Transporting a participant through a grueling six day, six state race series created a huge benefit for a geo-geek such as myself, the inherent need to cover a lot of territory. I’d driven through parts of the target area previously on a cross-country trip many years ago. I’d completed the typical tourist trek through Badlands, Mount Rushmore and Devils Tower on an Interstate 90 flyby in 1992. I didn’t have much of a chance to stop and linger during that long ago road trip. This time it would be different. I’d poke into completely obscure corners as dictated by race sites.
The series embodied two underlying premises, running and geography. The race director had to align six distinct events as close as possible to the confluence of multiple state borders to minimize travel distances, generating unusual selections removed from tourist trails. It served the needs of a very small and elite target audience; marathoners (and half-marathoners) who wished to complete a race in each of 50 US states. I held only one goal in common — the geographic portion — and that was enough. I was going to grab some rare spots on the map and leave the extreme athletic achievements to others.
We crossed a lot of state borders. Our efforts focused on passing between various small towns near state boundaries where each race would take place the following morning. Routes generally strayed away from Interstate highways although I did enjoy driving a completely legal 80 miles per hour (130 km/hr) briefly on I-90 as we left Wyoming.
I began to notice something peculiar on the lightly-traveled back country byways of the High Plains. There always seemed to be a pull-out by the side of the road at each state border where one could safely park a vehicle and walk to the boundary sign to snap a photograph. It seemed that highway officials recognized the precious few tourist attractions and went out of their way to turn anything noteworthy into a photo op. The next thing I knew, and without really trying, I’d compiled a collection of state border signs for Nebraska (above), Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Nebraska sign (map) showed Chimney Rock which I will talk about in a future installment. I didn’t stop for Colorado. I’m not sure why, I think I was getting tired of the game by then.
I completed a personally memorable state milestone during the trip that I’d been chasing for awhile. I’d long since visited all 50 US states, completing that journey more than a dozen years ago. However a handful of those crossings involved lackluster efforts, barely placing a toe on the other side of the border. My Montana "visit" had been particularly egregious, a thirty second effort when I visited Yellowstone National Park on the aforementioned cross-country trip so many years ago. One of the races took place in Baker, Montana so I spent the night there. I also spent a night in South Dakota two days later, whereas previously I’d only driven across the state without stopping. With those two events, I could now say I’d stayed at least one full night in every state.
Amidon, North Dakota (map)
Notwithstanding, counties were the real stars of the trip as I colored a slew of hard-to-reach spaces on my county counting map. Our route zigged and zagged in counterintuitive directions as I steered across as many county borders as possible while eliminating doughnut holes. I realized I might not travel this way again anytime soon. This might be my only chance. I drew a nice, solid rectangle of captured counties on the eastern side of Wyoming and Montana, and the western side of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, tallying 28 new counties in the process. My total stood at 1,301 at the end of the journey, 41.1% of counties in the United States.
As an example, the first race was held in Baker, Montana and the second race in Bowman, North Dakota. Here was the path I blazed between them.
Logic would have dictated an easy 45 minute straight-line drive to the east. Instead I drove three sides of a square for two and a half hours, capturing four new counties I would have missed otherwise: Wibaux, MT; Golden Valley, ND; Billings, ND and Stark, ND. Plus I got to visit the scenic badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. See how it worked?
That wasn’t even the most ridiculously contrived route, either. I think that honor went to day five when I drove between Chadron, Nebraska and the final race in Sterling, Colorado.
That little exercise converted a trip that should have lasted less than three hours into something extending nearly four and a half hours. However, I added four Nebraska counties that would have created a large doughnut hole otherwise: Sioux; Scotts Bluff; Banner and Kimball. The out-and-back portion also allowed me to visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site before returning to Scotts Bluff National Monument where I could cross additional county lines.
I also recorded several minor county milestone in the process.
- Counties, Plural. I have now been to counties — plural — in each of the 50 states. The fewest was Hawaii with two of five counties visited. I’m in the double digits for most states.
- Smallest of the Smallest: Wyoming had the fewest residents of any state during the 2010 Census, with a population of 563 thousand. Niobrara County had the fewest residents in Wyoming, with 2,484 people. Not only did I visit Niobrara, I stayed overnight in its county seat, Lusk. Granted there were counties in other states with smaller populations (e.g., Loving County, Texas with 82 residents). Still, I thought it was a memorable triviality to be in the least populated county in the least populated state.
