Man Quitting Job to Visit Every National Park Service Site

By JULIE ZAUZMER

WASHINGTON (AP) - A journey of 411 National Park Service sites begins with a single monument.

Mikah Meyer visited the Washington Monument on Friday, April 29, just like more than 600,000 other people do every year. But for Meyer, it was especially momentous: the first stop, he says, on a three-year trip to visit every single Park Service site in the country.

In the coming months, Meyer plans to quit his two jobs, dump his possessions at his pastor's house, move from his North Bethesda apartment to a utility van and set out to become the youngest person ever to visit all 411 Park Service sites.

The trip will take the 30-year-old Nebraska native to 25 battlefields and military sites, 19 nature preserves, 129 historical spots, 112 memorials and monuments, four scenic roadways, five national rivers, 10 national seashores and more.

"It's not just Grand Canyon, Acadia, Yellowstone," he said, standing at the base of the monument. "It is this whole system of things that make us Americans."

The 1,116-day road trip he has mapped out is a spiritual quest to connect with his late father, he says. It's also a chance to demonstrate that gay men can be outdoorsy - and to persuade youngsters glued to their smartphone screens to check out the natural beauty in their home states.

At the top of the Washington Monument, Meyer looked down at the Mall and mused on the nation's front lawn, his first stop on a tour of the United States' shared property, its natural wonders and recreational lands and collective memories.

"In England, how many gardens are set aside just for the queen?" he said. Not so in the United States: "This is for people, playing gay kickball leagues."

Then he pulled out his smartphone. "I've got to write that down so I don't forget." The thought will go on his blog.

He wants to take this massive trip now, while he is healthy and somewhat unencumbered. (His boyfriend balked when Meyer told him, a few weeks into their relationship, that he was planning to eventually skip town for a three-year road trip. But they're still together, and his boyfriend is considering coming along on the road.)

Meyer's father, a Lutheran minister, died of cancer at age 58, when Meyer was 19. He never got to take the road trips he envisioned for his retirement. "He always said if he weren't a pastor, he would have been a trucker," Meyer said.

Meyer missed out on the annual trips that his three older sisters said they cherished most, when their father drove them to college out of state. By the time Meyer started college, his father was in hospice. "These road trips are kind of a way I can get those road trips with him," he said.

Starting April 29, which was the 11th anniversary of his father's death, Meyer is using his down time to check off all the parks in the Washington area. The Mall area alone accounts for at least a dozen, since the park service counts each memorial as a separate unit. Farther afield, Prince William Forest Park, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Rock Creek Park and many more regional sites make the list.

He is still working for now _ he directs residential programming at a boarding school and sings in the National Cathedral's professional choir. But in June, he'll hit the road full-time, for years.

The National Park Travelers Club recognizes people who make it to every park (and even hosts conventions for them). So far, 37 people have done it, according to the club's secretary, Craig Bailey.

Meyer would become the youngest, beating out Alan Hogenauer, who finished at age 39 in 1980, when there were just 320 Park Service sites. The next-youngest, Shigenori Hiraoka, finished at age 45 in 2012. Bailey noted that Hiraoka, from Japan, is one of two foreigners who have made trips to the United States to visit every Park Service site.

Many are retirees, Bailey said; the average age is 63.5. He also noted that these adventurers tend to be male. Of the 37 people who've done it, 11 are women - and all made the trips with their husbands.

But Bailey said Meyer's plan is perhaps more notable for his attempt to visit all the parks in one go, not for his age. He does not know of any person who has ever done all the sites in one odyssey, rather than multiple vacations over a lifetime.

"I wish it was me doing what he's doing," said Bailey. He has made it a goal to visit at least 10 parks a year, especially since he gets good vacations in his work at a school. He started collecting park service stamps in 2001, and now, at age 32, he has visited 259 parks.

"I think it's really neat he's trying to do them all one go of it. He's gonna leave and just go, go, go, go, go," Bailey enthused. "I don't know of anyone that has just headed out on the road and just kept going."

Meyer met up with one of those 37 who has already completed the feat for some advice.

"We sat down and I went through every park. He knew from memory what the right amount of time to spend at each of them was. He said, 'three hours, two days, two weeks,' " Meyer said. On his own itinerary, he has blocked off the most time for the Grand Canyon - two whole weeks, if he can cover the cost of rafting there.

Meyer is financing the trip through his savings as well as donations he's soliciting online. He has budgeted up to $10,000 per year for gas alone.

And he has emailed about 500 companies, asking them to sponsor him. So far, he has succeeded with just a handful - a backpack company that sent a few items, a survival supplies brand, an architect in Fairfax County, Virginia, who is outfitting his van so he can live in it for years.

But he hopes to find someone, perhaps an airline or a travel website, that will pay for plane tickets by the end of the trip: Somehow, he has to get to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Guam, all of which are home to national parks.

His most significant concern was a van - and just days after he started looking for it, he found it. "I've never had God work so fast in my life," he said.

He found a sympathetic seller on Craigslist, who took a four-month trip himself after his wife had died of cancer.

Brett Austin agreed to sell the vehicle to Meyer on an unusual installment plan: $10,000 up front, plus an I-owe-you for $15,000 more, which Meyer can make up through sales from the candle company that Austin operates in Baltimore County. For every candle bought using a special code, 40 percent of the price will go toward paying off Meyer's debt.

The National Park Foundation is also helping Meyer promote his trip. He arrived for his first park visit two weeks ago wearing a "Find Your Park" T-shirt, promoting the park service's theme for commemorating its 100th anniversary in 2016.

"No matter who you are, your story is told," Meyer said. He recalled standing on the Mall during President Obama's second inauguration, when the president referred to "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall," the latter of which is on its way to becoming perhaps the 412th park unit.

"He said Stonewall and I teared up. Because it was like somebody acknowledged who I was," said Meyer, who founded a group for young gay Christians in the District that has more than 300 members.

He had not come out as gay yet - hadn't even totally figured it out himself - when he was 19 and his father died. But his faith tells him that his father sees what his life has become, 11 years later: the affectionate man holding his hand and handing him his camera as they peer out the windows of the Washington Monument. "He knows now," Meyer said.

He took his first road trip just a few days after his father's funeral, in his father's car. It still smelled of his smoke and rattled with his sunflower seeds.

At 25, he embarked on a much longer trip with his father's atlas, a nine-month drive that the circled all of the United States.

Two months in, he felt his heart almost beating out of his chest. "I had this sensation, and I've never had it since," he said. "I'm so insanely happy, my body wants to physically, like, sunshine."

It happened over and over, but only on the road. He concluded: "This is what living is."

That trip also brought a deeply spiritual moment. "The only mystical religious experience I've ever had was in Watervliet, Michigan, in a Taco Bell parking lot."

He was checking his tire pressure. Not much, but it was something his dad would have done. All of a sudden, "I had this warm energy. It felt like my hands were my dad's hands."

That split second, he said, felt like hours of conversation with his father - and with God. "Both of them were saying: Just get back on the road and keep driving."


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