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.


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