Fritz Keppler of Arlington, Virginia recently discovered my humble Twelve Mile Circle blog as he searched for the boundaries of the Sandoval County exclave. He’s quickly become a regular reader and contributor in the comments section over the last few weeks. One early comment caught my eye in particular. I fixated on its enormity as it had an opportunity to sink into my consciousness. As you know I’m a relentless counter of things, whether they may be waterfalls, lighthouses, fortifications, ferries, breweries & brewpubs, or all the many geo-oddities you see featured on these pages. In particular, I have a soft spot for County Counters even though I’ve barely cracked a thousand on my own.
Fritz not only counts counties like many of us here on the 12MC do, but he also counts all the possible crossing combinations between counties in both directions. His accomplishments are a complete order of magnitude beyond what I’ve ever even attempted to do, and much more successfully accomplished I might add. I feel like such a slacker compared to Fritz and I will now use his example as positive motivation.
Here is the comment that knocked me over:
… [i] have as a more recent goal to try to cross all 18,769 places where counties abut upon one another (or foreign states or provinces) by line or point. I’ve managed to cross 15,074, and there are quite a few without roads/paths or bridged waterways which will remain uncrossable, but it’s fun to try to do it.
I contacted Fritz off-line to see if he might be interested in answering a few questions, and sharing his experiences with the 12MC audience. He graciously accepted the opportunity for an interview and you will see the amazing results below. I am sure that you will have questions and comments of your own so please feel free to post them so that Fritz can see them. Also, he might be willing to share the spreadsheet template he developed to track his boundary crossings, assuming you’re prepared to take your County Counting to the next level, and if you ask kindly.
I’m even more impressed after the interview. I think you will be too.
How did you get started with county counting? How long have you been doing this? When did you switch to counting county border crossings?
Actually it all goes back to when I first started traveling with my parents. I’m from New Orleans originally, and the first time we traveled to Mississippi, I noticed on the sign they had the words "Hancock County" written, so I asked my Dad what a county was, and he explained that it was like a parish in Louisiana. I found that exotic, and started marking gas station maps with our travels (they were free back then!). I kept these, and eventually in high school I started noting what counties I had been in, and approximately when and in which order. And first handwritten, then typewritten, eventually on computer.
In the Extra Miler Club, of which I am a member, one of the people there mentioned something about crossing lines, and suggested a list of possible lines. However, he only considered simple lines, not including what direction crossed. And I found that his data was a bit deficient for my purposes, so I started going over my DeLorme Street Atlas (I think at that time 7.0) and examining each and every line, and noting whether they appeared to be crossable or not. Basically, if a road was indicated with a name or number I counted it crossable, but if it had no name I decided at the time that I would consider it at least temporarily "uncrossable". Some of these lines have proven to be easily crossable later, but others not. (I use the quotation marks on purpose, since in effect all lines are crossable, it just depends upon how much time, effort and expense is to be expended in crossing them.)
Establishing this database started in summer 2001. It took quite a few months. In the meantime, when I learned of the establishment of Broomfield County, Colorado on 15 November 2001, I decided to go there to be present on that date. (I missed the establishment of Cibola NM in 1981and La Paz AZ in 1983, because I didn’t hear of their coming into being until after the fact.) My database of lines was not sufficiently developed at that time, so on my way out there I missed several vectors of crossing, some of which I have crossed since, but not all. I was present at the newly established courthouse of Broomfield County at midnight on 15 November (with only street sweeping vehicles to help celebrate the event), and before going to sleep that night I crossed all the lines that the new county abutted against. (Earlier that evening I had crossed the Adams/Boulder line, which would become extinct after the new county was established.) I also went to the highpoint that evening, as well as the next morning.
