Why is this man standing here foolishly next to an otherwise nondescript road sign, waist-high in weeds by a railroad track? What is so special about Crawford County, Wisconsin? Nothing much, although I’m sure its residents would tend to disagree. However this was a very special location for me since it represented the 1,000th county in the United States that I’ve visited.
I achieved my 50th and final of the United States a number of years ago. I didn’t want to stop counting and adding to my international tally wasn’t going to happen very quickly with small children in tow. Instead, I turned my attention to the tertiary governing units of the United States, the individual counties and independent cities that collectively cover the geography of each State. This produced a remarkably different perspective. Instead of my map being completely covered with every State visited, it looked like this:
Well that’s hardly any territory at all. I went from smug to humbled in a single stroke. Sure, I’d been to every State but sometimes only to a single county, and I’d missed huge swaths of the American landscape. Thus began a quest to visit every one of those counties no matter how small, isolated or insignificant.
That is no simple task. Currently, as I write this in July 2009, there are 3,141 county-equivalent geographic units in the United States, including formally designated counties, the wacky little independent cities found primarily in Virginia, plus the District of Columbia. There are a number of other complexities including States where the county structure exists mainly as a formality, or where they are called boroughs or parishes, so this count considers the units designated by the U.S. Census Bureau for its decennial survey and for other statistical purposes.
Also, 3,141 is not a static number. New counties are added over time (e.g., Broomfield County, Colorado) and independent cities sometimes meld into their surrounding counties ( e.g., Clifton Forge, Virginia), both occurring within the last few years. Actually I just noticed I need to revisit this number as it appears a couple of changes have taken place in Alaska within the last year. Consider 3,141 approximate for now.
So I found myself in Crawford County, population ~17,000, home of the town of Prairie du Chien along the Great River Road. It was quite a lovely place, actually. I stumble across all sorts of interesting places as I collect new counties like a birdwatcher collects rare sightings. On this particular trip I gathered ten, which now puts me at 1,005 (still, only 32%)
- Buffalo County
- Crawford County
- Pepin County
- Pierce County
- Richland County
- Vernon County
- Allamakee County
- Clayton County
- Delaware County
- Dubuque County
And just to clear up the mystery I posed on Day 2 of my Great River Roadtrip, the reason for the southward jog was indeed to catch a couple of new counties. I figured I wouldn’t be back this way for quite awhile so I better collect them while I could. The family is somewhat understanding as long as it doesn’t take us too far off track.
It’s a bit of a compulsion but certainly no worse than those who collect tripoints, highpoints or various other geographical oddities. I almost feel respectable now that I’ve cracked a thousand.