Friday, February 16, 2007

Article about Alabama County Counter Robert Burckhalter

The following article appeared in this morning's issue of The Crimson White - Online, a publication from the University of Alabama.

Biology instructor gives unique lessons to students
By Brett Bralley

Contributing Writer
February 16, 2007

Biology instructor Robert Burckhalter has been to all 50 states in the country and all but 78 counties. The U.S. map on the wall of his office has dark lines and curves all over it, outlining every road he's ever traveled.

"You will never meet anyone who has seen more in the United States than me," Burckhalter said.

Burckhalter teaches introduction-level biology courses at the University, and every summer he travels the United States studying plants and making collections. Visiting every county in the United States is a goal he set in high school, Burckhalter said.

Burckhalter teaches Biology 116 and Biology 108, which is a class for nonmajors. He has been teaching at the University for the past four years.

"I'm always casually dressed," he said. "And I ride a bicycle."

Burckhalter said he has taught around 14,000 students throughout his career, and he enjoys seeing them outside of class. He said he tries to keep his classes entertaining.

"Teaching and being around students helps me feel younger and more energized," Burckhalter said.

All of Burckhalter's traveling and in-depth knowledge makes his classes interesting, some students said.

Trey Velleggia, a sophomore majoring in business administration and Spanish, took Biology 108 with Burckhalter.

"I enjoyed when he would share personal stories of his explorations and different places he has been," Velleggia said. "He's very entertaining and realistic."

Beth Lester, a freshman with an undecided major, took Biology 116 and said she enjoyed learning Burckhalter's interesting facts that went beyond what was in the textbook.

"He talked about 'watermelon snow,'" Lester said. "It's a type of algae that when it's on snow it tastes like watermelon. But it's toxic so you can only taste it and spit it out. How unfortunate."

Burckhalter received his bachelor's degree at the University of Colorado and came to the University to earn his master's degree in 1985 and his Ph.D. in 1990.

"There is incredible research going on here," Burckhalter said. "In all my traveling, Alabama has the friendliest people I have ever met."

Writing a book is another undertaking Burckhalter has accomplished. From "St. Augustine to Bellingham" is a detailed route from St. Augustine, Fla., to Bellingham, Wash., that is completely rural and goes through no major cities. Altogether, the route has only 201 traffic lights. It ends at the Alaska Ferry Terminal in Bellingham Bay.

The book has been published by the UA Cartographic Laboratory, but Burckhalter would like to find another publisher, renaming the book "The Most Rural Route Across America," he said. The new version would also contain more photos and narrations, he said.

Burckhalter said his draw toward plant biology stemmed from his travels. "I was traveling and I saw plants and I wondered if I could eat those things if I had to," he said. "I started to learn on my own.

"The more I learn the more I realize how little I really know. It scares the heck out of me," he said.

Here is the link to The Crimson White - Online:

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Collecting Counties: Hereditary or Acquired?

Counting Counties with Karen in Arizona

Although I was 50 years old before I started keeping a list of the counties I had visited, I wonder if the kink that makes me want to count counties might be hereditary.

My parents were not county counters, but both of them traveled extensively and kept a record of all the states and foreign countries they had been to - all 50 states and more than 60 countries.

Dad did have a younger sister, Fay, who is a county counter. I had been keeping a record of my own counties visited for a few years when I stopped in to see Aunt Fay at her home in Georgia. When I told her of my hobby, I was both surprised and pleased to learn that she had been counting counties for much longer than me.

Aunt Fay has lived on the same street all of her 77 years, and has never owned an automobile or even had a drivers license. Because of these limitations, she never aspired to visit every county in the United States. Her world didn't extend much past the State of Georgia. Still, as a young woman, she set out to visit each one of the 159 counties in that state - and did it.