Upon return from this trip, I was able to get my database into sufficient shape that I began to take trips throughout Virginia and nearby states for the sole purpose of crossing lines which I had missed in previous journeys. Nowadays, whenever I go anywhere, I try to plan a route to cross as many new lines as possible. I feel obliged to cross the line in both directions, so I turn around and cross in the other direction, then resume my journey. This has occasionally led to my being stopped by police and the Border Patrol, especially near the Mexican border, and I showed them my maps and records. Never any real problem, mostly they are amused or baffled.
What was your most memorable new county or crossing?
Most memorable county probably would be Broomfield, see above, since I took a trip of several thousand miles just to get to it!
Most memorable line, I would have to say it involved crossing from Richardson, Nebraska to Doniphan, Kansas, and then on a short ways to cross into Brown KS before returning the same way. It was fairly late in the evening, and these lines were on the Iowa Sac and Fox Indian Reservation. My movements were apparently suspicious, so after I had crossed back from Brown and before I got back to Richardson, I was stopped by the tribal police, who questioned me, looked at my maps and records, and even had a German Shepherd sniff my car for drugs. Apparently there was some difficulty with white people dealing drugs to the tribe members. The policeman was quite polite and respectful, asking permission for the dog to inspect the car, but I’m sure that if I had not given permission, things would have deteriorated quickly. Of course they found nothing, and I continued on my way, crossing over into Holt County, Missouri before stopping for the night. Not expecting such a thing to happen, I was a bit perturbed.
More happily, up in Adirondack Park NY last October I was looking for a way to cross the Hamilton/Saratoga line, which I had considered to be "uncrossable", but it looked like it might be doable. So I drove to the end of a road there and was looking for any trail, when a nearby homeowner whistled to attract my attention. I went over to him, and explained what I was doing. Once he was assured that I was up to no mischief, he walked with me a ways to show me an old logging road which led up to the ridge where the line was. The old road was in poor shape, but I was able to find the line with the help of my GPS (DeLorme, with built in Topo Maps). It was very kind of that man to help me.
Which one was the most difficult?
So far, I would have to say this involved the line between Oglethorpe and Oconee in Georgia. My map indicated that a road crossed the Oconee River, but when I got there, the road stopped and the river unbridged (apparently never having had a bridge at that site). Having come quite a ways to get to this point, I was determined to cross the line, so I waded the river. Fortunately the water was only waist high, and it was summer (2008) and the water was warm. But I didn’t know in advance how deep the water would be, so I took a chance. Only one other line, in West Virginia, did I have to cross a stream by foot, but this was a small stream (Little Kanawha River) and had lots of stones to hop across.
How do you plan your crossing adventures? Do you put together detailed plans in advance or do you take a more ad hoc approach when arriving in a new area?
I generally plan a detailed route in advance, trying to cross as many lines as possible when going anywhere. There are not too many "crossable" lines left to be crossed east of the Mississippi (except a fairly large number in extreme south Florida, four of which I have crossed in one direction back in 1959(!), so I have to cross in the other direction sometime). I can of course change my plans when necessary, if I see that a line might be accessible that I didn’t see when making my route. I have a series of paper maps showing borders only (made from DeLorme Street Atlas), with a short black line showing all "crossable" lines needing crossing in both directions, a red line with an arrow if I require one direction only, a green line if the line is "uncrossable" due to lack of road or trail, and a blue line if there is an unbridged or unconveyanced watercourse blocking access to the crossing. An "X" marks the quadripoints that I have not yet accessed, using a similar color scheme, and a blue circle indicating the infamous quintipoint in Lake Okeechobee.
What do you like to do when you’re not counting?
When I’m not at work (for the German Armed Forces Command at Dulles), I enjoy participating in a number of forums online, particularly one for fans of the movie Brokeback Mountain, where I’m a moderator. I’m afraid that Facebook has come to take up an increasing amount of computer time, ever since a friend from college finally succeeded in getting me to join that. Other than reading, that takes up just about all of my spare time! Due to the Internet, my partner and I seldom watch TV or go to movies anymore.
I’ve seen instances where people will try to visit every county in a given state in a single 24 hour period. Have you participated in similar extreme counting marathons?
