With 275 na­tional park sites down, man has 142 to go

Man on quest to visit all of them and in­spire gays and mil­len­ni­als

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By MARC RAMIREZ Staff Writer [email protected]­las­news.com

Mikah Meyer is nearly two-thirds of the way through his three-year quest to be­come the youngest per­son to visit all 417 U.S. Na­tional Park Ser­vice sites.

By the time he leaves Dal­las on Mon­day, Mikah Meyer will have put nearly 45,000 miles on his van, nearly two-thirds of the way through his three-year quest to be­come the youngest per­son to visit all 417 U.S. Na­tional Parks Ser­vice sites.

“It’s a lot harder on my body than I ever imag­ined,” the 31-year-old said this week from Mem­phis, where he was get­ting his oil changed be­fore head­ing to North Texas.

He un­der­took the en­deavor to honor his late fa­ther, but it has since taken on even greater mean­ing: It’s be­come a mis­sion to pro­mote parks site tourism among fel­low gays and mil­len­ni­als, two groups the Parks Ser­vice says are un­der­rep­re­sented.

On Sun­day at 3 p.m., Meyer, a former coun­tertenor for the Wash­ing­ton (D.C.) Na­tional Cathe­dral, will present a cabaret­style show with tales and songs in­spired by his trav­els at Dal­las’ Cathe­dral of Hope, one of the na­tion’s largest LGBT churches.

“To have some­one as tal­ented as he is, with a com­pelling story to tell, is just a good way to con­nect with peo­ple,” said David Mold­en­hauer, Cathe­dral of Hope’s mu­sic and wor­ship di­rec­tor.

It was Meyer’s fa­ther, a Lutheran pas­tor, who gave him the travel bug. “Our No. 1 fam­ily va­ca­tion was to drive to Florida from Ne­braska,” he said. “It was 28 hours, and he would drive it all by him­self. I don’t know if it was the sun­flower seeds or the bad late-night ra­dio that kept him awake.”

When Meyer was 19, his fa­ther died of cancer, and he’s taken a road trip ev­ery year since. As he came to grips with his iden­tity as a gay Chris­tian and neared the end of his 20s, he was struck by how many of his peers acted as if they’d live for­ever.

Meyer knew dif­fer­ent. Life was short, with no guar­an­tee to­mor­row would ar­rive. The day he turned 28, he started to plan.

“So many peo­ple say they’re go­ing to do some­thing like this,” he said. “But I’m ac­tu­ally

do­ing it.”

Hit­ting the road

Meyer’s jour­ney be­gan in 2016, on April 29, the an­niver­sary of his fa­ther’s death. His first site: the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment. He aims to fin­ish his trip with the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial on the same date in 2019, across the fa­mous Re­flect­ing Pool from where it all be­gan.

Hav­ing saved a fair amount from his two jobs as a cathe­dral singer and a board­ing school ad­min­is­tra­tor, he be­gan his trek in a 2014 Dodge cargo van out­fit­ted with rooftop so­lar pan­els so he could charge his phone and lap­top along the way. But there’s no heat un­less the ig­ni­tion is on, and with no bath­room or run­ning wa­ter, he car­ries a gi­ant wa­ter jug and a sparsely stocked on­board fridge.

So far, he’s vis­ited 275 of the 417 sites, ad­her­ing to an elab­o­rate three-year itin­er­ary ar­ranged to ac­com­mo­date, for in­stance, sites that aren’t open year round. The route also fa­vors mod­er­ate weather so that “I can live in my van and it’ll be tem­per­ate enough overnight that I won’t freeze to death.”

While the no­tion of Na­tional Park Ser­vice sites typ­i­cally con­jures vi­sions of parks and pre­serves like Glacier, De­nali and Yel­low­stone, the list also in­cludes his­toric sites, memo­ri­als and mon­u­ments, bat­tle­grounds, rivers, seashores and scenic road­ways.

In all, he’ll cover about 100,000 road miles. That doesn’t in­clude fly­ing to Hawaii, Guam, Amer­i­can Samoa, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Is­lands — and then there’s Alaska, whose 23 sites in­clude “only six you can reach with a van”; he’s seek­ing sep­a­rate fund­ing for that por­tion of the trip on his web­site, since he’ll have to hire a bush plane. Ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post, only 37 peo­ple have com­pleted the full cy­cle of Na­tional Park Ser­vice sites. At 32, Meyer would be the youngest and most pro­lific, best­ing Alan Ho­ge­nauer, who in 1980 was 39 when he fin­ished vis­it­ing the 320 sites that ex­isted at the time.

See­ing so much beauty in a short time can be oc­ca­sion­ally de­sen­si­tiz­ing, he says, and yet some places have taken his breath away. Among them have been Big Bend, Colorado’s Di­nosaur Na­tional Mon­u­ment, New Mex­ico’s White Sands and the Bad­lands in South Dakota.