- A Very Small Seat: We passed a curious sign as we drove south from the North Dakota badlands to the next race in Bowman, ND. Diminutive Amidon (map) perched along US Route 85 proclaimed itself to be the "Nation’s Smallest County Seat." Oh, and also North Dakota’s "Longest Running County Fair." I had to stop for a photo. Later I checked the claim. Wikipedia said Amidon was the smallest seat until 2010 when it was passed by Brewster, Nebraska population 17. Being the 2nd smallest seat didn’t bring the same glory, I guess, although the sign remained. At least Amidon still had the fair
Some 12MC readers recommended a visit to Carhenge since it would have fallen on the most direct route. I didn’t make it. Quite simply, county counting provided an explanation. Something had to give. I couldn’t leave any doughnut holes behind so Carhenge fell off the schedule.
See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr
Each Twelve Mile Circle journey has its own specific objectives. The western North Carolina adventure focused heavily on the burgeoning craft brewing scene. Collectively they also share common objectives, principally the pursuit of geo-oddities along with opportunities to pad my county counting totals.
I thought I did well, adding eighteen new counties with fourteen of them found in North Carolina and four in Virginia. In North Carolina I captured Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Jackson, Mitchell, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes, Yadkin and Yancey. The Virginia counties were Grayson, Floyd, Franklin and Patrick. These visits happened in six separate efforts, some of them requiring significant forethought and others pleasantly simple. I’ve numbered the efforts in chronological order and noted them on the maps below to show how I added counties sequentially throughout the trip. This labeling exercise also summarized the journey rather nicely and served as a nice bookend for this final article in the series.
North Carolina was the primary focus so I’ll begin there.
(1) Chapel Hill to Asheville
The logical path would have involved Interstate 85 from Chapel Hill and then Interstate 40 onward toward Asheville. That would have made perfect sense if I’d been trying to minimize driving time. It made no sense for this exercise. I’d already captured all of the interstate counties so it didn’t pay to repeat them.
Instead I devised several intermediary jogs that took my path through the towns of Winston-Salem, Wilksboro, Taylorsville and Lenoir. That slightly jagged track yielded new four counties: Yadkin; Wilkes; Alexander and Caldwell. I lost surprisingly little time on this track too, maybe less than an hour.
(2) Blue Ridge Parkway Loop
The wonderful Blue Ridge Parkway day-trip that included a a cave, a waterfall, the highest point of elevation in North Carolina, and a restaurant placed atop a county tripoint also netted three new counties. I captured Avery, Mitchell and Yancey that day.
(3) Oskar Blues
I mentioned before that Oskar Blues made my brewery visit list because it happened to be located in Transylvania County. I wondered if it had any connection to the Transylvania in Romania, the alleged home of vampires and other scary creatures. It didn’t. They both derived their names coincidentally from a couple of very common Latin words, trans ("across") and silva ("woods"). Thus, any place named Transylvania was merely something located beyond a forest. That certainly described western North Carolina a couple of centuries ago when the Transylvania Company tried to form a colony in that unforgiving part of the wilderness.
The Transylvania Company was organized as Louisa Company in 1774 to invest in vacant, nonpatented wild lands within the chartered limits of North Carolina and Virginia. In the fall of that year, Captain Nathaniel Hart visited the Overhill Cherokees at their Otari towns to negotiate for the lease or purchase of an immense tract of land between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers… Transylvania Company’s so-called purchase from the Indians was publicly denounced by the governors of Virginia and North Carolina, however, and the scheme was invalidated.
The Transylvania name lived-on when Transylvania County formed much later on some of the same land, in 1861.
(4) Cherokee Loop
We had another entertaining day on the Cherokee Loop that took us onto the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, then onward to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the highest point of elevation in Tennessee. It also netted Jackson and Swain Counties.
(5) Lake Lure & Chimney Rock
I admitted a couple of days ago that I’d orchestrated a day trip to Lake Lure and Chimney Rock simply to capture Rutherford County, and fill a doughnut hole on my map. It was worth a stop regardless.
(6) Asheville, NC to Roanoke, VA
Returning home, once again the logical path would have involved the Interstate Highway System, specifically I-26 and I-81 here. However I had to capture a number of quite obscure rural counties and this became the most ambitious county counting adventure of the trip. It involved a complicated series of intermediary waypoints on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge including two short out-and-back detours designed to prevent doughnut holes.
Just as we left Mouth of Wilson, Virginia on a double-back to capture Alleghany County, North Carolina — the photo at the top of the page (map) — my younger son announced he needed to pee. Immediately. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest facilities of any kind, and on a mission. Nonetheless, being the good father that I am, I pulled over to the side of the road and scouted a suitable tree to shield his act of desperation. That’s when I noticed I was standing within a patch of poison ivy. I grabbed a water bottle from the car and washed off furiously, then sped to the nearest gas station bathroom where I scrubbed my legs with soap and water repeatedly. I escaped mostly unharmed and chalked it up as another hazard of County Counting.
