Less than 30 minutes into his crusade, Mikah Meyer was reminded of why he took it up.
Several men in a passing vehicle shouted something vile at him.
A day later Meyer, who is gay, was reminded again. He met a manager at a Dairy Queen in Dawson, in western Minnesota, and shared his story: He was traveling through the heart of the state on foot — his “Run Across Minnesota” — hoping to make the outdoors a little kinder and more welcoming for the next lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person to pass through.
The manager, too, opened up to Meyer. She spoke of her daughter with special needs who’d heard taunts at times while she shared a playground or was on the receiving end of odd looks. Their worlds were far apart, but their stories connected.
“It was this really beautiful moment that in a country that has felt divided for so long, this person who probably has very different politic views [was] completely able to relate to what I was trying to share,” Meyer said.
His dual experiences last month — the homophobia, the understanding — were top of mind this week as Meyer put in his final miles. His 200-plus-mile run began Sept. 4 at the South Dakota border, west of Dawson. He’ll finish it Sunday afternoon at the historic Lift Bridge in Stillwater.
Gay outdoorsman are two words you don’t read together, but Meyer, 34, gave them a new profile with a highly publicized adventure that concluded in April 2019. Over three years and 200,000 miles, Meyer became the first person known to have traveled in a single trip to all 419 National Park Service sites in America. He’s good at telling his story, too. He’s written for Outside magazine, Huffington Post and other national publications, keeps a busy public speaking calendar and regularly updates his 67,000 Instagram followers anticipating another #adventurepride post.
His national parks trip was, in large part, an homage to his late father, with whom family road trips from their home in Nebraska were a way of life. His father succumbed to cancer in 2005. Some of those travels with his dad involved trips to Minnesota. His father’s first call as a Lutheran pastor was in Crystal, Minn., and they’d return in later years. Interns from Luther Seminary were a mainstay for years at his father’s campus ministry at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Woven visually into Meyer’s run and message is another of his creations: his Outside Safe Space logo, the gay pride rainbow flag reimagined in the form of a tree, down to its symbolic triangular structure and skin-toned trunk. “I wanted every non-straight person to see themselves represented somewhere in there,” he said.
Meyer said he learned valuable lessons documenting his national parks odyssey: Wrapped in a grand adventure, outreach and consistent messaging win attention. And that’s been motivating. Thousands of people contacted him after seeing a gay man confidently making his way through a wondrous outdoors. “I just realized that this is a problem, that 10 percent of our world doesn’t feel welcome in our great outdoors,” he said.
His campaign also has attracted interest from the outdoors industry, something Meyer said is key to changing attitudes. His current run is sponsored in part by Eddie Bauer and by REI, which also supported Meyer’s national parks adventure. Winnebago loaned him a fire-red Solis camper van. Schwinn has provided bikes and gear for his support crew, and shared his story on its social feeds.
In an interview, edited below for length and clarity, Meyer talked about the pandemic’s influence on his project, his experiences on the road, and what it will take to make the outdoors a place where everyone can see themselves.
Talk about catalysts for Outside Safe Space.
I looked to my running shoes that had been collecting dust over winter, and knew that we were allowed legally to leave the house if we were exercising on our own. So I started running, and within two weeks I ran 15 miles in one stretch, which was the longest I’d ever had. I made it a goal to run to all of our city parks. When George Floyd was murdered, I was sitting on social media. Basically hearing Black people say, ‘White people, how are you going to use your privilege and your platforms and your power to make the world a better place?’ It all sort of melded together with this Outside Safe Space symbol, and this idea of having a racially inclusive, LGBTQ spectrum-inclusive symbol that everyone in the community who is not straight could see themselves in somewhere in the design. Going beyond just this idea of queer representation in the outdoors, and extend it to allies and say, ‘This is for the other 90% of the world. How can you show that you are an ally and you are going to change the narrative of rural and outdoor spaces, so that outside of these urban bubbles LGBTQ people can feel just as comfortable as they do in the bubbles like the Twin Cities?’
