Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More News about County Collector Margaret Gates

Yesterday I posted an article from The Manhattan Mercury about Margaret Gates, who had just completed her lifelong goal of visiting every county in the United States. In an email from Jessica Grant, the writer for that article, I learned that there had been an earlier piece about the same woman, when she still had 18 counties to go on her quest. Here it is:

The USA, one county at a time
Retiree set to complete quest to visit furthest reaches of each state

Jessica Grant

Margaret Gates shows maps of Nebraska and South Dakota and the handful of counties (in white) she has left to visit. Staff photo by David Mayes

Few know the United States the way Margaret Gates knows it. .

The octogenarian has traveled the country for much of her life, and by the end of May, she will have been to every county in America.

"I only have 18 counties left — nine in Nebraska and nine in South Dakota," Gates said.

Her travels began soon after she was born. Her father, Frank C. Gates, was a botany professor at Kansas State University and each summer, before heading to the University of Michigan to teach for two months, he would take the family on meandering three-week trips to collect specimens for the herbariams he helped keep.

"Dad was trying to collect specimens from every county in the country," Gates explained. "My dad believed in teaching whoever he was with. All winter, David (her brother) and I would study maps and we got to help plan the trips."

Her father had a U.S. map on which each county was delineated, and Gates still has the map, each tiny square colored in, with the year the family visited the county marked in her father's neat penmanship.

Gates, a small, sharp woman who's spry for her 83 years, is straightforward with a sly sense of humor. She's a treasure trove of travel information but has no plans to record her stories.
"I don't write well," she said. "Everybody says to write my stories down, but I just like to talk. If you start asking questions, I won't stop talking."

She says she can remember the days when people still traveled by train — her family didn't get its first automobile until 1929, so most of her early travels were by rail. She says she remembers traveling on the first highways.

"The roads didn't have highway numbers then, just the names," Gates said, "and the only paved roads were in towns."

As she talks about her travels, she notes that Georgia is second only to Texas in the number of counties in a state, and that Alaska doesn't have counties, just population districts .

She says she remembers the first time she saw the word "motel."

"People didn't travel much in those days and we were in La Jolla, Calif., when I first saw the word," she said. "My dad told me it was a contraction of the words 'motor' and 'hotel.'"

The Gates family traveled in the days when access to public monuments was a bit more lax, and one of her fondest memories is sliding down President Lincoln's nose — at Mt. Rushmore, that is.

"(Her family was) at the top of Mt. Rushmore — we got to go to the top when they were doing repairs on Lincoln's nose," she said. "One of the men had left his jackhammer down on the nose. He asked if I wanted to ride down the ropes with him to get it, so I did."

Gates traveled with only the company of a string of Boston terriers, but said she was never concerned for her wellbeing.

"I never felt unsafe," she said. "I drove a 1959 TR30 and would throw a sleeping bag down on the side of the road and sleep. People told me it wasn't safe, but I never felt that way."
When asked what her favorite place to visit was, she sighs.

"Everyone asks me that," she said, "but the natural beauty of this country is our best kept secret. Every place has great spots. The Blue Ridge Mountains in Tennessee, when the rhododendrons are blooming — there's just something unearthly about that.

"But for me, the joy of traveling is seeing the horizon," she continued. "I used to drive a convertible and loved to drive across the plains at night and tilt my head up to watch the stars."

In 1991, when she retired as head librarian at Manhattan Public Library, Gates decided to finish her travels. She made a solid dent in her project, visiting the corners of America in a motorhome.

The travel project was almost completed when Gates lost her sight last summer to wet macular degeneration, a disease in which blood vessels under the eye's retina leak and cause scarring.

The bookworm says losing her sight was heartbreaking, but she's now discovered books on tape. She lives at Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community with her Boston terrier (who also happens to be blind). She still sees images out of the corners of her eyes, but said she has no plans to drive again.

Gates will finish her trip this summer with the help of longtime friends Charlie and Alice Michaels.

Although she has almost completed her quest, Gates said she will never feel as if her travels are finished.

