Who are you and what is your backstory?
Have you ever dreamed of quitting your jobs and road tripping to all the United States national parks?
That’s what I did when I turned 30.
But not just to Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or the 62 National Parks that have become ubiquitous with American travel.
For 3-years nonstop, I experienced every National Monument, National Seashore, National Preserve and all 20+ designations that make up the 419 National Park Service sites spread across all 56 states & territories.
For a kid from Nebraska who thought I might never get to leave my home state, I love that I’ve been able to design a life around adventures across the United States and world.
But it didn’t happen without a lot of bumps in the road...
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
At age 19, after witnessing my road-trip-loving father pass away from cancer unexpectedly at age 58, I took my first road trip a few days after his funeral. As I thought about him not getting to experience retirement, I made a vow to do one road trip every year around the time of his passing, April 29.
After a decade of short spring road trips and saving money, I was ready to start my goal of using a “crazy” road trip at age 30 to encourage others to complete their dreams before it’s too late. I found a Ram Promaster 2500 with a little assistance from my deceased dad, and using my two degrees in music...plus a lot of help from YouTube and the maintenance staff at the high school boarding academy I was living/work at...Vanny McVanface was ready to hit the road on April 29, 2016, exactly 11 years after my dad’s passing.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
I’d only saved 1/5 the amount of cash it would take to pull off my journey to all the NPS sites, according to park experts, so living in a van made the most sense financially:
- I wouldn’t have to pay for hotels or camp sites
- It’s more fuel-efficient than RVs while still allowing standing room
- Vans are smaller than RVs so easier to stay in urban areas or boondock
I also love the ease of setting off on adventures. I’d never have to worry if I packed everything I’d need, because whatever I owned was in the van! All the planning/packing time of normal adventures goes away when you’re traveling with all your belongings.
The ability to follow good weather is also a huge freedom. I got to follow the blooming March flowers of spring from Big Bend National Park in West Texas to the deserts of New Mexico, Utah and Idaho before hitting true summer in Seattle on July 4.
"I almost ran out of my saved seed money 9 months into my parks journey, but just as I was about to have to quit, I finally figured out how to fundraise in a sustainable way."
Then chase fall from the yellow aspens of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park in early September to the falling leaves of the Ozarks’ Buffalo National River in October and through beautiful November drives on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Appalachia.
There’s a thrill to getting to experience the best moments of each state all across one season! Now that I’m based out of Minnesota and experiencing full winters, I’m especially reminded what a HUGE lifestyle/mood boost it is to be surrounded by perfect weather.
Vanny in North Dakota (surprisingly a fascinating state)
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
My boyfriend and I broke up because of living in a van. When you look at Instagram, you see happy couples (because beautiful pictures get Likes), but the reality is it’s tough living in that small of a space with someone. We lasted a year, and so many married couples told us, “I couldn’t have done 3 months with my spouse! Well done!”
But I loved traveling with a partner more than solo. So I definitely encourage testing out living in 70 sq. ft. with someone before diving in. Or both being really committed to the lifestyle and understanding physical strains will cause problems people in traditional housing don’t have to deal with.
Within that lifestyle, the two hardest parts were:
- Not having climate control (A/C or heat) in my van. This meant if it was ever above 65° F at night or below 20° F, I couldn’t sleep (and needed to suffer through it, or get a hotel). So definitely follow the temperate weather, or come up with safe, rain-proof ways for air to pass through your van + a heating system if you’re going to experience seasons.
- Figure out how to deal with mail. I had so many days of adventure sidelined because my insurance or a government form required me to print out some form and mail it. Every year it gets easier as systems become digital, and apps like SignNow allow us to do work from our phones, but nothing replaces a “home address” and someone you trust to open all your physical mail on your behalf.
And there are always the things you can’t prepare for.
Like the night I woke up to a hail storm shaking my van from side to side. Climbing to the front seat just in time to pull my solar panel-covered roof under the awning of a drive-through pharmacy to keep the hail from shattering anything. Or the morning I woke up to a domestic dispute in a parking lot outside my van, and wondered if bullets could penetrate the metal exterior and my layers of interior walls.
While the ability to pull over and sleep anywhere is amazing, sometimes you end up overnighting in places that are less than ideal because it’s the only option.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
One of my biggest struggles early on was not seeing any other LGBTQ+ people in the #VanLife movement. I saw lots of straight, white couples (which there’s nothing wrong with!) but nobody queer or POC. Since I was trying to emulate the formula of successful vanlifers who made their livings from sponsorships, I was worried if the outdoors community knew I was gay, they wouldn’t support me. My fears were proven true when one of my sponsors dropped me specifically because I started sharing about being gay, after hiding it for the first year of my journey.
"BE UNIQUE! Think about all the travel bloggers out there. What makes you different? If there’s someone out there doing the same thing you want to do, why would anyone switch from being interested in their work to yours?"
So after a decade of being out, and having a great LGBTQ+ community in my previous Washington DC home, being apart from them in an industry that was not only homophobic, but in physical spaces miles and miles from the nearest gay bar/safe space, was a huge struggle. That was balanced by the thousands of LGBTQ+ adventurers I met over social media, many who said, “I’ve never found anyone gay and outdoorsy before, like me!” So this journey allowed me to connect with a community of people I didn’t know existed before it.
