Mikah Meyer ran up the last few steps to the top of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital and was immediately overtaken by emotion. He bent over and placed his hands on his knees for a moment, and then raised his arms to the heavens in triumph.
“I am, for the first time in my life, speechless,” he told VOA.
The moment deserved to be savored.
Exactly three years ago to the day, Meyer set out on an ambitious journey to visit all 419 National Park Service sites in America.
He started his trip on April 29, 2016, at the Washington Monument, and ended it at the Lincoln Memorial, the last stop of his epic adventure.
His main motivation was to honor his late father, who instilled in him a love for travel and the great outdoors. Meyer said he’d like to think his father would be proud that he is the first person to have visited all of America’s National Park Service sites in one continuous journey.
He was also on a mission to share his travel experiences with others, in as many ways as he could, through talks at local schools, on his website and various social media platforms. As a gay man, he also wanted to be a “new type of LGBT role model,” and “to use travel to make the world better.”
“I have been to all 56 U.S. states and territories,” he said, “everything from the Arctic Circle to American Samoa in the Southern Hemisphere, to as far west as Guam and where the easternmost point in the United States is in the Virgin Islands. So really if it’s in the U.S., I have been there at this point.”
In all, he covered more than 300,000 kilometers (200,000 miles), 120,000 (75,000 miles) of them in his little white cargo van. He traced his progress on a big map of the United States, and a blog.
He explored the ancient splendor of the Grand Canyon, and the natural wonders of Yellowstone National Park, known for its geysers and abundance of wildlife. He also got to snorkel in the impossibly blue waters of the American Caribbean, scale the highest peaks in the Texas desert, explore mystical caves, hike Native American trails, and visit battlefields where American soldiers spilled their blood more than a century and a half ago.
During his three-year road trip, he stopped in “national parks that you’ve heard of, like the Grand Canyon and Acadia, [and] sites that have probably never come across anyone’s radar, like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan or Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado.”
It’s difficult to pick a favorite, he said, but he has a few.
At the top of his list is Dinosaur National Monument, where ancient fossils are visible in the rocks. But that wasn’t the only attraction.
“One of the first things I did was go deep into the center of the park and do this hike that was at the very top,” Meyer said. “So I’m looking down on these incredible lush, green valleys that have snow-capped mountains right above them, and just beneath them there are these incredibly curvy canyons that have rocks that have been layered for centuries and then upturned, so all of these twisted rock creations that you can then raft by.”
Which he did, a few months later. “Drove 10 hours out of my way to come back and see those sights from the other end of the water,” he said.
Another favorite was Badlands National Park in western South Dakota.
“What you’re seeing is essentially all of the dirt and ground that is beneath that ‘boring’ prairie, and it’s been eroded for millennia, and now we get to gaze upon this incredible view that has rocks that shift colors depending on what time of day you’re there,” he said.
Despite many challenges, including extreme heat and freezing temperatures and a massive hailstorm that almost blew out his van’s solar panel system, Meyer said he was very happy — and relieved — to have been able to honor his late father by fulfilling one of his dreams.
On this day, as he stood triumphantly beneath the gaze of President Abraham Lincoln’s statue and looked out across the National Mall to the Washington Monument where he launched his trip, Meyer reflected for a while, and announced that it was all worthwhile.
”Now that everything has come to an end, I am both thrilled that I pulled this off and also totally exhausted,” he said. “This has not been some walk in the park, but that’s not what I asked for. I asked for an adventure, and I got an adventure. So three years later, it’s certainly been more than I ever expected, harder than I ever expected, but also life-changing in so many ways.”
Changes that have helped shape his priorities.
“I spent three years staring at the most beautiful places America has to offer, and what I learned was that they don’t mean a darn thing if you don’t have someone to share them with,” he said. “So this journey has really shown me that that’s what should be the focus of my life, and it feels like I’m honoring my dad and honoring that relationship by learning that lesson and now making that my driving force moving forward.
“I chose the Lincoln Memorial because I wanted this moment right here to look back at where I began,” he added. “And fittingly for a kid from Lincoln, Nebraska, to end this journey at a president known for civil rights, for being able to use this journey to give the LGBT people a new role model that didn’t exist before this journey started, seems really fitting for a president known for expanding America so that all Americans feel equal.”
Also fitting that in this same space once stood another man whom Meyer admires, Martin Luther King Jr., when he gave his historic “I have a dream” speech.