Collecting counties -- even crossing the border into obsession
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Globe Correspondent August 22, 2004
PROVIDENCE -- After their annual meeting last month, members of the Extra Miler Club set out on their first group trip, a modest afternoon swing through five counties. Didn't sound like much of a challenge for a crew that has flown into Alaska's Aleutian Islands, scaled mountainous Kalawao County on Molokai, braved the upper reaches of Door County, Wis., and felt the barren expanse of Loving County, Texas.
But just as they were speeding south on Interstate 95 in Reid Williamson's gold Volkswagen Passat station wagon (the 2003 model on which he already has logged 44,000 miles), he spotted a suspicious sign.
" 'South County,' " the bearded Army management analyst from Annandale, Va., said. "Which I believe is a touristic designation."
Every Extra Miler's goal is to visit all 3,143 counties in the United States. Fewer than two dozen of about 300 members have gotten there. Most devote decades to the quest, spend thousands of dollars, run down their cars, hop prop planes, rack up speeding tickets, lie to their spouses, and become obsessed with geographical trivia. All in pursuit of a complete, though intangible, collection of county experiences.
Club president Mike Natale, who was sitting beside Williamson on the July 23 outing, dismissed the South County sign. An education consultant from the Pittsburgh area, Natale, 27, has been an Extra Miler half his life. He already had "completed" the five Rhode Island counties before the annual meeting, and reeled off their names as Williamson drove: Bristol, Kent, Newport, Providence, and Washington. South doesn't count.
Just what does count as a county is a popular subject of debate among club members. They generally agree on county boundaries and use the same black-and-white map to color them in as they go. But do they have to visit independent cities that lie outside county lines? What about Indian reservations? Alaskan census areas? Louisiana parishes? When a new county is created, such as six-year-old Broomfield in Colorado, do they have to return? Does flying over a county count?
Williamson arbitrated such disputes as club treasurer, secretary, and editor of the newsletter. He answered questions that arose during the meeting, when members rose one by one to announce their totals. Many were wearing blue club T-shirts that read, "The shortest distance between two points is no fun."
Those who have been to the county from which Broomfield was created don't have to return, Williamson said, but it counts from now on. Indian reservations don't count, although some members visit them anyway. (Lenny Fetterman, a retired mail carrier from Oregon, Ohio, has seen them all.) Parishes count, and so do independent cities and Alaska.
"I had a gentleman write to me recently to say he had completed everything except Alaska and the independent cities," Williamson told the group. He did not issue the man a certificate or engrave his name on the plaque that commemorates completers at the Piccadilly Museum of Automobile Memorabilia and Advertising Art in Butte, Mont.
"I'm sorry," Williamson said, "but that's not a good enough effort."
Picture Alaska. Williamson just returned from a 15,000-mile, 23-borough-census area trip. He announced at the meeting that he has six counties left to visit. Everyone clapped.
"If you all go and need a really good pilot in Kotzebue to get into the bush," he said, "I got a great one."
Alaska was a highlight, too, for Fetterman, who completed his final county seven years ago. He has gone to extremes along the way, such as hiking down a 1,600-foot mountain and braving a leper colony (Kalawao County). But he said nothing beat Alaska.
Fetterman, a former Marine who's a trim 60 and still sports a crew cut, remembered flying on a chartered Piper cub into Hooper Bay, out west on the Bering Sea.
"Eskimos were waiting and they took me and the pilot past all these drying fish, and it smelled like whale blubber," he said, "You don't get that on TV. You can read about it in a book, but it's not the same."
His companion, Marge Brown, accompanied him. Brown is a teacher and mayor of their Ohio town. She became an Extra Miler during their 11 years together, but still has reservations. Looking out the window as they soared toward Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's northern shore, for instance, when all she could see was tundra, she had visions of their demise.
"I said, 'My God, this plane goes down, they're never going to find us,' " Brown recalled.
Many members were as impressed by Brown as they were by Fetterman's travels. Few lay claim to enthusiastic companions. For them, the club is a sideline. By day, they are settled teachers, businessmen, farmers, bus drivers, lawyers, and park rangers.
But, oh, to be understood by someone who sees the world as a Monopoly board with counties, countries, even continents they "need" or "don't have yet," Extra Milers say, who feels the push to get states "down" and shares the rush that comes with "completing" a state. Someone who sees a business meeting in Topeka, Kan., as an opportunity to drive from New York and "knock off" a few counties, even if it means driving overnight and racking up speeding tickets. Someone who can rattle off the number of Washington counties (27) or see the humor in Deaf Smith County, Texas, or Hooker County, Neb. Perhaps they even know if Hazzard County, popularized by "The Dukes of Hazzard" television show, does border Chickasaw County, Ga., where the Duke boys used to flee. (Neither exists, though there are Chickasaw counties in Iowa and Mississippi.)
As members rose during the meeting to share their counts, those who had made little progress often blamed resistant families. They don't understand that seeing Niagara Falls is not the same as seeing all 62 New York counties, one man said. They're not road geeks like us, offered another. Somebody mentioned Roy Klotz, the Extra Miler who fooled his wife into thinking he got lost on family trips instead of telling her he was collecting counties along the way. Others admit to following his example, "klotzing" spouses into secret detours. Not a good plan, Williamson reminded them: Once when Klotz was sharing his story at a meeting, his wife sneaked in and his plan was foiled.
It's not surprising that members resort to subterfuge; many see collecting as a race, with added pressure as they near the finish. The monthly newsletter includes an "Extra Mile Post" listing each member's latest total. A handful of the most senior members are within a few counties of completing, including John Fitzgerald, a clean-cut Chicagoan who said that until recently, he was leading the pack in Illinois with 2,632 counties.
"I know it's not a competition, but I noticed in the newsletter that somebody else from Illinois has jumped ahead of me," Fitzgerald told the group. "I used to be number one."
He hadn't seen his rival at the meeting, and figured that since he had hit a few new counties during the trip east, "I may be ahead. Unless he's out there doing something I don't know about."
Fitzgerald drove east because flying over counties doesn't count. Some travel by bicycle, but most only check off counties they've driven through, as the club's late cofounders did. Both were license plate collectors who started Extra Milers 31 years ago to keep track of counties they visited to find plates and attend Automobile License Plate Collectors Association conventions. Many Extra Milers insist on driving to the county seat, photographing themselves there or at the county line. Some even travel with metal detectors to collect a piece of metal near each county seat.
Like so many collecting compulsions -- license plates, stamps, toothpick holders -- county counting tends to spawn similar pursuits. Most Extra Milers say the more they see, the more they want to learn and "collect." Williamson also belongs to the Highpointers Club, whose members climb the highest point in each of the states (see accompanying story), he "collects" lighthouses, and plans to see each state bird in its home state. Fetterman wants to visit every continent, Natale every major league ballpark. There are Extra Milers who have tried to eat a Big Mac at every McDonald's in America, a Blizzard at each state's Dairy Queen.
As Fetterman said of their quest: "It can be completed, but you're consumed by it. It's a beautiful America, from sea to shining sea."
Molly Hennessy-Fiske is a freelance writer in Albany, N.Y.
From the Boston Globe