The County Project

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time I moved to California in 1971, I had been across the country five times.  I had not yet been to all the states – I think my count was 44 then – but I was closing in fast.  So I decided to begin on the counties, of which there were more than 3100 (counting the independent cities of Virginia, and the boroughs of Alaska).

I bought a county outline map of the United States, and with the aid of a road atlas and a railroad atlas mapped out in different colors the routes I had taken on the trips I remembered, and the probable routes of trips in childhood I didn’t remember but had been told about (there were not many of these – before my first cross-country train trip in 1962 I had never been west of Philadelphia).  After some amusing calculations I figured it out as well as I could and accepted the result as a baseline for the fanciful project of going eventually to every county in the United States.

As I write this in July 2014, I am at 2396 counties, more than 76% of the total, and still counting.  I have completely finished 31 states so far (32 counting the District of Columbia).  Here are links to County Project statistics, and a list of the counties remaining, and an interactive map showing what is left.  For more on the County Project, see Chapter 30.B of my Autobiography.

This project has changed the pattern of my travels in the United States very significantly.  I now take road trips, usually about 10 days long, that have no other formal purpose except to pick up more counties.  Although I do some tourism along the way, I lay out the route for counties first, and then find out what sights are nearby.  Sometimes the goal is to finish a state by completing all the remaining counties; in recent years, as the map has filled up, the goal has often been more visual – to fill in blank space, connect previously completed areas, or add a vertical element to a horizontal pattern (a lot of my travel in the central part of the country has been in east-west swaths).  Even when I go somewhere in the United States for other reasons, I still try to add a few new counties if there are any nearby.  Although there are a lot of counties I haven’t been to yet, except for Alaska there are no areas of the country left where I haven’t traveled.  If I haven’t been to a certain county, I have probably been to a similar one not far away.

farmhouse2I don’t usually travel in a straight line on these trips, but make it a point to drive more or less along the county line itself, often on gravel or even dirt roads, alternating back and forth so as to pick up the counties on both sides and make my path two or three counties wide.  Adding the irrational element of county lines to my itinerary means that I don’t use a direct route from city to city, but go by back roads, sometimes on special Forest Service or Indian Reservation roads, sometimes unmarked and unpaved, sometimes just mountain paths or access lanes between cornfields, in order to maximize the number of counties I touch.  This has brought me through a much wider cross-section of America, and allowed me to see it much more intimately, than most motorists are able to do.  And since the objective is to get new counties,  ordinarily I go on road trips only where I have not already been, which widens my experience.

I have set some rules for the County Project.  The main one is what I call the coroner’s rule to determine whether I have been in a county or not.  If I were to drop dead, which county’s coroner would have to do the autopsy?  Thus going one foot across the line is good enough – one time I added two counties by driving in a circle in a parking lot that county lines happened to trisect.  It’s nice to have some time in a county, or visit a town, or have lunch there or see the courthouse or something, but it is not necessary – all that is necessary is to be within its boundaries on the ground.  Flying over or boating through does not count, although (inconsistently) going through on a train or tying up to a pier does count.

A few years ago I joined the Extra Miler Club, an organization devoted to just this pursuit.  More than 34 members have already finished the project.  I accept their rulings on most things – for example, is Kalawao (the former leper colony on Molokai Island, Hawaii) a county or not?  The state statutes differ, but EMC counts it, so I count it too.1  But I differ from them in following the indelible ink rule.  If I color in a county, all the territory I colored in stays colored and doesn’t suddenly become blank again if a state legislature creates a new county or changes the line.  Uti possidetis ita possideatis, as the Roman lawyers used to say, meaning that which you possess you shall continue to possess.

  • milersIt is kind of startling the see the picture gallery of completers – they are almost all paunchy baldish gray-bearded white men in their 60s.  What am I doing among such people?  Here is a picture of me (fourth from right) with an EMC group in Texas, as we welcomed a member just crossing his last county line to completion.
  1. An EMC member at the 2010 convention clarified this for me: by statute, Kalawao is a county until the last resident leper dies, and then it becomes part of Maui County. The youngest leper is younger than I am.