What’s on your Bucket List?
It’s a question that’s been asked over bar conversations and major Hollywood movies, that essentially is asking:
What do you want to do before you die?
It’s a concept that inspires all sorts of purchases, career changes, and travels, or in my case, a road trip to South Dakota.
While this prairie state is likely not the first place people think of when hearing “Bucket List Travel,” it’s what pops into my mind.
Because when I was 19 years old, it’s where I learned the importance of following one’s dreams before it’s too late, after seeing my father pass away unexpectedly from esophageal cancer at age 58; never getting to retire and do those things on his Bucket List.
As a result of that first road trip to South Dakota just days after his funeral, I vowed I’d do a road trip every year for the rest of my life around the time of my father’s passing, April 29.
It didn’t have to be long or expensive, just something to honor the lesson I’d learned that life is short, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and we can’t assume we have time to kick our goals down the road.
Also, something to keep me to connected to my dad. Since he died before we got to take the road trips to/from college I’d been looking forward to after years of seeing him take my three older sisters on those same drives.
As my annual road trips happened, I learned another important lesson:
While many of my elders understood why I was taking these annual trips, my peers—those of us in our 20s—felt very different. Everyone seemed to think they were guaranteed to live at least until 80.
So I decided I need to amp-up my annual road trip for my dad. Do something so crazy that it would share this carpe diem message in a way that would grab people’s attention.
That manifested in a three-year, nonstop, world record journey to all 400+ sites in the entire National Park Service.
And while that journey was a success, in that I received more than 1,500 pieces of media coverage worth over $10 million Advertising Value Equivalent to share my carpe diem message, there was another message that journey taught me I needed to share—one I wasn’t expecting when I’d launched the project…
When I began my parks journey on April 29, 2016, in the history of the outdoors recreation industry in America there had never been a Pride Month ad.
There also hadn’t been openly LGBTQ+ figures in industry advertisements, and there weren’t openly LGBTQ+ figures with outdoor recreation brand sponsorships. So I got the message real quick that if I wanted people to pay attention to the message of my national parks journey, they couldn’t know I was gay.
So, despite being out of the closet for nearly a decade, I hid this part of myself when sharing my story.
Except the internet doesn’t disappear…
As I did media interviews along the way, people found my past LGBTQ+ advocacy work. And message after message came in from LGBTQ+ people around the world who shared the same experience I’d had while looking for role models in the Great Outdoors:
“It’s hard to feel like I can be myself in outdoor spaces, because I don’t see anyone like me…”
After months of these messages pouring in, I added a second goal to my parks journey:
To be the openly gay adventurer myself and so many others had yearned to see.
I started taking pictures with a rainbow flag in front of America’s most iconic natural sites, and by the end of my trip, had become the first openly gay man featured in an outdoors recreation ad campaign (HCN).
But beyond my own road trip, that national parks journey taught me that something needed to be done to make the outdoors more welcoming.
To address the issue that thousands of people had written me to share: that they didn’t feel like they could be their authentic selves in outdoor places.
“Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay…” I often hear from straight people who think this is “a made-up issue.”
And they’re correct.
Nature doesn’t care if I’m gay, but unfortunately, too many people do. It’s why outdoor brands have removed articles about me from their Facebook pages, due to too many hateful comments from outdoors fans for just a rainbow flag photo.
So to solve the problem of people bringing down Mother Nature’s reputation, I created a new program that can change outdoors culture. That provides outdoor fans who are allies a way to show they aren’t the perceived anti-LGBTQ+ fellow traveler.
The Outside Safe Space is a symbol for allies to wear in outdoor and rural spaces as an easy, fast way to communicate that others can be themselves around them. The inspiration comes from the upside-down pink triangle Safe Space symbols sometimes found on school teachers’ doors, except moves the concept from on/in-doors to outdoors.
“I would have never thought something as simple as seeing this pin would bring me such comfort,” someone recently wrote my Instagram after seeing an Outside Safe Space pin in the wild.
And indeed, each and every one of us has the power to do something simple, and wear one of these pins or stickers to make someone’s day.
So as Pride Month comes to an end, I invite you to hit the road. Whether to complete a Bucket List item, to visit a national park, or to spend time outdoors in a way that helps others feel welcome to do so as well.
Because no matter who we are, there’s no time like the present to embrace ourselves and what we want to do with our lives. As I learned 16 years ago when my dad passed away, and as I’m reminded every year on my annual road trips:
Tomorrow really could be too late.
Mikah Meyer is a travel writer and founder of the Outside Safe Space program. He encourages you to get an Outside Safe Space pin + sticker to wear on your outdoor gear, and travel to any of America’s 423 National Park Service sites, spread across every state and territory (interactive map here)
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