I have also heard of people doing this, but for some reason I have not developed any interest in participating in such an endeavor. I don’t put any time constraints on my travels, other than when trying to get together with friends and participating in various events, and of course the major constraint of vacation time from work (I do get 26 workdays off per year, which helps!)
What tools are absolute necessities on the road (e.g., specific maps? GPS? Good music? an RV?)
I use AAA paper maps for planning purposes, and for greater detail I have a complete set of DeLorme paper street atlases. I didn’t get a DeLorme GPS with built-in topographical maps until 2007, so before then I had to pretty much guess when lines were unsigned. In several places I had to drive back and forth quite a few miles on a road to make sure that I had actually crossed the line. In one place in Texas the GPS indicated the line at one location, and the signage at another. I would go by the signage in questionable cases, but I did cross the line both ways in both places, just in case.
On the road I have some CD’s (I especially love playing Western movie soundtracks when travelling out West!), but other than listening to the NPR news programs in the morning and evening, I tend to listen most to XM Sirius Radio Classics, old-time radio dramas and other shows. Quite addicted to that! At home I regularly listen to the Big Broadcast Sunday nights on WAMU.
Believe it or not, I just drive a regular subcompact car, currently a Toyota Corolla, before that a Honda Civic and a Saturn SW1 wagon. An RV would come in handy on some of the roads I’ve been over, but I just can’t afford such a vehicle. No major vehicle problems so far, though I have ruined a number of tires because of the condition of the roads I was driving on.
How do you keep track of what you’ve counted?
When I was growing up, I just marked maps, then handwritten lists, then typewritten, and finally starting in 1981 by computer. On my old TRS-80 model III I wrote a program to keep track of the counties I had entered in order, assigning a US and state number in chronological order to each county. Eventually I added years and months, though not days, particularly. I assign a number to a trip using the year and month then a sequence letter or number, usually separating from the month by using a colon rather than a space. If I do not know the exact sequence of a particular trip, I assign and X, Y or Z to it (or the numbers 24, 25 or 26 using the year-month-day format). It took a long time, but I kept decent records of my travels even before I started making lists, and before then my mother made scrapbooks of our family trips with years and dates. When I got my first regular PC in 1997, I started using Excel to keep track, and continue to do so to the present. When I started keeping track of the lines, it was fairly easy to write a database noting each county next to another one as representing a line, unless the trip involved travel by air, in which the lines of course do not abut.
On the road I keep track of every county entered in a small notebook (one end of the book with the counties, the other end for fuel and other expenses, times of starting and stopping each day and latitudes/longitudes of stopping points), and then when I get home I enter the data onto the computer. The computer then points out any new lines crossed, though I know in advance which ones are new, of course. (On longer trips nowadays, with the small laptop that I use, I sometimes enter the data every few days, as well as download the GPS tracks onto the computer, too.)
Some people count rather casually; others need to snap a photo or stop for a meal or get out of the car for it to "count." Do you have any special rules?
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Not particularly, for me being present in a county is enough, as long as I’m either in a vehicle in contact with the road or with my feet touching the road or ground. Naturally, flying over does not count! But I have entered most counties more than once, since back in 1984 I decided to try to get to every remaining unentered county seat (which I accomplished in 1993) and to drive, ride or walk at least 10 miles in each county. (When I flew to Kotzebue back in 1996, being unable to rent a car or even a four-wheeler, I had to walk around the town quite a bit to get in this distance!) When going to a county seat I try to at least see the court house, occasionally taking a picture or video of it, but this is not part of my "rules". (By the way, I count as valid counties all the ones that the Census Bureau recognizes, including all the Census Areas in Alaska, as well as any counties currently extinct that I visited before they went extinct. So my list is in total 3,147 which included the former Yellowstone National Park section in Montana as well as the former cities in Virginia of Nansemond, South Boston and Clifton Forge. (Any county or equivalent which is disbanded before I had the chance to enter it is of course not counted, but in many cases I try at some point to visit the area where it was located, such as the former Washabaugh County SD. I have yet to get to the land once occupied by Armstrong County SD, but still hope to do so at some point. I am also trying to enter every county once again in the 21st century (OK, for me 2000 is good enough), but I still have 106 to go.
