There is only one real Starbucks in Atlantic City. Store No. 7849 is just a few months old, but one recent evening -- at dusk, with the sky a purplish black -- the place seemed somehow hallowed. The streets all around it were quiet. The nearby buildings were empty and dark -- and there it was, the Starbucks on the corner, brightly lit up like a cafe in a painting by Edward Hopper, as the customers inside (there were just two of them) fidgeted away at their laptops.

John Winter Smith approached the front window at speed, and then he whirled his battered 1997 Honda Civic through a nearby parking lot and jumped out -- a rangy, unshaven guy in a baggy T-shirt and jeans striding over the sidewalk with brisk and somber intent, as though the theme song to "Mission Impossible" were playing in the background. This was no minor moment. Since 1997, the 32-year-old Houston-based computer programmer, who prefers to be called "Winter," has been on a singular quest. He aims to drink an espresso, or an 8-ounce black coffee, at every single Starbucks in the world.

Unpaid, unsanctioned by Starbucks and without a political agenda, Winter has already visited more than 3,800 of the corporation's 4,081 (and counting) U.S. outlets, as well as 455 of its international shops. As Starbucks expands, opening, on average, 25 outlets a week, Winter is struggling to keep pace. He hopes that soon he can say he has visited 99 percent of the Starbucks outlets in the United States; he harbors a distant longing of hitting 100 percent -- even for one day. In pursuit of this standard, he has negotiated Washington at rush hour and stalked the bayous of Louisiana and the plains of Nebraska. On one particularly jittery 15-hour day in Portland, Ore., Winter (who seems hyper even without coffee) ingested caffeine at 28 Starbucks shops.

Winter took the concrete stairs outside the Atlantic City store three at a time and then lunged inside, into a different, more tranquil world -- into a cocoon of soft lights and coffee aromas. There were comfortable chairs in here, and fine arts photographs, and (the piece de resistance) a couple of grand, stylish, stainless-steel garage doors giving way to an al fresco wood deck.

Here was a place one could do the New York Times crossword puzzle as the sultry voice of Lucinda Williams played softly on the stereo, a place to believe life is good.

There is an underlying myth at work at every Starbucks, be it in Reno or Wichita or Des Moines, and it holds that, yes, Nirvana exists -- that, yes, beneath the mad scramble of everyday life, there exists a blessed refuge where the coffee is always fresh, where everyone truly cares and where even the calloused and humble bean farmers can dream of buying their kids orthodontia.

Starbucks never broadcasts its hopeful vision on television. Rather, it establishes brand identity by living out its ideals, by spending $11.3 million last year on community-based projects -- "fair trade" coffee cooperatives in Mexico, for instance, and litter-collecting projects in San Francisco. The earth-tone brochures on the wall in Atlantic City said it all. "One company staying true to its values," proclaimed a pamphlet rich in earnest, handwritten-style slogans. "Create escape," read another, aimed at prospective employees. "Make a difference in someone's day."

Winter and I were in the middle of a four-day, 1,000-mile, 16-Starbucks marathon that would take us from Brooklyn to Atlantic City, back up north to New York City, south to Virginia Beach and then north again, finally, to Washington. I hoped that, along the way, there would be moments of revelation. Winter is, after all, an inveterate reader of philosophy, a University of Texas graduate and nationally ranked Scrabble player who knows his Descartes from his Hume, his Wittgenstein from his Plato.

As it turned out, Winter engaged the barista in a discussion about the cafe's garage doors.

"Those are really cool," he said, nodding vigorously, his voice nasally and slightly robotic.

"They're brand-new," the barista said. "We just opened."

"Wow," Winter said. "Cool."

Eventually, after Winter explained his project, the barista served us our coffee and, being helpful, noted that there was another new Starbucks 12 miles away, in Mays Landing, N.J. -- a Starbucks that was mysteriously not listed on Starbucks.com.

"It's not in my database," Winter said, panicked.

We rushed back out onto the street and started gunning north, at 85 mph, trying to make Mays Landing by closing time. "I don't understand why my contact in New Jersey never told me about this," Winter said. "Something . . . very suspicious is going on here." He changed lanes, sped up to 90, and then in resolute silence, we pressed on toward store No. 7793.

FOR THE PAST SEVEN YEARS, John Winter Smith has been floating about the country, "Starbucking," as he calls it. He has been working freelance computer gigs of two to six months -- in Princeton, N.J., and Atlanta, Seattle and Austin -- and assiduously saving his money. Once he has $2,000 or so in the bank, or has sold a sufficient chunk of his prodigious comic book collection, he quits his job and begins touring, very systematically. He visits only cafes owned by Starbucks Coffee Co.; he eschews what he calls "fake" Starbucks, cafes that bear the familiar green-and-white logo but are owned and operated by conglomerates such as Barnes & Noble bookstores and Albertsons supermarkets. (There are eight Starbucks stores of that type in Atlantic City.) He typically avoids visiting a store more than once, and he almost categorically forgoes sightseeing. Instead, he cleaves to the commercial strip in each town, hitting the Safeway, the Subway shop, the Exxon, the AM/PM, the 7-Eleven, the Quik Mart. He is always in a hurry. An excerpt from the daily log that he keeps on his Web site (Starbuckseverywhere.net) : "I stopped at the Kinko's in Chattanooga and then drove around town for a while. Downtown was very brightly lit, if smallish and not very exciting as I would have expected." Chattanooga, check. He drove on, exercising extreme parsimony.

