The death of a loved one carries with it a profound effect: For Mikah Meyer, his father's passing in 2005 inspired a three-year, 75,000-mile journey to visit all 419 U.S. National Park Service sites.
“It wasn’t that my dad was a big lover of national parks,” Meyer, who will finish his trek Monday -- three years to the day after his start -- told NBC News. “But he loved road trips. And his death taught me that if you have a dream, you shouldn’t put it off until retirement, because that might never happen.”
He had taken a road trip in his father’s Hyundai Elantra every year since losing him — the first one was actually a few days after the funeral. The trips became increasingly ambitious until, on one journey, Meyer lived out of the car for nine months.
“It was on that trip I realized I could do something really bold,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do something big for my 30th birthday. It seemed like a significant age, like I was young enough to be crazy but old enough to be smart about it.”
His father, Larry Meyer, had been a Lutheran minister and, in addition to the travel bug, Mikah inherited his love of sharing stories and inspiring others. “The goal was to take something recognizable — the National Park Service — and use it to reach people with this message of ‘carpe diem.’ Because you can’t put things off.”
So after months of planning, he bought a two-year-old Ram ProMaster cargo van in 2016. He christened it “Vanny McVanface” and went about converting it into his home for the next three years.
With just enough clearance to stand in, the windowless van held a queen-size bed, a desk, a fridge and some fans. Power came from solar panels Meyer drilled into the roof.
Where the money for this undertaking would come from, though, was a little less clear.
“Honestly, I started this as a Pollyanna millennial,” Meyer said. “I saw people on YouTube who had all these sponsorships and naively thought ‘I could do that.’ I didn’t realize you needed tens of thousands of followers to get that kind of backing.”
There had been talks with corporate sponsors, but they’d usually get scared off at the prospect of backing an out gay man with a significant queer following online. One outdoor nonprofit dropped its support, they told him, because he was doing too much LGBT outreach on social media. “Basically I was too gay,” he said. “So I had to decide at different points, ‘I’m not going to tell these folks I have a large LGBT following.’”
Nine months into his adventure, without a steady source of funding, he was ready to give up. But then he met a pastor who invited him to sing at his church. Afterward, Meyer preached that week’s sermon and an offering basket was passed. That pastor sent him to another congregation and, since January 2017, he’s spoken — and sung — at more than 100 churches.
“Half of them were publicly affirming of the LGBT community and saw it as a way to kind of publicize that,” said Meyer, who has a post-graduate degree in music and voice performance. “But the other half were pastors who never had this conversation with their congregation before and wanted to open this up — those were the most impactful. People came up to me afterward, crying, talking about their LGBT family members.”
He had hoped to encourage people to seize the day, but without intending to, Meyer was teaching people that growing up gay in America’s heartland doesn’t prevent individuals from finding love and purpose — or from knowing God. The ongoing conversation around faith, he said, was one of the most unexpected parts of his journey.
“In the Lutheran church, we have this idea of a vocation. It’s where the greatest need is matched by your greatest talents. And you can’t just decide on your vocation, it has to reveal itself to you,” he said.
All along the way — in person and online — people were telling him this was the first time they saw someone who maintained their faith after coming out. “These were people who felt shunned by their families,” he said. "And here I am, this pastor’s kid from Nebraska who’s blond and white. And they’re thinking: 'He’s like me, he’s Christian like me. And he loves national parks. And just happens to be gay.'"
There were times he felt isolated: Meyer had started his trek with his boyfriend, but the two split after about a year. “I never had a free second: I was always busy figuring out logistics or money,” he said.
But there were moments of sheer delight, too. One of Meyer’s favorite sites isn’t even a major park. It’s Dinosaur National Monument, near the border of Colorado and Utah. It’s a breathtaking rugged landscape with a stark desert, colossal river valleys and late Jurassic-era fossils embedded in the exposed rock. “It’s one of the most amazing natural landscapes in America,” he said.
It was at Dinosaur that Meyer had something of a religious experience. On a rafting trip, his group attracted the attention of a wild Canada goose. “We nicknamed him George,” Meyer said. “He just followed us everywhere — swam along our boat, joined us on hikes. He even slept next to our tents.”
When Meyer shared the story of George the Goose on social media, one follower insisted that the bird was actually the spirit of Meyer’s late father, who wanted to be a part of his son’s journey.
Another memorable stop was to Aniakchak National Monument on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. A six-mile-wide, 2,000-foot-deep volcanic crater, Aniakchak is only accessible by bush plane. Seats cost thousands of dollars and flights are often canceled or detoured by stormy weather. Meyer had spent a year planning this one trip.
Beyond the natural beauty of the caldera, just making it there was “a spectacular moment of doing something so few have done,” Meyer said. “So many times I felt like I had an angel watching over me.”
Thankfully, he never experienced threats or violence, but there was plenty of homophobic abuse online. “Nasty comments with all caps with no punctuation. Like the guy who wrote, ‘Now I’m going to have to be careful when I use bathrooms in national parks.’”
Meyer made a point to constantly gauge his environment and remain vigilant. “Every time I did a speaking engagement, especially in a church, I scoped out where the exits where.”
When Meyer embarked on his quest, Barack Obama was president, marriage equality was the law of the land and the future looked bright. One of the National Park Service’s goals for its 2016 centennial, in fact, was to encourage more LGBT people to explore the parks system. When he ends his journey Monday at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, it will be in a very different America.
“I’m both very terrified and hopeful for this country,” he said. “It’s scary to see Americans consuming different media that put them in, essentially, different worlds. What gives me hope, though, is that for the most part, people are coming from the same place — from a desire to be loved and to give love to others.”