How do you deal with county tripoints and quadripoints? I imagine many of them are on private land far removed from roads. Do you attempt to reach them or do you declare "close enough?"
I have been to several tripoints, especially when they involve state meeting points, but since the respective counties also abut at lines, I don’t feel any obligation to expend much effort to get to a tripoint, unless there is something else interesting there, such as a marker or similar. Quadripoints represent a special challenge, "close enough" doesn’t count; I try to get to every one. Before I had the GPS with topo maps, in a few cases I had to really guesstimate the exact location of the point, so good faith efforts do count. And I’m pretty sure that I have reached all the quadripoints I went to before getting the current GPS. If there is any kind of a marker, I walk from one county to the other over the point stepping on the marker if possible. If not, if there are intersecting roads and the maps indicate that the line is on the road, I just eyeball it, crossing catty-cornered from one end of the intersection to the other and back, then crossing the point from the two remaining counties.
One time, at Allentown, Georgia, I knew there was a nearby quadripoint (Wilkinson/Laurens/Bleckley/Twiggs) without obvious public access, so I went to the town hall. It was closed, so I phoned the number indicated on the door. The mayor was out of town, but he gave me the number of another resident, and I called him. (This was several months before Christmas, and he played Santa Claus in various places and looked the part.) From his house we went the short distance in his golf cart to the monument at the quadripoint. It was too tall to walk over, so I had to rub my hand in all four directions atop it to cross the points. So, by foot if possible, by hand if necessary.
Last November I discovered through photos that the meeting point of Hampshire, Hardy, Grant and Mineral counties in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia was more accessible than I thought, so I drove there. It’s on private land, but the gate was open, so I drove up it hoping to get permission to go to the point, and as it turned out a landowner was in her car near there, and she not only gave me permission but showed me the small stone at the exact quadripoint! It was on a ridgetop with beautiful views. Very nice of her.
How do you handle independent cities? Do they count, or not?
Definitely. Anything that the Census Bureau counts as a county equivalent is good enough for me.
I imagine it may raise a few eyebrows with the authorities when you attempt to cross between each border county into either Mexico or Canada. Has this been a problem?
Only marginally. Of course, only the outbound vector from the US county to the foreign division counts (which is why the total count is an uneven number), so upon return to the US, when possible, at the border I back up or turn around to cross from the US to that province or estado. This has raised eyebrows and/or caused some questioning, but after explaining what I was doing, this has always sufficed. In all cases, so far, I was the first person the Customs official encountered doing such a thing! As I indicated earlier, I have had a slight increase in being stopped and questioned by the Border Patrol while turning around and crossing lines close to the Mexican border, but have never had any real difficulty.
You’re closing in on all of the feasible crossings. What will you count next? (Municipalities? Townships? Canadian counties?)
As a matter of fact, I do keep track of Canadian counties/census divisions using Microsoft MapPoint (the only map program I have so far that indicates them), but not as seriously as US counties, and I do not keep track of lines, at least not yet! There are always more things to count, too! For example, in going back over my records, I have created another database of which counties I was present in each month, so that would be 3147 x 12, or 21,627 possibilities (less months in extinct counties that I was not present there in), of which I have only 16,106 combinations, or only 42.7%. So a long ways to go!
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for people who have just started county counting?
Haha! Not really, if such a project is of interest to any person, the best way to start crossing is to start crossing. One can include lines already crossed, or start afresh. One can make up the rules as one goes along (one vector or both, as desired), as long as one is consistent in applying them. It’s like playing solitaire, cheating is possible and easy, but to what end? If one likes to go down roads that one would have never though of traversing otherwise, crossing lines is as good a reason as any!