Georgia is the largest state in land area east of the Mississippi River, and also has much smaller counties than many other states. For that reason, Georgia has more counties than any state in the union except for Texas. Collecting those counties is a daunting task for anyone. Aunt Fay did it by traveling via train, bus, or hitching a ride with family and friends. I wonder if anyone else has ever visited every county in Georgia without driving. She has my utmost admiration.

Even though it took me five decades of life to begin counting counties, I have collected similar travel goals since I was a kid. When I was only seven or eight years old I loved climbing trees so much that I decided I would climb every tree in the world. Of course my world was very small at that time. I climbed the dozen or so trees in our yard in Cleveland, Tennessee, and upon completion of each tree nailed the cap off of a soda bottle into the base of the tree to indicate that I had climbed it. Soon I had nailed bottle caps to every tree in our neighborhood, and also on many of the trees in Harrison Bay State Park, where Mom and Dad often took our family for picnics. I even climbed trees and nailed bottle caps in the woods near my Grandmother's house in Georgia.

Needless to say, I gave up on that pursuit at about the same time I quit believing in Santa Claus. There are just too many trees. Also, old trees die and new ones keep sprouting all the time. Later I have "collected" other geographically related things such as states, state high points, foreign countries, national park sites, hiking trails and more.

Maybe I collect travel experiences and keep a record of them because doing such runs in my family. Other people seem to come about county counting by catching it from someone else. My wife, Karen, is a good example. Shortly after we were married, just five years ago, she made a list of all the counties she had visited and came up with a little more than 200. Today her list is more than 900 and growing rapidly. Karen eagerly records her counties visited on every trip we make, and before one journey has ended she is already planning the next. Did she catch the bug from me? Maybe. But really I think Karen had the traits of a county counter all along - just waiting for the right spark to awaken it within her.

Not everyone has the right stuff to be a county counter. It's not a goal for a single vacation - or even a year of traveling. To follow the dream of visiting every county in the United States to completion usually takes decades of consecrated effort. In fact, if the pursuit of visiting every county doesn't consume you, you'll never make it.

When I talk of counting counties some people respond with yawns or glazed expressions and quickly change the subject to something in which they are interested. I've had a few even rebuff me for counting counties, saying it is silly, or a worthless pursuit. I've decided that these folks don't have the same gene mix as me. They just don't get it, and they never will.

It seems to me that the thing which motivates a person to count counties is both hereditary and something you catch. First, you've got to have the makings of a county counter inside you: curiosity, the love for travel and adventure, and be a compulsive goal setter and list maker. If you've got these characteristics it still doesn't make you a county counter. Now you need a catalyst. It may be an article you read, a conversation with a friend, or some other spark that ignites your vision.

If you've got what it takes to be a county counter, you know it. If not, you probably haven't read this far.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

What Counts for these U.S. Travelers is Counties

Article from the Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minnesota

For Bill Tyler, there's no such thing as flyover country.

That's because the St. Paul resident is an Extra Miler, someone who has a goal of visiting every county in the United States.

That's 3,141 counties, "more or less," said J. Reid Williamson, secretary, editor and treasurer of the Extra Miler Club ( The number depends on how you choose to count the dozens of independent cities in the country, the handful of counties that have merged or divided over the years or the former leper colony in Hawaii that's listed as a county by the U.S. Census even though it doesn't have a county court system.

But it's not deciding which county to count that's the main challenge to being an Extra Miler. It's the sheer magnitude of the task of bumping along thousands of back-road miles just to say you've seen every bit of the nation.

These are people who scour the Internet to exchange tips on whether a certain highway nicks a county border. They take a different route every time they drive to the parents' for the holidays so they can bag a few extra locations. They drag relatives to lonely corners of the nation like Ziebach, S.D., or Bee, Texas.

"Sometimes, the trip itself is a detour," said Tyler, 45. "You get across the county border. You do a U-turn, and you get right back out."

It takes most people decades of cross country travel to complete the task, even when they retroactively trace the path of all those family driving vacations they endured as a kid.

"It's a daunting task," said Williamson, a 58-year-old U.S. Army analyst who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. "Driving across Texas just to get 254 counties can seem tiresome."

