I Visited Every County in the U.S.—and Yes, There’s a Club for That

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My decades-long, map-hopping quest is a reminder that ‘the shortest distance between two points is no fun’

By Brian O’Connor ’70

Some people keep track of how many states they have been to; I keep track of counties. There are 3,143 counties (or equivalents) in the United States—and, as of 2021, I have visited all of them.

My quest took over 50 years to complete. When I graduated from Cornell, I got in my new VW Beetle (which I still have in 2023) and drove down to New Haven, CT, to pick up my best friend from high school, who had just graduated from Yale.

Together, we drove 11,000 miles around the country in a month.

Brian O'Connor

A few years later, I bought a Rand McNally Road Atlas and discovered that the index listed not only cities and towns, but counties as well. I remembered the route we’d taken, so I started checking off the counties we’d traveled through.

I subsequently added counties I knew I’d been through on family trips when I was growing up, and ones I’d traversed on a train trip from Chicago to the West Coast and back on a Glee Club tour as 1968 turned into 1969.

I would check off the counties in the index, with notations for what vehicle I was in; after a while, things got so cluttered that I put everything on a spreadsheet.

I have always enjoyed looking at maps, especially of the U.S. There are lots of interesting places to see, both beautiful and historic, and they won’t come to you; you have to go there, even venturing off the interstate to do it.

Brian O'Connor standing in from of the post office in Dillingham, AK.
Continuing the quest, in the state nicknamed “the last frontier.”

I viewed the process of visiting all the counties much like completing a collection. The goal is clear, and the “hunt” can be interesting and challenging. The math professor in me liked finding the most efficient way to plan a route in order to hit as many counties as possible with minimal driving—à la the famous “traveling salesman problem.”

In 2014, I discovered the Extra Miler Club, whose members have that same crazy goal. Their motto is, “The shortest distance between two points is no fun.” No special documentation is required; we are basically on the honor system.

While flying over a county does not count, it is perfectly acceptable to drive across a county line, and then turn around—because, as the club’s president says, “If you weren’t there, where were you?”

I viewed the process of visiting all the counties much like completing a collection.

I had never paid attention to Alaska, as that state does not have counties, but boroughs and census districts instead. However, those—like the parishes in Louisiana and the 38 independent cities in Virginia—are viewed by the club as “county equivalents.”

As a result, in 2015, I set out to grab the cities in Virginia I had not already visited, but was only partly successful due to nasty Memorial Day traffic. Later that year, I bagged the rest in my recently purchased Toyota Prius. One especially nice moment was having dinner with Larry Lewkow ’70, my fellow resident on the third floor of U-Hall 3, whom I hadn’t seen in 45 years.

As time went on, the endeavor morphed from “how many counties I have” to “I wonder how many I can get” to “maybe I can get them all.” In New Mexico in 2005, I hit the 2,000 mark.

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Brian O'Connor holding a sign that says "County #3143" next to a sign marking the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass, elevation 11,990 feet.
In Colorado, logging the final county.

I hit the 3,000 mark in California in 2016. Two years later, my whole family went on a land-and-sea excursion to Alaska. That got me about half of what I needed, so the next year I meticulously planned a trip to finish off the state. It had 28 takeoffs and landings, plus a trip on the Alaska State Ferry to visit the various boroughs in the Aleutian Islands.

Unfortunately, I scheduled the ferry for the one week in 42 years that it went on strike—so instead of four days on the Tustumena, I spent four days in the town of Homer. In addition, the regional airline Ravn Alaska canceled two of the flights I had booked, adding two more places for a subsequent trip.

And 2020 didn’t work—not because of the pandemic, but because Ravn Alaska ceased operations. The next year, though, they were back in business, and I was successful with the flights and the ferry in June 2021.

That only left 33 counties in the southern half of Colorado standing between me and completion. I flew to Denver, rented a car, and ended my quest on 7/14/21 (a good “multiples of seven” date) in Clear Creek County, CO (good alliteration).

When I got back, my family threw me a surprise party—complete with friends, a cake, and a collage depicting my endeavor. At the 2021 Extra Miler Club annual meeting, I received a plaque attesting that I was the 66th member to achieve county immortality.

A cake with a map of the U.S. that says "Congrats on going the extra miles, Brian!"
A celebratory confection.

Completing my quest gave me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, a culmination after many years of effort.

It also is a good conversation topic. When I meet people, I like to ask where they’re from, and I can usually relate that to my own experience.

Best of all, even if they’re from a town I’ve never heard of, I can always say excitedly, “Oh, I’ve been in your county!”

Brian O’Connor ’70 holds a PhD in mathematics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is in his 46th year of teaching at Tennessee Tech University, where he has served on the faculty senate for four decades. Since 2007, he has moderated the local PBS station’s High School Academic Bowl. He and his wife have two children and a grandson.

(All images provided.)

Published March 28, 2023

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