Mikah Meyer has always been into politics. But inside-the-Beltway proceedings had never woken him up in the middle of the night in a panic - until a few months ago, as he drew close to his goal of becoming the first person to visit every National Park Service site in a single, continuous trip.
Meyer was aiming to finish his quest at the Lincoln Memorial about 11 a.m. on April 29, 2019, almost three years to the minute since his departure. Then the government shutdown in late December appeared to imperil his plans. By that point, he had visited 388 sites in all 50 states and every U.S. territory except Guam. He had a number of sites still to drive to, but the last one he needed to fly to - War in the Pacific National Historical Park in Guam - had closed its visitor center because of the shutdown. (He could still have gone to the park, but he only counted visits if he was able to have what he calls "the full experience," including the visitor center.)
Having already booked a $2,000 ticket for January, and unable to afford another one, Meyer went ahead and flew to Guam, not knowing what would happen. When he landed, he learned the nonprofit Pacific Historic Parks had made a donation to help keep the visitor center open.
Meyer was relieved when the shutdown ended in January. But soon, he had another politics-induced problem. The total number of National Park Service sites fluctuates as new ones are added and existing ones are reconfigured. When Meyer began researching his project in 2014, it was 401; when he started the trip two years later, it was 411. In February, he got wind of a lands bill moving through Congress that could increase the number of sites he had to visit. He remembers thinking, "My entire plan that I've had in my sights for five years . . . [could be] derailed." From that moment on, Meyer says, "my life became a guessing game with the U.S. government, which is a bad game to play."
Originally from Nebraska, Meyer moved to Washington, D.C., five years ago "to find people more like me." He had long enjoyed road trips and once spent nine months driving to 46 states and provinces in North America. But his previous adventures did not fully prepare him for his parks odyssey. "Pulling off a trip of this nature is insane. I was naive," Meyer, now 33, says of his "Pollyanna" approach to plotting a course to nearly 80 historical sites, about 115 memorials and monuments, about two dozen national rivers and lakeshores, and more. (Meyer would eventually log more than 75,000 miles driving - not including miles racked up in the air or on water.)
Before Meyer's attempt, according to the National Park Travelers Club, only 61 people had achieved "Platinum Status" for having been to every NPS site - and none had done it in a single trip. Meyer wanted to set this record, but his real purpose was to honor his late father who, he says, "loved a good road trip." A Lutheran minister, Meyer's father, Larry, died of cancer when Meyer was 19. Meyer's idea was for "the road [to] teach me the lessons that maybe [my father] would have taught me on my college road trips," as he had done with Meyer's three older sisters. Instead, Meyer drove alone back and forth from Nebraska to the University of Memphis, where he earned a bachelor's in voice performance.
In 2016, with money he had saved while working as the director of residential programming at a private school, Meyer bought a cargo van on Craigslist and transformed it himself "from nothing to a little home on wheels." He added a desk and a bed, but no running water or bathroom. (On the road, Meyer relied on public restrooms and showered at a national gym chain he belonged to.) Five solar panels that he installed on the roof along with 200 pounds of batteries powered a fridge.
Despite concerns that the van might not hold up, Meyer only had one car emergency. Between the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, and the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site in Independence, Missouri, his oil sensor "blew up." He got it fixed at a dealership.
At night, he parked the van on side streets or in parking lots (where it was allowed) and slept with the windows closed for safety even when it was hot. He was often lonely. "The tough thing was being out in these stunning natural landscapes and . . . wanting to share them with someone, and then I am just there by myself," he says.
His "fun trip" also became a job, out of necessity. He built a website and hit social media to raise money and find businesses willing to sponsor him. He noticed his Instagram following, which went from zero to 73,000, was an assortment of "NPS nerds," adventure types, Christians and members of the LGBT community. In the beginning, he would occasionally post photos or videos referencing that he's a gay Christian. Then in February 2017, he posted a photo of himself holding a giant rainbow flag - and began doing so regularly. He says one sponsor, which he won't name, told him on the phone he was doing "too much LGBT outreach" and dropped him. But that only encouraged him further to try to serve as an openly gay role model - to give hope to "that kid from Nebraska or North Dakota or Arkansas or Mississippi" and show them "someone just like them who is from one of those states where it is hard to be" gay.
President Trump signed the lands bill in March, conserving millions of additional acres of wilderness, expanding national parks and creating new national monuments. The bill did not change how many sites Meyer had to visit. But it did assign NPS two new "authorized areas," the first step to becoming an official NPS site. The law also disbanded the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, splitting it into three sites, including one in Alaska that was part of a wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Meyer had been to the other two Valor in the Pacific units, in Hawaii and California, but not the one in Alaska. As April 29 approached, he worried that one of the new authorized sites would become official or, worse, that the NPS would take over the site in Alaska, requiring him to buy a $16,000 plane ticket to visit it.
On April 29, he woke up at a friend's house in suburban Maryland and checked his phone one last time. The number of NPS sites he had to visit - 419 - was unchanged. Meyer grabbed a breakfast bar, threw on a T-shirt bearing his journey's logo and a pair of hiking shorts, and jumped on subway. (After three years without a parking ticket, he didn't want to risk getting one.) At the Lincoln Memorial, about 100 of his friends and family were waiting to see him finish his quest. They clapped as he climbed the steps. At the top, he turned to face them, clasping his hands together, then gestured toward the crowd as if to say thank you.
This article was written by Cari Shane, for The Washington Post.