Out of more than 300 official club members, just over 20 claim to have finished visiting all the counties in the U.S.

Williamson has three counties left, but since they're in the remote Alaskan islands of Kodiak, the Eastern Aleutians and the Western Aleutians, Williamson figures he'll have to spend about $2,000 for the plane and boat trip needed before he can finish shading in the only blank spots in his national county map.

"I'm hoping to do it in 2007," he said.

"I don't know if I'll ever probably complete," said Tyler, a 45-year-old Web developer who has visited 2,051 counties.

According to the code of the Extra Milers, you can count a county if you drive, walk, pedal, swim, ski or boat across the county line. It counts even if someone else is driving the car and you are asleep during your visit. The only thing that doesn't count is flying over the county in a plane because "it's just too hard to see the signs that say 'Entering Beaufort County.' "

It's strictly on the honor system, but some Extra Milers like to add extra requirements to their quests.

Some feel compelled to take a picture of themselves at the county boundary sign or visit an attraction in every county or get someone in the county courthouse to sign a logbook, a task that adds even more miles to their odyssey because some counties have two county seats.

"We have at least two people doing it by bike," Williamson said.

As long as they're spending so much time on the road, Extra Milers also tend to add other geographical collecting challenges, like hiking to the highest or lowest point in each state or bowling, golfing or scuba diving in every state.

There's a guy who has a Web page about his whirlwind visit to all 88 counties in Ohio — he did it in 24 hours. And another guy who wanted to eat a Big Mac in every McDonald's in North America. Some want to cross every state-to-state border or even every county-to-county border in the country.

David Sturrock, a political science professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, has logged visits to 1,805 counties, including a mule ride to Kalawao County in Hawaii, the former leper colony that is now a historical park.

"By my count, I'm 57.5 percent done."

He also likes to collect congressional districts. There are 435 of those, a number that keeps growing, thanks to redistricting.

Tyler, an avid St. Paul Saints fan, is also collecting visits to ballparks the Saints play in.
"There's this sort of obsessive, got to get them all, collect them all, sort of thing," Tyler said.

Extra Milers also tend to collect nongeographical things.

Bill Hafker Jr., of Donnelly, Minn., also collects antique cars and has almost 23,000 45 rpm records. Hafker, a catastrophe insurance adjuster, said he drives about 30,000 miles a year. He figures he might be able to finish the counties in the Lower 48 in about 10 years.

"I don't fly, so Hawaii is going to be real tough," he said.

Extra Miler Patrick Desbonnet, a letter carrier from Brooklyn Center, has almost 1,000 counties as well as 4,000 license plates.

The Extra Milers Club, in fact, was started in 1973 by a couple of license plate collectors who were comparing places they had been. Extra Milers hold an annual meeting at the same time and place as the much larger American License Plate Collectors Association convention.

For many Extra Milers, the hobby begins long before they discover — usually on the Internet — there is a club of people like them.

Tyler, for example, was a toddler when his father started the family on the county-collecting hobby, filling in maps for every family member with colored markers after every long road trip.

"I can't remember a time when I wasn't doing it," he said.

"The trips were at times grueling and full of 'detours,' " wrote Tyler in an e-mail. "That on top of taking the less-direct routes to any destination, which often annoyed my mother (as well as my own wife)."

According to Williamson, county collecting appeals to "the semi-adventurous."
"It's someone who wants some scenic adventure but nothing too dangerous," he said.

Extra Milers say the quest forces them to see pretty much everything this country has to offer, both geographically and socially.

"If you dislike something like flatlands or mountains, this is something you don't want to do," Williamson said.

"It gives you a reason to see many parts of the country that people just don't see," Tyler said.

"You tell people about it and their eyes kind of glaze over," said Desbonnet.

But "there's something everywhere. There's just something to see everywhere," Haf-ker said.

Richard Chin can be reached at or 651-228-5560.