The Bad­lands also pro­duced one of Meyer’s more mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences: when a wind gust whisked away a rain­bow flag with which he was pho­tograph­ing him­self at ev­ery na­tional park and sent it into an in­ac­ces­si­ble ravine. The sit­u­a­tion seemed to worsen when a big storm washed through the area.

But then the clouds cleared, un­veil­ing a ma­jes­tic rain­bow on the hori­zon.

“I may have lost one rain­bow,” he said, “but God gave me another.”

Where to sleep?

The trip hasn’t been without stress. A man he’d be­gun dat­ing just be­fore he left D.C. joined him for much of his first year on the road, but the re­la­tion­ship im­ploded un­der travel’s con­fines.

He once parked in a sketchy neigh­bor­hood, where he awoke to a do­mes­tic dis­tur­bance just out­side his van. And his so­lar power sys­tem melted in West Texas, in­op­er­a­ble un­til he tracked down a part in El Paso.

De­spite a well-sketched itin­er­ary, ev­ery week brings new ques­tions: Where will he sleep? Where will he shower? Will he find the money to keep go­ing? One day, as he hus­tled to craft his time-con­sum­ing me­dia and blog posts at a Pan­era Bread restau­rant, the pres­sure drove him to tears.

“I was spend­ing as much time on my com­puter as I do in parks,” he said. “There’s a lot of lo­gis­ti­cal plan­ning that I never imag­ined. Ev­ery day is ba­si­cally another grab bag of vari­ables.”

So far he’s get­ting by with money from sav­ings, in­di­vid­ual donors and oc­ca­sional spon­sors like Pi­lot Fly­ing J, a truck-stop chain he says is cov­er­ing his gas costs. He’s also taken the ad­vice of a Na­tional Cathe­dral su­per­vi­sor who sug­gested that if he ever needed money, he should make use of his skills as a coun­tertenor.

“I’m lit­er­ally singing for my sup­per,” he said.

Along the way, he’s crashed at friends’ and fam­ily mem­bers’ homes, stayed in cheap ho­tels or camped in Wal­mart park­ing lots with his queen­size mat­tress and a sleep­ing bag. A mem­ber­ship to a na­tional gym chain pro­vides some shower ac­cess.

Feel­ing in­spired

Though some have ac­cused him of be­ing a lazy mil­len­nial trust-fund kid, feed­back has been largely pos­i­tive, he said, par­tic­u­larly from the LGBT com­mu­nity.

“I got one mes­sage from a 15-year-old kid in Texas at a pri­vate school,” he said. “He said, ‘I now know that not only can I be or­di­nary, I can be ex­tra­or­di­nary.’ Me be­ing Chris­tian and gay res­onated with him. When I’m cold and run­ning out of money, I think about peo­ple like that.”

In that sense, his per­sonal jour­ney to­ward find­ing com­fort in be­ing a gay Chris­tian is just as com­pelling as his geo­graphic one.

“We have a lot of peo­ple who’ve gone through sim­i­lar things,” said Cathe­dral of Hope’s Mold­en­hauer. “Hav­ing to get rid of be­ing Chris­tian be­cause it didn’t fit with what peo­ple see them as, then slowly com­ing back to ac­cept them­selves. And that’s a mes­sage we’re glad to share.”

Gay out­reach wasn’t ini­tially a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor for Meyer. But the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, hav­ing just launched a na­tional cam­paign to draw a younger, more di­verse au­di­ence to its sites, en­cour­aged him to be open about his sex­ual orientation as he chron­i­cled his jour­neys.

“I’d as­sumed I needed to hide this part of my­self,” Meyer said. “So much of this trip has been about putting a role model out there that I could have used when I was grow­ing up strug­gling with who I was. Like that kid who wrote me. Be­ing able to use this project to help peo­ple feel more com­fort­able with who they are is just a bless­ing.”

Rose Baca/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Mikah Meyer, who’ll present a cabaret-style show Sun­day at Cathe­dral of Hope in Dal­las, wants to be the youngest per­son to visit all 417 U.S. Na­tional Parks Ser­vice sites.

Mikah Meyer

Mikah Meyer climbed Emory Peak in Texas’ Big Bend Na­tional Park dur­ing his quest to visit all na­tional park sites in three years. He’s trav­el­ing and liv­ing in a Dodge cargo van. “So many peo­ple say they’re go­ing to do some­thing like this,” he said....

Rose Baca/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Mikah Meyer re­hearses his cabaret per­for­mance with pi­anist Les Hol­ben at Cathe­dral of Hope in Dal­las. Meyer quit jobs as a singer for the Na­tional Cathe­dral in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and as a board­ing school ad­min­is­tra­tor to de­vote him­self to his park...

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