How about other interactions with locals during the run?
My life’s motto is life is, it’s more fun when you talk to strangers. I love getting out there and meeting people. And the hardest part about doing this in a pandemic is, for my own health and ability to run across the state, I can’t do that. In Montevideo, their Chamber of Commerce was super helpful in finding me a warm shower at their park. They pointed me to a pizza place, and while I was there I met some locals who saw my Winnebago. They said, ‘We’ve been talking about it all week. Like, tell us more.’ They were soybean farmers. I got to ask them questions, like ‘How has this new trade deal affected you? What do you hear politically in this part of the state that is so different from the Twin Cities?’ It was so fascinating to talk to them — and hear them say these are the issues that matter to us; this is how we hear this political party speaking; this is how things have changed in the past five years — and just realizing that we live totally different realities from the Twin Cities bubble to so much of rural Minnesota. And yet there was so many things we were able to relate on.
We’re were joking about Minnesota passive-aggressiveness. I was joking, saying you should love my Outside Safe Space symbol then because it’s a passive-aggressive way you can tell people you support them. You don’t have to verbalize it. It does it for you.
Sometimes it’s written or spoken that the outdoors is “neutral” space — safe territory from homophobia, racism, hateful acts. What do you think of that idea?
One of the No. 1 comments I get from people who think what I am doing is pointless is, they say, ‘Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay.’ And I totally agree. I say, ‘You’re right, but unfortunately you do, or there are a lot of people who do.’ So until we can get more people to be like nature, we do need to focus on this. It’s the people who make up the culture of the spaces that make them problematic.
Where are you on that continuum of advocating for change?
Hopeful is the No. 1 word I would use, because when I started my national parks journey, in the history of the outdoors recreation industry, there had never been a Pride Month ad, there were no openly LGBT-sponsored individuals, and no openly LGBT people in ads. By October 2018, REI hired me to be part of its #OptOutside campaign. It was the first time an openly gay [person] had ever been included in any outdoors recreation industry campaign. Now, every June there are more brands having pride campaigns. I’ve loved seeing the evolution.
You think outdoors companies have a role to play because of, essentially, money. If there is money to be made, in general, more will move to represent all outdoors lovers, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or skin color.
I’m seeing all these new brands get on board. I hate to say it’s because they realize they are missing out on money, but if that’s what it takes to do the right thing, to start including LGBTQ people in ads, changing the culture and changing the narrative, then that is OK with me.
Since June, you say ‘diversity’ and every brand is like, ‘Yes, how can we help?’ Before, they wouldn’t return my e-mails. Everybody wants to do something diverse because our culture has changed so much. My big grading factor for LGBT stuff is, are you only showing queer people in your ads, film series and stories in June, or are you doing it 365? Are you just including us in Pride Month, or are you including us year-round? That is my litmus test for whether they are in for the good fight or using us for tokenism.
How will you know if your campaign Outside Safe Space is successful?
My goal is that [the symbol] becomes ubiquitous. As ubiquitous as the Nike swoosh. That when you see this logo on somebody’s water bottle, when you see the pin on their backpack, when you see the patch on their gear, if you see it hanging up in a national parks visitor center, that you’ll know immediately that this is someone who accepts me 100 percent as I am. That I don’t have to worry about anything with them.
REI in Bloomington just reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we want to sell some Outside Safe Space items. Can we make that happen?’ That’s amazing to me. It’s the goal. I want this to be the thing that every outdoorsy person knows about. At a time when LGBT people are one of the groups that are particularly marginalized, that people are willing to take this step to have somewhere on them this symbol, so that 10 years from now it really won’t matter if you are gay or not in the outdoors. People won’t care, just the same as nature won’t care.
Mikah Meyer will finish his Run Across Minnesota at about 5 p.m. Sunday at the Lift Bridge in Stillwater. He’s encouraging supporters to run the final mile -- safely -- with him. See details online at mikahmeyer.com/runacrossmn.