By the time Mikah Meyer's Ford van crossed the Gorge Bridge in Taos -- a span of concrete and steel standing more than 500 feet above the Río Grande -- the 31-year-old singer had already seen vast …
From Carlsbad National Park to the Gila Cliff Dwellings outside of Silver City and from El Morro National Monument to the Manhattan Project National Historic Park in Los Alamos, Meyer is slowly but surely checking out 417 of the "most beautiful and culturally relevant places in America."
One year ago, Meyer set out on a three-year road trip to see every single site managed by the National Park Service.
The trip is more odyssey than carefree joyride.
Meyer is partially on such a monumental trip for his father, who was only 58 when he passed away. "That totally changed my world. He was a big fan of road trips, so I'm doing this to honor the time we didn't get together and to share the idea that life is short, that we should appreciate the time we have," he said April 20 at the Gorge Bridge.
After that loss, the idea of waiting until retirement for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the country -- as most RVers and national park frequenters do -- just didn't make sense.
So he's also sharing the public lands fervor to throw a wrench in the idea that national parks are just for old, married couples of the heterosexual persuasion.
"I joke that it's me and the retired people. But I don't think it's millennials' fault if we're not spending enough time outside. It's partially the fault of our workaholic culture," Meyer said. "When young people start a job that has two weeks of vacation, making only $31,000 a year but with $100,000 of student debt right out of college, you don't have time to go traveling to these places, even if they're only a day's drive away."
Meyer spent four years saving money for the trip and planning out the logistics of thousands of miles on the road.
He also spent those four years trying to pitch the trip to outdoors companies in order to pick up funding. Even though he was "very out in [his] own life," he kept his sexual orientation a little more under wraps "because the outdoor and travel industry is very heteronormative."
Meyer said, "The only ads you see are gay people going to beaches and bars."
But from the day Meyer set out and started sharing his story, he started getting emails from queer park rangers, teenagers and 100-year-old men who told him, "'Thank you for doing this. We felt like our voices have never been heard before, but now, through your journey, we feel like our stories are being told,'" he said.
So Meyer threw financial caution to the wind and let loose his story as an out-and-proud young, gay Christian.
There are many people in the LGBTQ community who live at the intersection of other identities -- transgender folks, people of color, poor, disabled and incarcerated -- who don't have financial or physical access to the outdoors or don't feel safe in those spaces. Meyer's road trip won't solve that problem for everyone.
Even still, he hopes that just by putting his story into the world, someone -- "like me, a little gay kid in Nebraska or New Mexico and the only example of a gay person they've seen is a drag queen on TV" -- might also find the courage to live out their life.
A couple months before starting the trip, Meyer met his boyfriend, who travels with him for a few weeks at a time. They both hopped out of the van once they got to the unpaved parking lot west of the Gorge Bridge. Though the Río Grande del Norte Monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and not the National Park Service, Meyer said he missed the chance to see Taos five years ago and couldn't make the same omission again.
Of course, traveling with someone changes the experience.
"I don't care who you are, how long you've been married or if you're best friends, if you move two human beings into a van that's less than 70 square feet, it's tough," Meyer said.
But they have fun figuring out the day-to-day reality of life in a van, even when it's as glamorous as asphalt.
"Real life is waking up in the Walmart parking lot and putting on a hat because your hair is busted, but you want to look halfway decent. It's not easy. With the exception of the independently wealthy, we either have security or freedom. The van life ups the freedom bar," Meyer said.
The freedom to move around the United States and take a deep dive into these hundreds of protected places has revealed many layers of the country's hidden and troubled history that go beyond any sort of patriotic boosterism. National Park Service sites attest to the legacy of colonialism, displacement of Native Americans and New Mexico's role in concocting the most destructive weapon in human history.
"Our history is wrought with tragedy. We don't heed its lessons. We just keep forgetting to treat people with dignity and love," Meyer said.
He's seen the grand irony in the fact that the National Park Service is perpetually underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars. "I feel like national parks should be one of the most apolitical things out there because people appreciate public lands whether they want to go hunting or hug trees on them," he said.
Yet there's some hope. Two months into his trip, the National Park Service designated the Stonewall National Monument in New York City -- the first unit to honor and engage LGBTQ history. And, Meyer said, all the people he meets, both Democrats and Republicans, "just want to love and be loved."
There's still more to learn, especially since he's only 12 months into a 37-month journey.
He launched his trip at the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. At the end of three years, he'll finish his trip at the Lincoln Memorial, across the reflecting pool from where he started.
"I love the idea of coming full circle," he said.
To follow Mikah Meyer on his travels or to support his journey to bring young people and the LGBTQ community to the nation's public lands, visit tbcmikah.com or find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.
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