The loneliness caught up to him early in his 200,000-mile road trip.
Mikah Meyer has climbed Hawaiian volcanoes, flown into the most remote areas of Alaska, snorkeled the seas off the Virgin Islands. He's documented it all for his 70,000 Instagram followers — his smile in the foreground, majestic landscapes in the background.
But there were moments his camera didn’t capture.
“It’s been pretty lonely,” he said this week, back in the U.S. from a quick trip to Guam and getting ready to return to Nebraska this weekend. “Being alone in the low moments or being alone in the high moments, no sunset can replace the right person.”
He found an important reason to keep going, though, to finish what he started in 2016, when he gave up his jobs and his home in Washington, D.C. At the time, he'd bought a van and made a plan — to be the youngest traveler to see all of the National Park Service's nearly 420 official sites, and likely the only visitor to do it in one continuous trip.
The 2004 Lincoln High School grad's pilgrimage was inspired by what his father had missed. Larry Meyer, the longtime pastor at UNL's Lutheran Student Center, died when he was 58, before he could enjoy retirement.
After the funeral, Mikah Meyer took a long, grief-clearing drive in his father's Hyundai, and then a few years later, he took a longer one. He vowed to retire this way, a little at a time before it was too late.
His third trip started simply. How about visiting all 60 national parks? Then it became more ambitious: Why not bag all of the park service's nearly 420 units? Its parks and parkways, memorials and monuments, historic sites and seashores, trails, riverways and recreation areas?
His boyfriend at the time joined him for much of that first year, the two of them marking up a map in the 70-square-foot van they shared. “A lot of married couples said, 'That’s really impressive that you’ve made it that long,'” Meyer said.
But he was on his own after that first year. There were times when the van got too cold, or what remained of his trip seemed too daunting, and he found himself longing for his normal life.
“I’ve pretty much been there many, many times,” he said. “And the only reason I’ve kept going is hearing from people from around the world about how this trip has inspired them and changed their life.”
One message stands out. Two years ago, a 15-year-old reached out to him on Instagram. The boy was a student at a private Baptist school in Texas. He was gay, but he was afraid to come out.
The teen was inspired by Meyer, who had grown up, and come out, the gay son of a Lutheran minister. He was also inspired that a professional choir singer could upend his life to try to make travel history.
The student told him: Now I know when I grow up I can be ordinary. Now I know when I grow up I can also be extraordinary.
And Meyer was inspired by the teen — because even though he was out, he wasn't advertising it at the beginning of his journey.
“The first nine months, I was trying to hide the fact I was gay,” he said. “This was the moment where I was like, 'I’ve got to be more open about being gay; I’ve got to be more open about who I am, so people like this kid don’t feel alone.'”
He'd tried to find corporate sponsors before the trip, but he couldn't find any evidence the outdoors industry embraced the LGBT community. No gay couples in advertisements, no outdoorsy campaigns during Pride Month, no gay people with endorsements.
And one of the few sponsors he'd found terminated the contract, saying Meyer was doing too much LGBT outreach, he said, though he declined to name the company.
He was undaunted. He started posting more photos with his rainbow flag — at Chimney Rock, Denali, Arches, beneath the redwoods — and those became his most popular.
Without the sponsorships he'd hoped for, Meyer found another way to pay his way. In 2017, he was invited to sing at a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Then, a few minutes before the service, the pastor's son learned he was expected to preach, too.
“I talked about my parks journey, growing up gay in the church, what it’s been like after coming out and tied it into the gospel somehow — and that sermon has been evolving since.”
That Florida pastor called another pastor, who called another, who called another. Since then, Meyer has spoken and preached and performed in about 150 churches.
He appears for free, presenting a donation box when he's finished. “It's always been enough to keep me on the road,” he said. “It's pretty magical.”
And even though REI gave him a sponsorship late last year — maybe making Meyer the first openly gay spokesman for an outdoors company — 95 percent of his trip's funding has come from outside the industry.
He's logged nearly 200,000 miles by van, plane, boat and train. In Alaska alone, he spent 77 days visiting its 23 park service sites, flying to 17 of them on bush planes — including Aniakchak National Monument, the service's least visited unit. More people climb Mount Everest every year than visit the volcanic crater.
He recently flew through China to return from Guam, where he visited the War in the Pacific National Historic Park, number 389 on his list of 418 sites.
Which means his trip is coming to an end. He'll speak and perform in Omaha and Lincoln this weekend, and then he'll be in the homestretch. His remaining sites are within a two-hour radius of Washington, and he'll finish at the Lincoln Memorial on April 29 — three years to the minute he began his trip, and the 14th anniversary of his father's death.
And he's looking forward to that moment. He added a countdown clock to his website.
“Honestly,” he said. “I'm pretty exhausted.”
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Army soldiers struggle to haul heavy sleds backward as fast as they can down a grassy field at Fort Bragg, filling the brisk North Carolina morning air with grunts of exertion and the shouts of instruction from their coaches.
Watching from the sidelines, Sgt. Maj. Harold Sampson shakes his head. As a military intelligence specialist he spends a lot of time behind a desk. Over his two decades in the Army, he could easily pound out the situps, pushups and 2-mile run that for years have made up the service's fitness test.
But change has come. The Army is developing a new, more grueling and complex fitness exam that adds dead lifts, power throws and other exercises designed to make soldiers more fit and ready for combat.
