Talk about a quest. Two years ago, Mikah Meyer set out to become the youngest person to visit all 417 U.S. National Park Service sites. Since then, the 31-year-old blogger and LGBT activist has been going at it nonstop, driving around the country in a converted cargo van and sharing videos along the way. Meyer reached a major milestone earlier this week when he started the final third of the journey; when he wraps up the trip this time next year, he will have logged some 80,000 miles in all. Contributing writer Matt Villano recently caught up with the blogger to get some tips for planning and surviving an extended road trip.
How do you save for a trip like this?
“There’s an organization called the National Park Travelers Club. They track people who try to go all of the parks and they’ll give out awards based on how many you’ve been to. I reached out to their board when I first thought of doing this and said, ‘Here are my plans. Tell me if I’m crazy.’ They were the ones who told me it would take about $500,000 to pull this off. They were looking at it from a traditional point of view—someone who would drive, stay at hotels, eat out at restaurants, things like that.
“I knew it would cost me less since I planned to live in a van and eat out of my solar-powered fridge. So I aimed to save a lot less and saved my ass off for 10 years. When my friends were spending $50 at the bar on Friday nights, I had water. It was a decade of passionately and proactively saving money knowing I wanted to do this. When I finished grad school, I moved to Washington, D.C., and took a job at a boarding school. As part of my job, I lived on campus. That saved me between $1,000 and $2,000 on rent every month. I saved four years of living expenses by living in a high school dorm. If not for that job, there’s no way I would have had the money to launch this. I credit that job a lot with putting me where I am today. I guess my advice here would be to save aggressively and keep the big picture in mind.”
What are your biggest expenses on the road?
“People think it’s gas—I’ve got a 22-gallon tank and I’ve been averaging about 19 miles per gallon. That means on a good tank I can eke out 400 miles. But I actually got a corporate sponsor to cover that. My biggest expense is health insurance. If you’re considering doing something like this and you don’t have an employer who you’re going to be working for along the way, my tip here would be that you need to make sure you budget for medical coverage. The biggest concern I’ve had to deal with regarding health insurance is that I’ve had to pay for it without having an employer to help subsidize it. All of the changes to healthcare in our country have hit me hard. When I started the journey, I was paying $200 per month; now it’s $800 per month and I’ve had to switch to a much more bare-bones plan. I didn’t account for that increase at all.”
How do you go about planning such a long and complicated itinerary?
“Once it became clear I’d be doing the trip in a van and I’d be living in it, I needed to base it around weather and make sure I would be able to spend summers up north and winters down south. Next, I took into consideration when parks are open. Finally, I had to optimize the route to make it efficient so I could save on gas. It took me two years to come up with that plan and it changes all the time. I have a spreadsheet on my computer that lays out every day between now and April 29, 2019; every few days I make alterations and change things. All the variables are interconnected, like a chess game in that you have to see months ahead. Here my advice would be to plan as much of your itinerary as you can in advance.
“I’m really happy I went to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year because none of the hotels I stayed at are open now. There have been a few other things like that where something major has forced me to change my plan. After I was in New England, for instance, a new national park site was added in upstate New York, so I have to backtrack for that. There’s another site in the High Sierra of California that only is open from the middle of July to the middle of September and I’ll have to make a special trip for that. Of course, there’s also the fact that Guam might be in danger of a nuclear bomb. I haven’t been there yet and am monitoring that situation at all times.”
How do you stay safe?
“I’m openly gay and trying to help the park service with their outreach to the LGBT community. I’m all over newspapers and all over social media in a country where there are many places that don’t appreciate who I am. Because of this, I recognize that I may be in danger in ways that other people aren’t. So I take extra precautions. For the general person, I think it’s about being smart and looking ahead. I sleep in Walmart parking lots and hotel parking lots because they’re well-lit, they’re busy, and they usually have security cameras. One of the things I do to make sure I’m going to feel safe in a parking lot is that I’ll use a satellite app on GPS to look at the surrounding area before I decide to park for the night. Fortunately, I have not been accosted once.
“One time in Detroit, I woke up in a parking lot to a domestic disturbance. That was scary, but it ended quickly and without incident. My advice here is simple: If you stay in a place only once overnight and you don’t come back multiple times, most people won’t ever notice. If you’re respectful and you park out of the way and you’re not drawing attention to yourself, most people will not know you’re there. Some people call it ‘boondocking,’ but I call it ‘stealth camping.’ It’s worked for me so far.”
How do you eat healthy spending all your time on the road?
“It’s so tough. You’re driving on the road and literally just about everything is fast food. One of the keys to eating healthy is knowing yourself and knowing when you get hungry. I always keep a Tupperware of almonds under my front seat, so when I get hungry I snack on those instead of going to McDonald’s. The fridge also helps me buy healthy items when I pass grocery stores that sell them. Campsites are so expensive nowadays if I want a hot meal, it’s actually cheaper for me to go to a Panera Bread than it is for me to pay for a campsite and whip out my stove. I do have a stove, though, for emergencies. It’s a BioLight BaseCamp stove that runs off twigs. My tip here would be to go out of your way to eat healthy, but obviously always have a backup plan just in case you get stuck.”