned from my journey and how they can be applied to their lives.

TM: I know that you experienced a little resistance early on from potential sponsors, has that changed over the three years?

MM: Yes and no. The biggest problem I had at the beginning was that I didn’t have “100,000 followers.”

I thought companies with millions of social media fans would want unique content they could share with their audiences. What I learned was that, unfortunately, having a good story isn’t enough in our current market. It’s so hard to get people’s attention in an over-stimulated world that companies want you to bring the audience.

After three years of devoting my life to building those audiences by providing social media material interesting enough to follow, now brands are open to sponsorship, but it’s still far different than I ever imagined. When I started, I naively looked at #VanLife couples and internet personalities with sponsorships and thought their lives looked so easy. The truth is it’s like any other job. So I’d caution anyone with dreams of sponsorships to think of it less like Kobe Bryant drinking a Sprite at a press conference, and more like sitting at a computer sending tons of emails back and forth.

Further Reading

Mikah Meyer Grand Canyon May 2017
Grand Canyon National Park Mikah Meyer

TM: Were there hurdles (aside from funding) to see this quest through to completion?

MM: Tons. The hardest parts, that I kept mostly hidden from social media, were the emotional struggles. My goal was to share a story of America’s beautiful places that inspired others to get out and explore. Lonely moments freezing in my van, days spent in public libraries dealing with sudden health insurance bureaucracies, and scheduling my day-to-day life six to twelve months in advance don’t make photogenic Instagram posts.

So while it was a once-in-a-lifetime odyssey I’ll forever be proud I completed, there were many moments I wanted to quit. After years of only short connections with strangers on the road, I longed for the good conversations with close friends I never realized were so crucial to a quality life.

TM: You’ve been living on the road for three years. What lessons have you learned?

MM: I’ve been a wanderlust for as long as I can remember. When you grow up in Nebraska, it’s hard not to wonder what more is out there. So, while there have been so many life-giving lessons from this journey, the biggest one for me personally was a shift in thought:

  • I always assumed the best opportunities, the most interesting people and wildest experiences were somewhere OUT THERE!
  • But now that I’ve spent three years OUT THERE living exactly the adventurous life I dreamed about, I’ve seen many of the virtues I previously took for granted. Like the beauty of sitting down for a beer with a long-time friend and just kicking it. Instead of having to constantly make small talk with a stranger or just be “catching up” with an old friend.

So while this project taught me lessons about business that I share with companies, musings on what makes a quality career that I share with college students, and more knowledge on what makes a good Visitor Center than anyone should experience, the biggest shift has been taking a one-time wanderlust and making me really excited about cultivating the grass under my feet.

TM: What were your top three favorite stops along the way?

MM: In general, the ones you’ve never heard of! Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia … they’re all good, but they’re so crowded that the experience is more like Disney World than the wild. And they’re so overshared online that you feel like you’ve seen them all before.

Mikah Meyer Everglades
Everglades National Park Mikah Meyer

My favorites were the unknowns or the ones that get little coverage. Dinosaur National Monument, Big Bend National Park, and Buck Island Reef National Monument, to name a few.

TM: Favorite thing about life on the road? Least favorite thing?

MM: On the road, there’s constant stimulation, so any day could bring any adventure as long as you can press the pedal. But when you’re sick, and all you want is to drink hot tea on a couch and watch Netflix and have a bathroom with running water nearby, life on the road is. The. Worst. Try getting over a stomach bug at a public library and you’ll never want to leave home again.

TM: What was your a standout personal memory from the trip? Perhaps something that you will take with you forever?

MM: In Dinosaur National Monument, my rafting group was followed for four days and three nights by a wild Canadian goose. Many have speculated on the spiritual connections of this moment because my father was a Lutheran pastor and geese hold special meaning in the history of the Lutheran church.

It was truly one of the most mystical experiences of my life.

TM: What is the takeaway you hope that others see from your travels?

MM: That impossible goals are possible. Contrary to popular Facebook comments, I’m not wealthy, not a trust fund kid (my dad was a campus pastor), and I’ve never had a lucrative job. Nothing in my background says I should’ve been able to spend three years accomplishing this task many told me was impossible given my circumstances.