"We tend to do the things we want to, don't we?" she mused. "Everything in life is a choice and I just happened to be more adventuresome than most."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Manhattan, Kansas, Woman Completes Her County Quest

Kansas Photo by J. Stephen Conn

Article from The Manhattan Mercury:

At journey's end, with good friends
Local woman finishes lifelong quest
Jessica Grant

After 83 years and more than 3,000 counties, Margaret Gates has completed her exploration of America.

Her journey began with her father — former K-State Botany Professor Frank C. Gates — as he collected specimens from every county in the United States. Margaret Gates later made it her goal to finish visiting each county, a goal she achieved a couple of weeks ago in Bennett County, S.D.

"I feel like I'm finished," Gates said. "It's like in the Caribbean when the people have sold their wares, they throw up their hand and say 'I'm finished!' That's how I feel now." When she entered the final county, her traveling companions, Charlie and Alice Michaels and Alice's sister Mary Reinke, produced noisemakers, balloons and a bottle of champagne, and played Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again."

Gates has photos in which she is releasing those balloons, her small frame appearing to almost float away in the strong wind. Attached to the balloons was a note that read "This celebrates a lifelong quest to visit every county in every state in the USA. Bennett Co., S. Dakota, being the final one. God Bless America; The Beautiful." At the end of the note, Gates included her e-mail address, in hopes someone finds the note soon and lets her know where the balloons ended their journey.

Although she has a tough exterior, Gates says she teared up a bit when she popped the cork off the chamgagne.

"I'm just very satified, grateful and pleased with the people who helped me finish this trip," she said.

Alice Michaels said she and Reinke consider Gates family, and they were glad to help her finish her journey.

"We just had the most fun on the trip," Michaels said. "We found so many ways to enjoy it. Having finally finished this lifelong thing was overwhelming ... I think it took a little while for it to sink in. That evening, we kept saying 'We did it! We did it!' "

As the Mercury reported earlier this spring, Gates had only 18 counties left in her quest; nine in Nebraska and nine is South Dakota.

People often ask why she saved counties so close to Kansas for the end. In Nebraska, a group of county commissioners who'd heard of her travels asked her to attend their meeting, and asked her that question.

"I don't think that fast on my feet, but Charlie (Michaels) answered the question for me," Gates said. "He said 'she wanted to save the best for last.'"

At that meeting, Gates learned about ethanol production and how it is expected to affect the state of Nebraska.

"That's the beauty of this type of travel," she said. "The fun is to meet people and learn. You don't have that on the interstates."

When asked what her favorite places to visit were, Gates sighs, a pained look on her face. She says she could provide many lists of the counties she's enjoyed, but that narrowing it down is tough. After a meandering (but pleasant) conversation, she did provide The Mercury with a list.

"It's hard to rank counties. Each is so different," Gates said. "I often think of places with great nostalgia."

She gets a faraway look in her eyes as she speaks, the kind of look that reveals as much as it veils. Gates has countless memories of her travels — many of which she's more than willing to share — but that gaze indicates plenty of memories that she'll always keep to herself.

She doesn't have plans set, Gates said, but she will undoubtedly do more traveling.

"I'm just glad I was able to complete this trip," she said. "I never thought I would do it before I died."

Her own Top 10 Riley County. "I wouldn't have lived here half of my life if I didn't love it. Living out at Tuttle Creek was a joy."

Emmett County, Mich. "I spent my summers there as a child. It was gorgeous, but I wouldn't have wanted to live there in the winter."

Cheboygan County, Mich. (Neighboring county of Emmett County).

Craven County, N.C.

Fayette County, Pa. "This is where Falling Water — Frank Lloyd Wright's famous house — is. Every inch of it is a marvel. Everyone should go there and close their eyes and marvel at how one man could envision this. When the laurel bushes and the rhododendrons are blooming it's lovely."

Stone County, Mo. "There were only 260 people living in the County seat when I lived there."

Lee County, Fla., Sanibel Island.

Suffolk County, N.Y.

Middlesex County, Conn. "I was there in May and the trees were that new green they get right before they burst with color."

Humboldt County, Calif. "It's backwoodsy. I loved the flora and fauna and it hasn't been spoiled like so much of the California landscape. The redwoods are so spectacular."