Blog Post Mikah Meyer Apr 4, 2016

Why I’m Celebrating My 30th Birthday at All 400-Plus National Parks

I'm hitting the road this month to become the youngest person to see every national park site in the country — and the only person to do it all in a single trip.

“I’m insane.“

"I will get eaten by a bear.”

“I really am insane.”

These are thoughts I’ve been having a lot lately (especially after watching Leonardo DiCaprio get mauled by a bear in The Revenant), and yet these thoughts are always overcome by a much stronger emotion — one that asks if perhaps it’s all right to be a little crazy.

You see, last month I turned 30, and went through what pretty much every 30-year-old does: “Oh God! THIRTY? I’m supposed to have my life figured out by 30. I’m supposed to be an adult.”

But 30 for me held an even more pressing deadline. Not one put on me by society, or Dr. Phil, or guilt trips from family. Thirty was the deadline of a promise I made to myself: to make life out of death.

Nine years earlier, I was a Nebraska boy with an itch to see the world. So I planned my first independent road trip to commence just days after my freshman year of college.

It was perfect: four states, five cities and my childhood best friend riding shotgun.

The only problem came two weeks before we left.

Unexpectedly, and yet altogether anticipated, my dad lost his years-long battle with cancer. My dad, the man who had given me permission months earlier to use his beloved Hyundai Elantra for my trip. Who had MacGyvered to life every car I’d ever driven. And who had not only taught me to check my tire pressure, but also taught me to love the road.

Whether it was driving with him to Florida in a beat-up old van, windows down, talk radio blasting and cool mountain air crossing our words, or sitting in silent prayer, teeth grimaced to the max as we made it through one of the Midwest’s many storms and left dark clouds in the rearview mirror, silence spoke for us in ways words couldn’t. Vistas talked in shades of blue, red, orange and purple, and road lines passed one by one as the memories behind us gave way to journeys ahead.

But there would be no more journeys with him.

My road trips would now have me in the driver’s seat. I had to be the confident one. I had to know where I was going.

With that inaugural trip providing the healing experience I needed after my dad’s death, I started taking an annual road trip to honor it. When my 30th birthday loomed so ominously ahead, I remembered the way each of those trips gave me life. How on those road trips I’d felt most pure. The most raw and united to everything around me. The most connected, to myself, my father and my purpose.

That joy made me challenge myself to do something I now tell myself on a daily basis is insane.

I vowed to make every fifth year of my road trips something “epic.” Not just a week or two, but something like the extended 260-day “Dream Road Trip” I had taken in my mid-20s and felt the most fed from.

At 30, 35, 40…every five years, I thought. I’ll do something you’d save for retirement. For the retirement my dad never got. For the retirement I may never get.

But what would I do?

I set one goal inspired by my road trips of the past.

Whether it was Yellowstone, Arches or The Statue of Liberty, I wanted to see all the U.S. national parks. Not just spend every year till 65 saying I wanted to do it. I’d experience them all when I turned 30 — an age that, according to the National Park Travelers Club, would make me the youngest person to ever visit all 400-plus units of the National Park System and the only person to see them all in a single trip.

So last month, I said happy 30th birthday to myself, during this same special year that the National Park Service is saying happy 100th birthday to itself. This is the year that the National Park Service, National Park Foundation and National Parks Conservation Association are inviting young and diverse people to get out and “Find Your Park” and “Find Your Voice” at one of our 400-plus park sites. It’s also the year my dad would have turned 70 and been five years into his own retirement, with the road trips he had planned but were lost to the “somedays” that never came.

This month, on April 29, the 11th anniversary of my father’s passing and the day after National Park Week, I will hit the road on a 1,116-day road adventure to all the national parks—and a world record.

“I am insane,” I say to myself even as I type this. “I really am crazy.” And yet, I can’t help but feel that’s all right. Maybe 30 is supposed to be a little crazy.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Mikah’s website, Travel Beyond Convention. Follow his national park journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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