Openly gay Nebraska native Mikah Meyer is defying stereotypes and attempting to break world records — and he's doing it while traveling across the U.S. in a white, windowless cargo van.
Meyer, 31, embarked on a 3-year road trip last April with the goal of visiting all 417 U.S. National Parks. This month marks not only the one-year anniversary of his epic trip's kickoff but also National Park Week, which extends from April 15 - 23.
Meyer recently finished visiting the 12 sites along the coast of Texas and is now making his way through New Mexico's 14 national parks. If all goes as planned, when he finishes his trip in 2019, he will be the youngest person in the world to have visited every national park in the U.S. and the only person to do so in one continuous trip.
But for Meyer, this journey is about a lot more than sightseeing and world records. By sharing his journey with others through his website and social media accounts, he hopes to break LGBTQ stereotypes, become a role model for LGBTQ Christians and encourage young people to embrace the outdoors. Perhaps most importantly, his epic trip is also a way for him to remember his late father, a Christian pastor and outdoor enthusiast who passed away from cancer when Meyer was 19.
Remembering His Father
It was from his dad that Meyer inherited his love for the road. "He always said if he wasn't a pastor he would have been a trucker," Meyer told NBC Out. Growing up, Meyer said his family of six would go on road trips whenever possible.
It was 10 days after his father's funeral that Meyer embarked on his first solo adventure.
"That first road trip was in his car, smelled of him, had his stuff in it," Meyer said. "Looking back, it was really what my 19-year-old brain needed to help process."
Meyer made it a goal that every year he would go on a road trip on the anniversary of his father's death to honor that first experience and stay connected to his dad.
His first long road trip came after finishing graduate school at the age of 25 — a 9-month journey across the country to visit everyone he knew who still lived in the U.S. Along the way, he visited a few national parks and fell in love with the sites.
Meyer knew he wanted to do something big when he turned 30. He decided for this milestone birthday, his trip would be centered around places rather than people. Remembering the national parks he visited on his first big trip, he made it his goal to visit every single one in the U.S. in one continuous road trip. It would be the 12th and longest installment of his yearly trips honoring his father.
Living Like a 'Spartan'
According to Meyer, living out of a van is both the coolest and hardest thing he's ever done. And without heat or air conditioning, he has to follow the temperate weather.
"It's a really spartan lifestyle," he joked.
Not able to afford camp sites, Meyer parks his van in parking lots while he sleeps at night. He typically sticks to Walmarts, which he said usually don't mind when vehicles park overnight.
The amazing views, however, are worth the lack of comfortable accommodations, according to Meyer. He said his favorite stop so far has been Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
"There are layers of earth that have been eroded over the years, and it's kind of like a 30-layer cake, and the layers change colors when the clouds shift," he said. "It was just completely like another world and in the middle of the prairie."
Becoming a Role Model
The son of a pastor, Christianity has always been a huge part of Meyer's life.
"At the same time, I grew up knowing no gay people who were also Christians, and even being told by my culture you can't be gay and Christian, you have to choose one," Meyer said.
Meyer came out in his early 20s after being introduced to a less rigid interpretation of Christianity that allowed him to accept his sexuality. While living in Washington D.C., he even founded an LGBTQ Christian organization called Queer for Christ in order to create the community he didn't have growing up in Nebraska.
However, when Meyer was planning his epic road trip and pitching his story to sponsors in the hopes of getting funded, he made the decision to keep his sexual orientation under wraps for fear that sponsors would reject him. After all, he said, you don't often see gay men being represented in the outdoors industry. But as he began his journey, and without the backing of a sponsor, he had a change of heart and decided to be that representation of an openly gay outdoorsman that he could never find.
Six months into his multi-year journey, Meyer, who had previously sang professionally for the Washington National Cathedral, started singing and speaking at churches along his route in order to raise money to help fund his trip. This quickly become one of his favorite parts about the journey.
"It was like this light bulb went off -- I'm able to fulfill myself spiritually and musically and financially," he said. "My whole itinerary now is based on where I can find a Sunday service to sing at along the way, and I insert the parks in between."
Now one year into his trip, Meyer said nearly all of his donations come from the LGBTQ community, the Christian community and those who are part of both groups.
"I just love that in this world that I grew up in, that said you couldn't be gay and Christian, now I'm getting to devote my [days] to breaking that stereotype proving that you can be both, and it's such a beautiful thing."
Meyer realized early on that the outdoors industry was very heteronormative.
"We're not shown gay people in the media or in our advertisements," Meyer said, citing a magazine about outdoorsy date ideas that featured 12 images of heterosexual couples.
"Like Marian Wright Edelman said, 'It's hard to be what you can't see,'" he said. Right now, no one is saying gay people aren't welcome in the outdoors, but we certainly aren't invited as we are in ads to gay bars, or to go shopping, drink alcohol or go to vacation destinations that are beaches."
The travel-lover aims to be a "new type" of LGBTQ role model -- one who proves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer folks can do anything they want, including conquer the great outdoors.
Eventually, he'd love to host his own mainstream travel show. "My hope is that when this journey is done or even before it's done, I can be that openly gay travel show host that I would have loved to watch as a closeted 10-year-old watching the Travel Channel nonstop," he said.
As Meyer began visiting national parks, he noticed he would often be one of the youngest people there.
"I didn't realize it until the park [officials] told me that they struggle to get young people and millennials to visit," he said. "I did some research and found out that the average visitor is around 60."
Meyer wants to remind young people that tomorrow isn't guaranteed and hopes to inspire them to seize the day.
"If we have dreams and goals for our lives, we need to do them sooner rather than later, because like my dad, we might not make it to the time we think we have to do them," he said.
Meyer also wants to get the word out that you don't have to travel internationally to have a transformational experience.
"If there's one thing I learned throughout my road trips over the past 12 years, it's that travel is more an attitude than it is a destination," he said.
"Often times we feel more of a transformation when we travel internationally because we change our mindset and we become more open-minded," Meyer explained. "So if we apply that same open mindset to our own backyard, to our own country, our own communities, and the way we travel ... we'll discover a lot more magic in our daily lives."