I’m spending 3 years visiting 400+ national parks, and here’s why
By Mikah Meyer
I live in a white windowless van.
… down by the river.
As any parent would dream for their 30-year-old, my home is lampooned in popular culture and by Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live.
But it isn’t just rivers I live next to. It’s also lakeshores, grasslands, and mountains.
You see, I’m spending the next three years — from the 2016 Centennial of the National Park Service to the 2019 Centennial of the National Parks Conservation Association — experiencing all of America’s national parks.
But I’m not visiting just the 59 National Parks you’re probably thinking of (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Acadia).
I’m going to all 413 sites in the National Park System.
Every monument, seashore, battlefield and more.
At the end of this road trip, I’ll be the youngest person to have experienced all these sites, and the only person to ever do it within one continuous trip.
My reason for embarking on this project was to create the gay outdoorsman role model I never had while growing up closeted in the Midwest … to be a living example of President Obama’s inclusion of the LGBT community in the National Park Service through his designation of the Stonewall National Monument this year.
Standing in Vanny McVanface in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on Sept. 24, 2016, exactly one month to the day after President Obama named it the newest of all the National Park Service sites. There were so few people there that I saw a moose before I saw another human. Image by Andy Waldron.
Jumping for joy in Sleeping Bear Dunes, the first site on this journey to make me say, “Wow!” Photo by Andy Waldron.
Map: My estimated route for the 3+ years it will take to finish this project. I launched the journey from the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., on the 11th anniversary of my father’s passing: April 29, 2016. If I don’t run out of money, I plan to end the trip just across the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial on May 19, 2019. Map courtesy of Mikah Meyer.
Map above: The first leg of the trip, and my current completed path 7 months into the journey. Map courtesy of Mikah Meyer.
I also hope my journey will challenge the outdoors industry to include openly gay figures in their advertisements and sponsorships. I hope it will invite the LGBT community into the outdoors by showing non-heterosexual people using outdoor industry’s gear, and I hope it will encourage involvement by supporting LGBT figures in nature projects.
It’s why I worked for four years saving the money to start this road trip, and why I’m sleeping in Walmart parking lots and surviving on sandwiches to try and complete it: I want the LGBT community to feel welcome in our outdoor spaces in a way they haven’t before. To show one of their own embracing our natural wonders.
I want the LGBT community to feel welcome in our outdoor spaces in a way they haven’t before.
After doing an interview for LogoTV with Ranger Allan Daily on Nov. 16 at the first — and only — NPS site telling the story of the LGBT Civil Rights Movement: Stonewall National Monument. The monument, located in New York City, was designated by President Obama in 2016. Photo by Mikah Meyer.
I decided to begin this project in 2016 for a very specific reason, but one that had nothing to do with the coincidentally-timed National Park Service Centennial.
2016 was the year I turned 30, an age I’d attached to this personal goal many years earlier.
When I was 19, my 58-year-old, minister father passed away from esophageal cancer. His death took me from someone who started saving for my retirement in high-school to realizing retirement wasn’t guaranteed.
50 wasn’t guaranteed.
Tomorrow wasn’t guaranteed.
So I needed to make today everything I wanted it to be.
That lesson is what compelled me to follow through with my first independent road trip — even though its launch ended up falling only 10 days after my dad’s funeral.
It was on that trip that I learned the power of travel; where every sunset descending on the horizon, wisp of air flowing by my face, and vista seen over the hood was able to help my broken heart begin the process of healing.
So to honor that experience, I starting taking one road trip every year.
Whether to spend time with friends, visit my older relatives, or simply discover new natural wonders, these annual road trips not only helped me connect with my road-trip-loving father, but allowed me to live the values I’d learned from that first expedition:
Life is too short to delay your dreams.
Fittingly, it was on one of those journeys, at age 25, that I made a vow to myself:
To do everything in my power to turn every fifth year of my annual road trips into something “epic.” Something you’d normally save for retirement.
To live the dreams my father never got to.
So when I turned 30 in 2016, it was time to buck up or shut up, and I set off in a van to follow my dream of visiting every U.S. national park.
It’s been a lot more difficult than I thought to live with my boyfriend in a 72 sq. ft. cargo van without a bathroom, sink, or temperature controls. Shivering in freezing weather, being unable to sleep on humid nights, and becoming sick of peanut butter & banana sandwiches have matched fundraising as the toughest parts of this project.
But the hardships of balancing logistics, tight finances, and 24/7 road life have been countered by the ability to see places and have experiences I quite simply could never have without embarking on this continuous “Travel Beyond Convention.”
I hope that as myself — and others — continue to share about my journey, it will not only encourage the LGBT community, other young people, and diverse Americans to enjoy our national treasures, but inspire all people to live their dreams while they still can.
To not wait for retirement to go on that trip you’ve been thinking about forever.
To set aside time for loved ones to make memories that last a lifetime.
And to not give up on that idea which might seem “crazy” to others.
Even if it’s living in a van down by the river…
Standing at the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in northern Maine. Not only was it an honor watching and meeting AT trail thru-hikers finishing their five-month journeys in mid-September, but from my vantage point here I could see the entirety of the newest National Park Service site: Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, designated by President Obama in August, 2016. I followed my Katahdin visit by meeting Lucas St. Clair — the project’s manager and son of Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby who donated the land for the monument. Photo by Andy Waldron.
Living in my home “Vanny McVanface.” This is the cleanest it/I have been on the whole trip, because it was taken two days before I left . Image by Andy Waldron.
Talking with Ranger Margaret at Saint Croix International Historic site in northeastern Maine, October 2016. Photo by Andy Waldron.
Looking toward Canada on a temperate day at Grand Portage National Monument in northeast Minnesota, July 2016. Image by Andy Waldron.