Don’t worry about the kid, he found a more suitable tree minus the poison ivy.
Those four new Virginia counties in an out-of-the-way corner left me within striking distance of finishing the Commonwealth. Virginia is notoriously difficult to complete because it has 95 counties plus 38 independent cities that are considered county-equivalents, for a total of 133 separate units that must be visited. I have five remaining in a fairly straight path. I figure I can knock-out the rest of Virginia in a weekend and I plan to do so within the next few months.
Western North Carolina articles:
Twelve Mile Circle faced a bit of a geographic dilemma in western North Carolina towards the end of the week. I began to notice that I might risk a doughnut hole county if I wasn’t careful. That condition would occur if I counted a bunch of contiguous counties and then left one in the middle uncovered. I’d hate to do that. I’m not getting any younger and I may not have an opportunity to come back again and clean it up.
That’s when I decided that I couldn’t leave Rutherford County unvisited even if its local seat of government had the unwieldy name of Rutherfordton. I understood the need to honor Griffith Rutherford, brigadier general in the American Revolutionary War, but couldn’t they have at least named to town simply Rutherford or even Griffith? Nonetheless I now needed to contrive a reason to stray into Rutherford with the family and avoid an unsightly doughnut hole on my county counting map. There appeared to be a nice park and a lake about 25 miles (40 kilometres) southeast of Asheville that would do the trick. It actually worked out quite nicely, both because it satisfied my ulterior motive and because it was a genuinely enjoyable spot.
The body of water turned out to be Lake Lure (map). A town of the same name hugged its shores. Lake Lure was an artificial creation of the Morse family. They dammed the Broad River within a particularly scenic Blue Ridge valley in the 1920’s, creating a roadside tourist attraction that still remains popular. The Town of Lake Lure purchased the lake in the 1960’s and turned it into a public park, including the attractive man-made beach. It was a great spot for the kids. They enjoyed the beach and playing at the adjacent water park. Later that morning we rented paddle boats and circled the lake a couple of times until the sun and humidity drove me back to a shaded shoreline. We finished the morning with lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake.
We devoted the afternoon to Chimney Rock (map), another attraction on the northwestern nub of Rutherford County. The Morse family must have had an entrepreneurial streak because they also turned Chimney Rock into a tourist destination at the turn of the last century. Otherwise the outcrop probably would have been just another granite pinnacle. They saw its appeal and went so far as to bore an elevator shaft through the cliff nearby so visitors could reach the promontory almost effortlessly. The state of North Carolina purchased the property in 2007 and Chimney Rock State Park became one of the state’s newest additions. Along with the 315 foot (96 metre) spire itself, the park offered miles of hiking trails and a magnificent waterfall.
The elevator was closed for repairs during our visit so we had to climb the switchback stairways up to Chimney Rock. That wasn’t as bad as it sounded. There were plenty of intermediary ledges that offered increasingly better views of the valley far below so it broke-up the climb into manageable chunks. My younger son and I decided to climb even higher while the rest of the family stopped at the snack bar for ice cream. I’d noticed a wonderfully-named promontory mentioned on the trail guide and I was drawn to it — Exclamation Point!
I was in pretty good shape, having completed the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail recently. I had no problem climbing several hundred steps. My son had abundant childhood energy so we practically flew up the mountain, leaving most of the other visitors in the dust as we climbed up to Exclamation Point at 2,480 ft. (756 m.). We overheard two sweaty and exhausted teenagers commiserating with their friend on the summit. They’d been passed by "an old man and a kid." That was us! Maybe their embarrassment will encourage them to put down the Cheetos and get off the couch every once and awhile. Yes, I felt smug. I admit it.
Another Exclamation Point
Exclamation Point was such an awesome name that I had to see if it had ever been used elsewhere. Actually, the U.S. Geological Survey listed only one Explanation Point in its Geographic Names Information System, and it wasn’t even the one in North Carolina. Apparently the Explanation Point near Chimney Rock was an unofficial designation. The only Explanation Point recognized by the USGS could be found in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Montrose County, Colorado. Hikers can experience this outcrop by taking a moderate route on the North Rim of the park, three miles round trip on the North Vista Trail.
It looks like I found another spot to place on my list of things to visit someday.
Western North Carolina articles: