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 jgrant@themercury.com

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."


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