Mikah Meyer has driven 46,000 miles to get to Alaska.
The self-described “little farm kid from Nebraska” has been to 333 National Parks Service sites in two years, driving to most of those Lower 48 destinations in his trusty van. Meyer, who toured Juneau on Monday, is well into what’s planned to be a three-year, record setting trip: He’s on a mission to visit all 417 National Parks Service sites in one epic journey.
Monday was just the beginning of the most difficult leg. Of Alaska’s 23 of Parks Service sites, only six are accessible by road. By bush plane and boat — and with some breaks in weather — he plans to persevere. But he’s not just toting a backpack and a pair of boots. Meyer, an LGBT man of faith, hopes to spread a message of inclusivity and inspiration.
“I’m doing something that’s crazy and impossible here, that many, many people said could not be done,” Meyer said during a tour of Juneau’s Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. “And if I can do it, if a little farm kid from Nebraska can do this, what is your dream that people told you is crazy?”
That message wasn’t always something he carried with him. It’s developed over thousands of miles.
Meyer’s late father, Larry, a Lutheran minister, died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 58. Meyer was just 19. His father’s early death taught him that the American dream of retiring and seeing the world is no guarantee.
Larry loved the open road; he told his son he’d probably be a truck driver if he were not a minister. In Larry’s honor, Meyer decided to take a road trip every year. He did so throughout his 20s, sometimes exploring the country solo for months at a time. He’s discovered that it takes more than a working vacation to see the world. Missing out on that, his father’s example showed him, is not something he wanted to leave up to chance.
“Getting to do things that take more than two weeks vacation doesn’t happen for everyone. It’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way,” Meyer said.
As the years ticked on and the road adventures piled up, the lesson of Larry’s death only grew stronger. Life’s short. Chase your dreams.
“Most of my peers all seemed to think they were guaranteed to live to 80, so I decided when I turned 30 I wanted to do something epic,” Meyer said.
With money stashed away from four years working at the Washington National Cathedral and a Maryland high school, Meyer, a classical singer, began planning. He found a van on the online marketplace Craigslist and worked out a deal with a small business to pay the vehicle off with promotional work. His route would follow the seasons: he’d spend the summers visiting northern sites and his winters visiting southern sites to avoid the heat.
If he was successful, he’d be the youngest person to visit every National Parks Service site, a record verified by the National Park Travelers Club, and the fastest person to have done so, a feat that would land him in the Guinness Book of World Records.
He hoped his trip would inspire others to follow their dreams. But as he’s traveled, he’s felt the need to spread an additional message: be yourself and don’t worry about what others think.
Meyer is gay. It’s something he never got to share with his father and hid from his faith community for much of his young life.
Meyer was 19 years old before he met an openly gay adult.
“Growing up, my impression of LGBT people was only what I saw on the news, which told me that everybody was a drag queen and wore Speedos on floats and that gay people were all deviants,” Meyer said.
He struggled matching what he saw on TV with how he felt. It’s not common to encounter images of gay men, or gay Christian men, in popular culture. Tie in the outdoors community, historically a masculine cultural space, and the Venn-diagram intersection of Meyer’s identity and interests grows vanishingly small.
So Meyer has taken on a responsibility to widen that space. With this trip, he has the opportunity. Because of the world records he’s chasing, Meyer has gotten publicity. A lot of it. National news outlets like the Washington Post, The Guardian and National Public Radio have written about him. NBC’s “Today Show” aired a piece about him in April.
The notoriety has allowed him to put a face on what an ordinary gay Christian might look like. While he’s gotten some backlash from speaking publicly and unapologetically about his faith and sexuality, people have mostly responded warmly, he said. Most importantly, though, he says other young LGBT Christians have seen that there are others out there just like them.
“As one teenager from a Baptist school in Texas wrote me, he said, ‘I saw your story and now I know I can grow up and become ordinary and also extraordinary,’” Meyer said.
Sharing the message of inclusivity hasn’t always been a part of his trip. In the early stages, Meyer didn’t want anyone to know he was gay. There were no openly gay outdoors role models to look to, he said, to see how they’d accomplished their goals while being true to themselves. He was afraid he would offend people and he’d have to abandon his trip for a lack of support from sponsors and donors.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, I have to hide this or there’s no way I’ll even finish this project,’” he said.
When he started receiving messages like the one from the Texas kid, he realized he had to speak out, regardless of how it impacted his trip. He’s since lost some sponsors that don’t agree with his message.
“Of course I’ve gotten some really nasty emails in all capitals with no grammar and punctuation telling me that I am a horrible person, I’m going to hell, I’m leading everyone astray,” he said, but the “vast majority” of people have responded positively.
And he’s gained a purpose that’s close to his heart. When he heard from that Texas teen, he realized he had to be the role model for young gay Christians that he never had growing up.
“I needed to use this publicity to be the positive role model and image that would have changed my life and can now change theirs for the better,” Meyer said.
Meyer’s multi-year mission began April 29, 2016, with a trip to the Washington Monument. It was the 11th anniversary of Larry’s death and the beginning of a 1,116 day journey. He hopes to end the trip on the same date in 2019.
It’s taken him from tropical beaches to snow-capped mountains and deep river valleys. When Meyer started the trip, he thought every site was natural, but he says he’s learned that the Parks Service system is much bigger than just Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. National parks make up just 60 of the 417 sites. The service takes care of many more historical sites, preserves and national monuments.
“You can’t really tell what the site is like by the name. I have been to national monuments that are an acre large and I’ve been to national monuments that are thousands of acres large. There have been national parks — which are the 60 most well-known — which have been some of the worst sites I’ve been to. Then there are national monuments and national seashores and lakeshores, these way less known sites, which have been way more amazing,” Meyer said.
Of the remaining 184 National Park Service sites, 23 are in Alaska, the state with the second-most sites behind California.
The journey to the Last Frontier starts off with a cruise to Southeast Alaska. It’s a round trip to Seattle which allows him to visit his first three Park Service sites: the remote Glacier Bay National Preserve, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway and Sitka National Historic Park in Sitka.
Meyer will then return to his trusty van, nicknamed “Vanny McVanface,” which awaits at his sister’s home in Portland. He’ll take Vanny north on the Cassiar Highway through Canada, heading toward his next site, Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve.
He’ll then visit all the sites on the Alaska road system and use planes, boats and hiking trails to visit the remaining 17 sites around the state. He said he’s always known Alaska would be the toughest part of his trip and has been planning for about a year. More logistics, like getting to Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, have yet to be planned, and he hopes the network of Alaskan travel professionals can help.
The hardest site to access, he said, will be the Aniakchak National Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula. Only a few hundred people visit the preserve each year, and he’ll have to charter a flight to the preserve from King Salmon on a short weather window to get there.
Meyer has scheduled speaking engagements in Alaska’s Lutheran churches (details can be found on his Facebook page) and has launched a crowd funding campaign to get him across the 49th state.
Despite how it may feel, the trip has taught him Americans still have a lot in common.
“People just keep talking about how different we are, how we’re a divided country and we could never get along. It’s really odd to me because everyone I meet, no matter what their income background or political background or race, or immigration status or you pick the difference, everybody seems to have the same motivation and we’re really more similar than we think we are,” Meyer said. “Everyone I’ve met, everything I’ve seen them do in their lives, it all comes back to a desire to love and be loved in return. As much as people want to say we’re a divided nation, having driven around the country and met everyone, that’s not the truth.”
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.