Loneliness became harder and harder every day after my boyfriend left 1 year into the 3 year road trip. So I started to route visits with friends at least once a month. To give me a familiar relationship to look forward to. This helped, along with meeting IRL with people I’d connected to first over social media. Plus almost daily calling a few close friends/family to have conversations beyond the “get to know you” ones.
Friends, family, and strangers who came to my journey’s Finale on April 29, 2019
How do you support yourself financially?
I’ve given over 150 speeches about my journey, and make my living now primarily as a professional speaker. You can have me come present live (or virtually) for you too.
My favorite is speaking to college students, since they’re approaching the perfect time to embark on van life (IMHO), high school students (to provide the openly gay example I really needed at that age), and corporations, to share all the benefits of inclusive LGBTQ+ marketing, so nobody will have to feel left out of any industry/culture again.
I also work with a number of brands, including Eddie Bauer, creating digital content, most of which is based around inclusion and/or adventure. Granted, it took me years of full-time+ adventuring to build an audience. And 10 years of saving money at traditional jobs/quitting those jobs to launch my goal with that seed money--so it definitely isn’t the instant success I thought it would be when I started planning. But I’m proud to say that thanks to my parks journey, in October 2018 I became the First Openly Gay Man Featured in an Outdoors Recreation Campaign as part of REI’s #OptOutside promotion.
So now when you Google “gay outdoors” there’s at least one example of an openly gay person reaching the point I searched so desperately to find when I was planning my project.
Speaking for the National Park Foundation at World Pride 2019
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
BE UNIQUE! Think about all the travel bloggers out there. What makes you different? If there’s someone out there doing the same thing you want to do, why would anyone switch from being interested in their work to yours?
Come up with a hook, focus, or distinguishing feature (Logan Paul did the splits in random locations and now has over 25 million followers) and ask yourself what would make you interested in someone’s blog.
Thousands upon thousands of people had been to all the 62 National Parks, and a few dozen to all 400+ NPS sites, but I discovered no one had gone to them all continuously. No one as young as me had done it. And no one had done so while sharing they were gay. These helped me stand out from the social media accounts that get the best national park photos submitted by thousands of users, and now gives me lots of unique angles to offer for my speeches.
There’s only one YOU, so how do you share that uniqueness with others?
On The TODAY Show with national parks aficionado Jenna Bush
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
In his book, The Last Lecture, author Randy Pausch talks about how some good things are behind walls. And the people who reach those good things are the ones that find a way over, under, around, or through those walls.
Remembering that, and many of the lessons from his book, helped me keep going when I didn’t see an answer to a problem.
I almost ran out of my saved seed money 9 months into my parks journey, but just as I was about to have to quit, I finally figured out how to fundraise in a sustainable way. Though it took me failing at numerous other ideas before I found one that worked...I got past my wall.
I give The Last Lecture to my close friends for birthday gifts now and I highly recommend it for anyone--adventurer or not. It’s a quick read and one that shares a lot of the lessons I learned from my father’s passing, as Randy Pausch also passed from cancer and The Last Lecture was meant to teach his young sons the life lessons he wouldn’t be around to say himself.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts - Dolly Parton concert
What does the future look like?
I’m currently living in downtown Minneapolis, soaking in a lot of the arts and culture I didn’t get during nomad life. The NPR host laughed when I said I was moving here after seeing all America had to offer, and most people looked at me quizzically. But it’s the only city in North America with a large gay population where one can easily live in the gayborhood for under $1,000 a month. And with it being a Delta hub, I can fly direct for my speaking gigs or far-off adventures.
And the best part is that the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area runs 72 miles through the metropolitan area of 3.5 million. So it’s a perfect blend of my one-time national parks life, and city living, while I work on my next projects.
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
I’m currently developing two big projects, so if you work in or have connections with these industries, I’d love you to reach out to me!
- A TV show that involves sharing national parks in a way that hasn’t been done before, and I’m looking for the right production company to partner with.
- A short film that showcases gay adventurers, for which I need financial assitance/sponsorship from either an individual, brand or grant to fund production.
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
- Audio books
- An NPR signal
- Solar power
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
- Dinosaur National Monument
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Sirmione, Italy
Dinosaur National Monument
Where are you now?
Sheltering-At-Home from COVID-19 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
How long do you usually stay in one place?
1-2 weeks is my desired trip length. Long enough to get lost in a new space, then to be excited to get home.
When did you first start Vanlifing?
Are you full-time or part-time Vanlifing?
How many weeks have you spent in the Van in the last 12 months?
I just finished my parks journey a year ago, and am currently recouping from #VanLife, so only a few weeks.
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
I sold Vanny McVanface 6 months ago because I needed the money while writing a book about the parks journey. But I’d LOVE to get into a Flame Red Winnebago Travato (wink wink, nudge nudge Winnebago factory just south of me in Iowa…)
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
Facebook: Mikah Meyer
YouTube: Mikah Meyer