In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt stood at the entrance of Yellowstone National Park and spoke about what the park and public lands represent.
They were an “essential democracy,” providing equal opportunity for Americans that was absent in other countries.
Today, that promise of equality remains unmet.
Only 22 percent of park visitors fall into a minority demographic, according to the latest study in 2011, and that study does not consider gender and sexual orientation.
Mikah Meyer, 31, hopes to bridge the gap faced by members of the LGBTQ community by shining a rainbow-colored spotlight on America’s 417 national park units in one fell swoop, and in record time.
The Nebraskan’s odyssey across the U.S., which started last April 29 began as a quest to reconnect with a life experience he missed when his father, Larry Meyer, died.
So far, Meyer has been to 153 sites, beginning with the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, he stopped at Mesa Verde National Park.
Meyer was 19 when his father lost his battle with esophageal cancer on April 29, 2005. And he missed out on what had become a Meyer family tradition – his three sisters’ one-on-one road trips to and from college with Dad, a pastor who worked extensively with young adults.
“All my sisters said it was during that time that they best got to know my dad,” he said.
Without the same opportunity, Meyer decided to take yearly trips of his own.
“Since I was 19 when he passed away, I never got any of those road trips that my sisters got. For me, I feel like these trips are the way for him to teach the lesson he hopefully would have taught me,” he said.
Meyer includes an increased willingness to take risks even when the outcome is uncertain and not leave things undone or unsaid in the list of lessons his yearly trips have taught him.
This desire to reconnect was a guiding reason behind the trip. One day Meyer received a message from a closeted teenager in Texas thanking him for putting himself out there and showing that members of the LGBTQ community can step outside of perceptions of the group and achieve monumental things.
This hit home with Meyer and made him realize that the expedition represented something bigger than himself, he said.
“Once I started getting those messages, I realized that I had a real opportunity to help my community and to break stereotypes.”
In order to bankroll this trip Meyer saved up throughout his 20s before quitting his three jobs and reaching out to major players in the outdoor recreational industry for sponsorship, largely without success.
Help did come from unexpected quarter in the form of what Meyer describes as a “sketchy craigslist ad” for the van, Vanny McVanface, that is now his home on his journey across North America.
The owner of the van gave Meyer what amounted to an interest-free loan because he connected with the young man’s story as he too had gone on a long journey after his wife’s death.
Meyer is still working to pay off the remaining $5,000 he owes on his van, which is partially achieved through candles he promotes through a website he runs to document his journey.
Since the expedition got underway, Meyer has picked up a social media following and some sponsorships including Pilot Flying J, gas station chain that is covering his fuel costs.
Meyer, who holds a graduate degree in classical music from McGill University in Montreal, has started singing for donations at churches near the parks he visits.
“Basically I show up for free, and I sing and everything for free, and I tell my story and offer the public a chance to support this project if they want to help,” he said.
His story isn’t always well received. Some see it as an individual looking for a handout to fund a grand vacation, he said.
This is a conception that he address regularly when talking with potential donors.
“You’re not donating to me going on vacation, you’re donating to sharing the parks with the world, you’re donating to encourage youth involvement, you’re donating to create a LGBTQ role model,” Meyer said.
Meyer plans to end his expedition at the Lincoln Memorial on May 19, 2019, less than a mile away from where he started. He’s about halfway there.
He also has his sights on a career afterward: LGBTQ representative in the outdoor recreation industry, which he feels are noticeably absent.
“I hope that by doing this big crazy trip it will put me in a position where I can be that mainstream travel show person that doesn’t exist right now,” he said.
But there are still plenty of paths to walk and natural wonders to see, lots of unknowns and bends in the road.
“I don’t know what will happen with my career afterward, I don’t know where I’ll end up living. There’s a lot of questions marks, but I’m just living on faith that it will work out,” he said.