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419 National Parks, 3 Years, 1 Trip: 'I've Seen Every Corner Of America'

Mikah Meyer holds up a map of his journey at his 313th stop: Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America. (Courtesy of Mikah Meyer)
Mikah Meyer holds up a map of his journey at his 313th stop: Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America. (Courtesy of Mikah Meyer)

In April 2016, Mikah Meyer set out on a journey to visit every single national park, monument, seashore and more — 419 sites in all — in one continuous trip.

That world-record journey is coming to a successful close on Monday, after taking Meyer to every single U.S. state and territory, from the Arctic Circle of Alaska to American Samoa.

Meyer began the trip, funded largely through donations and sponsorships, on the 11th anniversary of his father’s death from cancer. One of his primary goals was to be a role model for LGBT people.

Meyer previously spoke with Here & Now about how his trip was going back in June 2017. Now, he tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson that finishing is, in a word, “surreal.”

“I, for the past three years, have just been, ‘Go, go, go,’ every minute, because there’s always been a blog I should be writing, a photo I should be editing or a park I need to be planning for. I’m probably going to have to go to therapy just to learn how to turn my brain off after three years of nonstop logistics,” Meyer ( @MikahMey) says. “It’s amazing to know that I’ve made it this far, and such an incredible feeling for a kid who grew up in the prairie to know that I’ve seen every corner of America, our most wonderful places, and am about to complete a life goal.”

As for his favorite stop, Meyer says it’s hard to pick just one.

“There were so many insane moments of just pure natural beauty, where you’re looking around saying, ‘Is this real? Like, is this view real, is this moment real, is this place real?’ ” he says. “I remember driving through Big Bend National Park in Texas and just constantly repeating that as I drove up to the Chisos Mountains, because it was such a magical moment, or standing looking over Half Dome at sunset.

“The sun actually leaves and like 95% of the people there all take off, but then they miss twilight. And you’re looking around thinking, ‘I can’t believe everyone left, and that I’m still here and getting to experience this and didn’t follow the crowds,’ ” he says.

Editor’s Note: The headline for our 2017 interview with Meyer stated his trip would take him to 417 national park sites. The National Park Service has made some additions since then, so that number now stands at 419.

Interview Highlights

On the perception of his journey as freeing and relaxing

“Everybody who says, ‘I want to do what you do,’ I’m like, ‘Don’t do it the way I did it,’ because it was just too much stress — going from park to park to park, and fundraising the entire way and always trying to just make sure that I accomplished this insane task, took away a lot of the enjoyment. I’d be doing a hike, and I’d be on my phone planning for the next park, setting up a meeting with a ranger a week or a month away. So definitely, if anybody wants to do what I did, I recommend not sharing it on social media at all and having the money ahead of time, because that’ll make it way more freeing.”

On the unique toll visiting Alaska’s national parks and monuments took on him

“Every day, things would change. There was one park — actually the least-visited park in the entire National Park Service, Aniakchak National Monument, more people climb Mount Everest every year than go to this park. And that’s because to get there, you have to take a multi-thousand-dollar bush plane, and the weather has to be perfect in three locations: in the park, in the takeoff location and everywhere in between. It’s on the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, so the weather is just so volatile that you could take off and not make it, and the pilot says, ‘Look, you’re paying either way.’ So Alaska and its weather and its costs just made it stressful in a lot of ways.”

On whether he had any close calls with wildlife along the way

“Fortunately, I did not get attacked and eaten by a bear. That was one of my No. 1 concerns of this whole journey. Actually in Katmai National Park — that’s where all the bears are, the famous photos you’ve seen of Brooks Falls with just tons and tons of bears eating fish. So there were certainly those moments. But the Park Service does a great job of keeping guests safe, keeping the animals safe. I did not, sort of, have the mountain lion that I had to strangle with my hands like we saw in Colorado, fortunately. So thank you to the Park Service for keeping me safe.”

“I think in Alaska I saw everything but a polar bear. Just driving to Alaska and back, there would be bears on the side of the road, there were moose on the side of the road. It was like this constant zoo, almost. It really is a wild place compared to the lower 48.”

On whether he feels he’s achieved his goal of being an LGBT role model

“Totally. It’s been such a roller-coaster ride. I started this journey thinking I had to go back in the closet to sort of be that outdoorsy person that America imagined and that America would want to support. And after about nine months, that wasn’t really working. I got this message from this 15-year-old who said, ‘I go to a private Baptist school in Texas, I’m not out of the closet to anyone, but I read about your journey and saw you’re setting world records, and now I know when I grow up I can be ordinary and extraordinary,’ and it sort of changed everything to me knowing now that I needed to be that LGBT role model that didn’t exist. And so I put a huge focus into that.

“Unfortunately, one of my greatest fears came to being later that year, where a sponsor who had been supporting this project dropped me, and put in writing it was because I was doing too much LGBT outreach. So I sort of had to come to terms with that. But the beautiful thing is, an individual heard about this and gave me my largest donation of this entire project, and he said, ‘It’s because you are doing this LGBT outreach, it’s because you’re creating this new role model.’ This past October, actually for the first time in the history of the outdoors industry in America, or the outdoors recreation industry, a company featured an openly gay man in an outdoors campaign. And that was me with REI as part of their #OptOutside campaign.

“So, from starting this journey thinking I had to hide that I was gay to fit America’s mold, to now being able to use this journey to create a historic role model that did not exist before this journey, is an incredibly humbling and amazing feeling.”

On what’s next: relocating to Minneapolis to work on his book

“This is going to sound cheesy, but what this trip to all of America’s most beautiful places has taught me is that they really don’t mean a darn thing if you don’t have someone to share them with. And so as I have spent three years as a nomad, I’ve learned that I really want to focus on my personal life now, and having one again. And the people I’ve met in Minnesota and the experiences I had there had made me believe that that’s the best place for me, because of the people.”

Julia Corcoran produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.