Mikah Meyer is out to set a record. By the time he’s 33, he will be the youngest person to have visited all 417 American national parks.
Meyer, a 32-year-old native of Nebraska, has spent the past two years living in a van that he’s driven back and forth across the country, visiting different parks as the seasons allow.
Last week Meyer came to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, stop number 306 on his quest, and began by paying a visit to the park headquarters in Thousand Oaks.
The journey is a tribute to his father, who died of esophageal cancer when Meyer was 19.
“He was 58 at the time, so for me that changed this entire American narrative that when you turn 65 you get to do things that take more than two weeks’ vacation,” Meyer said. “I had done one road trip to honor his life every year since he passed because he loved road trips. I thought, ‘When I turn 30 I’m going to do something crazy,’ and then when I turned 28 I realized I had to come up with something.”
Meyer had visited 10 national parks up to that point in his life and described them as “the most amazing places in the country,” so he decided to honor his father by visiting all the parks in one long trip. He set out on April 29, 2016, the 11th anniversary of his father’s death.
“I wanted to take a day that had been really crappy for 11 years and try to make something triumphant,” Meyer said. “The goal is to end on April 29, 2019, exactly three years later. A mile away from where I began at the Washington Monument, I will end at the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
Meyer’s guide for a 6-mile hike in the Santa Monica Mountains was National Park Ranger Michael Liang. The two met at the National Park Service building on Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks before setting out. They had been in contact for three years, but it was their first time meeting in person.
Liang learned about Meyer through a fellow NPS ranger. They’re both openly gay and are trying to bring attention to national parks as a venue for kids to bond, explore their identity and build a community.
“We believe that national parks are great places for bridging and bonding within different communities,” Liang said. “There are a number of organizations that we work with that are bringing young LGBT and queer kids out into nature, and it’s such a safe environment. Nature doesn’t discriminate, and we’re happy that national parks can provide a safe environment.”
To prepare for the trip, Meyer, who was living in Washington, D.C., worked as a resident advisor at a boarding school dormitory so he could save money on rent. He used his savings to buy and outfit the van that he lives in while he travels the country. The night before his hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, Meyer slept in his van in the parking lot of the Agoura Hills Hilton Homewood Suites.
He nicknamed the vehicle “Vanny McVanface,” a reference to a 2016 online poll to name a British polar research ship—the name “Boaty McBoatface” was rejected by the ship’s owners, despite being the most popular suggestion.
“The public voted for Boaty McBoatface and the monarchy turned it down,” Meyer said. “In our great, free country where democracy rules, I wanted to honor Boaty McBoatface’s scorned name by doing what I could for the cause.”
For the record, the name was turned down by the Natural Environment Research Council, “the U.K.’s leading public funder of environmental science,” according to its website.
Meyer was a member of the Washington National Cathedral choir. His training as a singer has led him to perform a one-man show, “The National Parks Cabaret,” at different stops on his journey as a way to make money. He sings songs and tells stories about his trip.
When he’s not performing the show he does speaking engagements, giving a presentation about his journey and the country’s national parks.
Liang said the park service supports Meyer’s trip because it reminds people to dream big and that national parks offer a lifetime of adventure. Also, Meyer is bringing attention to the entire parks system.
For many people, including Meyer at the start of his trip, the term ‘national park’ means the 60 “capital ‘N’ capital ‘P’” parks, as he calls them— the Yellowstones, Death Valleys and Joshua Trees. He’s found his favorites in the lesser known 357, in large part because they’re not crowded.
Meyer said he wants his adventure to serve as a reminder to people of what they have in their backyard and how easy it is to enjoy it.
“I’m a classically trained singer and I’m spending three years of my life visiting all the National Park Service sites,” Meyer said. “If I can do it, what’s to stop you, Joe Schmo reading this? I’m not a champion trail runner. I’m not whatever you think you have to be to be in the outdoors. No matter who you are you can get out and experience nature.”