WASHINGTON – Mikah Meyer has spent the past three years hiking, rafting, flying in planes, riding on trains and sailing on boats and mostly driving, driving, driving across every corner of America. He has followed the trail of U.S. history from the Revolution to the Civil Rights movement, from battlefields to presidents’ homes, from forests to canyons, from shore to shore.
As of Monday, Meyer has been to all 419 National Park Service sites in America – becoming, at age 33, he believes, the youngest person ever to complete the list.
To see them all, Meyer took a three-year road trip, which ended Monday morning with a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, his final site. He climbed the steps surrounded by not only friends and family but also perfect strangers – people who followed Meyer’s epic road trip on Instagram and Facebook, and became such fans that they had to come in person to see him finish his journey.
“I really got to know the American story,” Meyer said. “More than just natural wonders, the Park Service sites tell our American story.”
And he achieved a goal inspired by his father, whose death when Meyer was 19 spurred him to not put off his dreams for later. His dad never got to take those road trips he envisioned for his retirement. Standing atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Monday, Meyer wiped his eyes. “The day I lie on my deathbed, whether it’s 60 years from now or six days from now, I can say I did something,” he said, shaking his head in awe.
He was surrounded by fellow National Park Service enthusiasts, including Chris Calvert, one of just over three dozen people recognized by the National Park Travelers Club for having also visited every single National Park Service site. Meyer is now the youngest member of this tiny club. Before him, the record was set by Alan Hogenauer; when Hogenauer finished at age 39 in 1980, there were just 320 Park Service sites to see.
Calvert, who vowed to see all the parks after a trip to Olympic National Park at age 17 and finally finished at age 50, advised Meyer before his trip on how long to plan to spend at each site. On Monday, he was there to see Meyer complete the trip, and to wax poetic about the meaning of it all.
“The National Archives are the repository for our most important documents. The Smithsonian museums are our repository for our most important things. The National Park Service is the repository for America’s most important places,” Calvert said. “These places define America. It’s like the soul of the nation. It is our story, our land, our history. It defines who we are as one people.”
As Meyer’s supporters gathered near the Washington Monument (the first site he visited on his trip) then walked the length of the Mall (the 99th site) to reach the Lincoln Memorial (the 419th), snatches of conversation revealed their shared love for these parks. “Am I the only one who doesn’t like the World War II Memorial?” “When Marion Anderson sang here . .. “f you’re going to do Mammoth Cave, you really have to make a reservation . .. “
Kate Kramer said she didn’t know Meyer personally, but his Facebook posts reminded her of her 1998 cross-country road trip with her father. As a queer woman, she felt inspired by Meyer’s frequent posts featuring a gay pride flag set against the backdrop of America’s iconic vistas.
“I’ve been so amped up, following it and following it and following it,” she said. Now she is planning her own National Park Service visits, starting with Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in the District. “He’s reminded me, or made me newly aware, that you don’t always have to drive far.”
Jill and Grace Nowadly, sisters who live in Richmond and Arlington, Virginia, arrived wearing “Pride Outside” T-shirts for LGBT-affirming parkgoers that they bought from Meyer’s website. Meyer has become one of their favorite Instagram figures over the years of his trip. “We’ve been texting each other, ‘Oh my gosh, do you see where Mikah is today?’ ” Grace said.
The sisters are park aficionados themselves. Last year, they drove all the way to Tennessee just to get a limited-time-only stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, from the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.
It was supporters like these who got Meyer through the trip. He started the three-year journey, he said, with about one-fifth of the funds he needed. He raised the rest through donations from social media fans, corporate sponsors (who sometimes agreed to trade a free tour or an airplane trip in exchange for a promotional post on Meyer’s blog) and especially churches.
“As a pastor’s kid, I swore I’d never grow up to be a preacher,” said Meyer, whose father was a Lutheran minister in Nebraska. “My old man, he got the last laugh – I was preaching almost every Sunday.”
Those sermons, in more than 100 churches, helped Meyer drum up the money he needed to pursue his travels. He said church members often wanted to support him because he was attracting positive news coverage of a gay Christian.
Somehow, he made it 75,000 miles in the van that doubled as his home on the road, with only one episode of engine trouble the whole way, near Topeka, Kansas
But the government shutdown this winter almost threw a wrench in his plans to visit War in the Pacific National Historical Park in Guam, the farthest national park. He had booked the $2,000 flight to the remote island 10 months before. By the time he took off from Chicago for South Korea, he was not sure the park would be open when he landed. Thanks to private donors, it was.
Meyer, who formerly worked as a professional singer at the Washington National Cathedral, tells stories like these from the road in an hour-and-a-half-long cabaret show of singing and storytelling that he developed to tell audiences about his trip. Even now that he has moved back to the District of Columbia to live in one place, instead of a van, he hopes to continue making a career out of this journey. He’ll perform and give speeches. He’s thinking about writing a book. If he can find a corporate sponsor, he wants to go to every Nebraska Cornhuskers football game this fall, to show that gay men love football, too.
As this chapter of his adventure ended Monday, he walked up the Lincoln Memorial’s steps surrounded by television cameras. Tourists visiting the memorial crowded around with their cellphone cameras raised, asking what the fuss was about. Meyer posed for photos and answered TV reporters’ questions, then looked around for a moment, dazed. “Can I, like, hug some friends?” he asked quietly. “Where’s my sister?”
His friends came. He hugged them. They took selfies overlooking the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument.
And then he stepped into the cool dark space of Lincoln’s chamber, gazing up at the statue of the fabled president. He had history to honor here, and lessons to learn, and a nation’s beauty and complexity to try to take in – for one last, four-hundred-and-nineteenth time.
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