Mikah Meyer used to sing professionally at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
These days the tenor says he sings for his supper in small churches most Sundays near the 417 sites the National Park Service operates in 50 states and U.S. territories.
Meyer, 31, is honoring his late father, Larry, a Lutheran pastor who died of cancer at age 58 in 2005, when Mikah was 19 years old. He’s honoring his father’s memory — and hoping to serve as a role model for LGBTQ youth around the country — by becoming the youngest person to visit every site, including national parks, battlefields, nature preserves and national seashores.
The list includes the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which he visited Tuesday afternoon.
If he completes his mission as planned in April 2019, he’ll also be the only person to visit all the sites in one very prolonged journey.
Some churches ask Meyer to deliver a homily, a brief sermon, after he’s sung a few sacred songs for the congregation on Sunday morning.
“I swore I would never grow up to be a pastor,” Meyer said with a laugh, “but (his father) got the last laugh.”
With stops Tuesday at the Little Bighorn battlefield and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Meyer has now taken in 200 of the nation’s 417 sites. Since he set off from the Washington Monument on April 29, 2016, the 11th anniversary of his father’s death, he’s logged more than 40,000 miles in his windowless van.
“Van life is not as easy as I imagined it,” he said by telephone Tuesday as he headed toward stop number 199, the Little Bighorn battlefield. “On Instagram you see beautiful couples getting out of their van. But when temperatures are over 70, you never want to live in a van again. It’s definitely a lot bigger struggle than it looks.”
While lining up sponsors two years ago to help pay for his epic journey, Meyer said he was hesitant to let people know he’s openly gay.
“It’s not one of the communities you see in ads and stories” about visiting the national wonders that he planned to see, he said. “If they found out that part of me, I was worried they might miss out on the story.”
But then he began to hear from LGBTQ park rangers, residents of small towns “and Christians from around the world” who told him, “We appreciate your story and we appreciate you letting people know we exist. I’m now open and honest about who I am, and that has been a big change for me.”
This summer he plans to see the five National Park Service sites in his native Nebraska that he’s never visited.
“I’ll be speaking at three churches, and I’ll talk about a time that being gay was so taboo it wasn’t spoken about,” he said. “The people who will be hearing the message are the people who raised me, so it will be powerful.”
He said he’s had “numerous” doubts about the viability of his journey over the 16 months he’s been on the road.
Last November, fundraising was “going poorly. I was freezing in the van, and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I never have a day off, and it’s always exhausting.”
On the other hand, “I’m seeing places a prairie boy never imagined, and I’m helping people that 10-year-old Mikah could have used help from,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing good for the world, and that’s what keeps me going.”
While most sites are indeed splendorous, Meyer said he’s seen a few “where you wonder which politician owed someone a favor.”
He spent five days at Glacier National Park “and could have spent 50,” he said. He met longtime Whitefish and Kalispell residents who told him “they still haven’t experienced all they want to see.”
He hopes to write a book about his experience, with the halfway mark “a good point to begin pitching publishers.”
Parks officials have told him that once he’s done, his cell phone and video camera “will have the most up-to-date record” of the nation’s NPS sites, even more current and complete than park service now owns.
“They try to get updated photos” of all their sites, he said, but with budget cutbacks that task sometimes doesn’t get done as quickly as NPS officials would like.
At every stop, Meyer has observed, and makes it a point to speak with, dedicated and knowledgeable rangers and volunteers.
“At places I have enjoyed the most and the least, dedicated rangers and volunteers who give their time freely are such a wealth of knowledge,” he said. “If you ignore them, you will miss out on a lot.”
Meyer already has his final stop planned. It will occur on April 29, 2019, three years to the day after he started and 14 years after his father died.
He plans a return to the nation's capitol, starting at the Reflecting Pool and then running up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, “Rocky style.”
“I like the idea of coming full circle, of starting the walk from the Washington Monument where I began,” he said. “What Lincoln stood for is powerful — making the members of under-served communities feel more welcome.”
Follow Meyer’s blog or contribute to his travels at www.tbcmikah.com/blog.