"I am prepared to be utterly embarrassed," Sampson said on a recent morning, two days before he was to take the test.
Commanders have complained in recent years that the soldiers they get out of basic training aren't fit enough. Nearly half of the commanders surveyed last year said new troops coming into their units could not meet the physical demands of combat. Officials also say about 12 percent of soldiers at any one time cannot deploy because of injuries.
In addition, there has long been a sense among many senior officials that the existing fitness test does not adequately measure the physical attributes needed for the battlefield, said Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
The new test, "may be harder, but it is necessary," Townsend said.
Reaching the new fitness levels will be challenging. Unlike the old fitness test, which graded soldiers differently based on age and gender, the new one will be far more physically demanding and will not adjust the passing scores for older or female soldiers.
For example, in the current test — two minutes of situps, two minutes of pushups, a 2-mile run — younger soldiers must do more repetitions and run faster to pass and get maximum scores than those who are older or female.
Townsend said the new test was designed based on scientific research that matched specific exercises to tasks that soldiers in combat must do: sprint away from fire, carry a wounded comrade on a stretcher, haul cans of fuel to a truck.
The scoring is divided into three levels that require soldiers with more physically demanding jobs, such as infantry or armor, to score higher.
"We needed to change the culture of fitness in the United States Army. We had a high number of nondeployable soldiers that had a lot of muscular/skeletal injuries and medical challenges because we hadn't trained them from a fitness perspective in the right way," said Army Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, commander of the Army's Center for Initial Military Training and the officer in charge of developing the new fitness test. "The goal is about a having a more combat-ready army."
Frost said that about one-third of the soldiers who come into the service leave before their third year, many because of muscular/skeletal injuries. The new test, he said, will help screen out recruits who are less physically fit and mentally disciplined. Those who make the cut are more likely to stay in the service.
It will also challenge senior officers such as Sampson, who have been doing less physical desk jobs.
"It breaks the mindset of 'I am an intel soldier,'" said Sampson. "It changes it to 'I am a soldier,' because bullets on the battlefield don't discriminate."
The Associated Press was with Frost on a recent sunny Tuesday as he watched soldiers from three battalions go through the test. The six events take nearly an hour and are done in order with only a few minutes rest in between:
* A dead lift, with weights between 140 pounds and 340 pounds.
* A standing power throw, which requires soldiers to throw a 10-pound medicine ball backward and overhead.
* Hand-release pushups, completing as many as possible in two minutes.
* The "sprint-drag-carry" that includes a 50-yard sprint, a 50-yard backward sled drag, a 50-yard lateral, where soldiers shuttle sideways down the lane and back, a 50-yard carry of two 40-pound kettle bells and a 50-yard sprint.
* After a short rest, the soldiers do the leg tuck pullup, as many as possible in two minutes.
* A 2-mile run.
"Many folks find it easy to do the maximum standard for the current test," Frost said. "This new test is gender- and age-neutral. I cannot max this test."
Across the country, 63 battalions are working on the final test development and will eventually go back to their units and train others. By Oct. 1, the entire Army will be using the test. By October 2020, it will be the official exam that all soldiers will have to pass.
RICHMOND, Va. — The political crisis in Virginia spun out of control Wednesday when the state's attorney general confessed to putting on blackface in the 1980s and a woman went public with detailed allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor.
With Gov. Ralph Northam's career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, the day's developments threatened to take down all three of Virginia's top elected officials, all of them Democrats.
The twin blows began with Attorney General Mark Herring issuing a statement admitting he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
Herring — who had previously called on Northam to resign and was planning to run for governor himself in 2021 — apologized for his "callous" behavior and said that the days ahead "will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve."
The 57-year-old Herring came clean after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol, though he made no mention of a picture Wednesday.
Then, within hours, Vanessa Tyson, the California woman whose sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax surfaced earlier this week, put out a detailed statement saying Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but Tyson issued the statement in her name.
Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and specializes in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, "I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat."
"Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation," she said. "Given his false assertions, I'm compelled to make clear what happened."
Fairfax — who is in line to become governor if Northam resigns — has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.
"At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years," he said in a statement.
Tyson said she suffered "deep humiliation and shame" and stayed quiet about the allegations as she pursued her career, but by late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took shape and after she saw a news article about Fairfax's campaign, she took her story to The Washington Post, which decided months later not to publish a story.
The National Organization for Women immediately called on Fairfax to resign, saying, "Her story is horrifying, compelling and clear as day — and we believe her."
The string of scandals that began when the yearbook picture came to light last Friday could have a domino effect on Virginia state government: If Northam and Fairfax fall, Herring would be next in line to become governor. After Herring comes House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.
At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day's fast-breaking developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, "I have to take a breath and think about this. This is moving way too quickly." GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be "reckless" to comment. "There's just too much flying around," he said.
Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year. The party made big gains in 2017, in part because of a backlash against President Donald Trump, and has moved within striking distance of a majority in both houses.
At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and because they want to be able to criticize Trump's behavior without looking hypocritical.
Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his profile page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
The governor admitted at first that he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing, then denied it a day later. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.
Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as "indefensible," ''profoundly offensive" and "shocking and deeply disappointing." He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.
Wednesday, though, Herring confessed that he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers they listened to admitting: "It sounds ridiculous even now writing it." He said he was "deeply, deeply sorry."