Yet here I am, having clawed my way to making a dream possible. It wasn’t easy, but if anything, I hope it shows other people that whatever their crazy dream is (owning their own business, returning to work their family farm, anything), it can be accomplished.

TM: You have been identified as a gay outdoors person? Why is that significant?

MM: If Family Feud asked their contestants to describe an outdoorsy guy, I can almost guarantee no one would guess “gay.” There’s a reputation that loving the outdoors means someone is incredibly masculine, and therefore, not gay.

Mikah Meyer flag
Mikah Meyer

This stereotype explains why when I tried to find a role model for my parks journey — and openly gay man with outdoor sponsorships so I could know which companies were safe to approach, I couldn’t find a single openly LGBTQ outdoorsy person. There were no openly LGBTQ people in outdoors ads, none with sponsorships, and no outdoors brands had any sort of presence with Pride festivals.

So when I was doing this national parks journey, I realized I had a chance to create that openly gay outdoorsman role model I wished I’d had. And not only that, but by doing something that no human had ever done before (be they straight or otherwise), I could show that gay men are just as capable of being outdoorsy, despite the stereotypes.

TM: You’ve become a spokesperson for the LGBT community and the outdoors. What is your message for others looking to follow your example?

MM: My message to individuals is: Just be yourself.

The majority of my 72,000 Instagram followers are gay men. So whether online or in person, I’ve met thousands of men who’ve said, “I’ve never seen anyone else like me until now,” but we’re out there. The more we’re open about ourselves and live authentically — be that as a gay man or whatever difference you think sets you apart — the more we’re able to help others see and be themselves.

My message to corporations is: TAKE OUR MONEY!

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The walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial was designed to represent more than just a sojourn from one park to another, but to be a moment of reflection for all this journey has become: – A trip to 419 National Park Service sites meant to encourage us to live our lives fully while we have them. – That reached all 56 U.S. states and territories at nearly 200,000 miles traveled as its mission grew to show representation of a proud, out gay man in the outdoors that proves you can be whoever you are, no matter the stereotypes. – And a chance to show people that maybe you’re a gay Christian male soprano from the flattest state in America, but You Can Do You, Boo: there are no limits or boxes on who you’re allowed to be—you, each and every one of you—are both ordinary AND extraordinary! While the initial idea was to scale the steps like Rocky, the climb to the top of the Lincoln Memorial came to mean much more…

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Gay couples earn $63,000 a year more than straight couples, according to the 2016 IRS tax analysis. We are less likely to have kids and therefore have more of that $63,000 as expendable income. And after years of seeing all sorts of gay men on Tinder across the country, I can personally vouch for the high percentage with pictures on top of mountains hoping to look cute in outdoor gear.

Tourism boards have chased this “Pink Dollar” for years. U.S. professional sports are now marketing “Pride Nights.” And every company from Listerine to Target has Pride Month promotions. I don’t understand why the outdoors recreation industry is so far behind the rest of corporate America when it comes to capitalizing on this untapped, lucrative market.

Once they jump on board, gay men will start seeing themselves in outdoors culture and in turn be more likely to patronize it, adding more user fees for our public lands and more potential donors for environmental organizations.

Everybody wins with inclusion.

TM: What are your favorite piece(s) of van life gear?

MM: My van, Vanny McVanface! He was my most constant companion over three years and was a champ of a van, reaching every National Park Service site a vehicle can reach! Because he’s an adventure-van at heart, and I’m currently sitting behind a computer too much, I’ve decided he needs a new adventurer, so he’s available for sale to the right person.

Mikah Meyer van
Vanny McVanface Mikah Meyer

TM: What’s next for Mikah?

MM: I’m writing this interview from my desk in Minneapolis, Minnesota where my literary agent and I are preparing a book proposal for a publisher. I’m also developing a TV show that will keep taking audiences to lesser known, incredible places. Until then, you can find me flying to various cities to talk about my parks journey, starting to plan my next big road trip, and finally — after years of nomad life — getting to go on a second date.

TM: Any final thoughts?

MM: I love hearing from other travel fans, and getting to share the experiences of this journey in person. So shoot me a message on my website or if you’d like to bring my presentation to your corner of the world, find me at mikahmeyer.com/speaking

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