Winter almost never pays for his coffee. Rather, he begs for it, by showing baristas news clippings about himself. He scarcely eats while traveling. He subsists on about 1,000 calories a day and is careful never to gorge himself; that might expand his shrunken stomach and thereby increase his hunger. When he gets, say, a plate of rice and beans, he will eat only half the meal at first and then save the leftovers, in hopes that they'll keep in the back seat of his car. Hotels? Never. Even when it was 16 degrees in Denver one Christmas Eve, Winter says he slept in his car, shivering beneath a couple of thin blankets.

In the summer of 2002, when Winter drove more than 20,000 miles, a jagged, counterclockwise loop around North America, to visit 420 Starbucks, he did so on a budget of just $1,640, gas included. He lost about 10 pounds from his spare 5-foot-10 frame, and he also endured two minor car crashes, a parking ticket, two speeding tickets, six blown fuses and two police officers knocking (on separate evenings) on his car window. Why does he torture himself so? "I have the collecting mentality," Winter told me as we pulled away from Mays Landing. He spoke carefully, plucking the words out of his brain one by one. "Once I start a collection, I have to have everything complete. I have collected baseball cards, basketball cards, comic books, stamps, coins. I am one of those people who makes lists of lists. I have lists of all the restaurants I've visited, all the airports, all the cities. I have kept track of every expense I've incurred, down to the penny, since 1990. I have a goal right now to drive every mile of every U.S. interstate and highway. I'm collecting Starbucks -- and by mere coincidence, the project feeds a different part of my personality: I like attention."

Winter's Starbucks ventures have been featured in at least 11 newspapers and magazines, and four TV shows have followed him into the cafes. Last year, Wayne Brady, the host and namesake of a cable talk show, had Winter on air for roughly five minutes, then flew him to England for a week-long Starbucking spree. "I have an identity, a global identity," Winter told me. "There are almost seven billion people on the planet, and I'm the Starbucks guy. I'm recognized, and I like it that way. Why? I probably didn't get love as a child. Maybe I have attention deficit disorder. Maybe I have a strong ego or a high level of testosterone." Winter looked over at me, shrugging, as he slalomed through drivers going the speed limit. "It's an important question," he said, "but I don't have an answer."

WINTER KEPT DRIVING. He and I gazed out the window at the bland scenery -- the grassy median, the gray overhead bridges lit up by streetlights -- and we listened to National Public Radio. Winter listens to NPR while traveling, but sometimes his mind drifts off toward Scrabble. He is trying to memorize all 8,636 of the game's legal five-letter words and trying to improve upon his best-single game score: 556. He studies up to 25 hours a week and competes almost every weekend, in locales as far-flung as Philadelphia and Newport Beach, Calif.

But why Scrabble? Is he enamored with the splendor and plenitude of the English language? No, Winter is drawn to Scrabble, he says, because there are so few serious players; he believes that one day he could actually capture the national title. "I like winning," he says.

Winter placed a disappointing 43rd in his division at the National Scrabble Championship earlier this month in New Orleans. He is convinced he can do better next year, if he sheds his deep dread of losing. His fellow Scrabblers concur that Winter needs to loosen up on his defense, so as to make the occasional, sparkling Big Play. Indeed, in a personal e-mail, 2002 national champion Joel Sherman recently assailed Winter for being a "paranoid bunny."

As a social theorist, Winter is a little more daring. For several years now, he has been honing an intricate worldview -- "my philosophy," he calls it -- that he hopes to articulate one day in a book. His outlook is utopian but not exactly humanist: He believes that people should put aside their emotions and act only on reason. He wants food to be free, everywhere, so that citizens have time to ponder life's higher questions, and he opposes democracy. Better, he figures, to leave voting to "people willing to dedicate as much time as necessary to studying the issues -- to go away on retreat and read, constantly."

In the early '90s, Winter was intent on implementing his philosophy, said his mother, Georgina Lozano. This is why, she said, he changed his name from Rafael Antonio Lozano. "He was going to become a leader," Lozano explained, "and he told us, 'I don't want to be associated with my family. I don't want you to suffer as a result of my actions.' "

"I have zero recollection of having said anything like that," asserted Winter, "and my mother has a notoriously bad memory." Lozano's son says that his becoming "Winter" had nothing to do with his old revolutionary aspirations. He dropped his "generic Spanish name," he said, simply to prevent his credit records from being confused with those of his father, Rafael Antonio Lozano Sr. He loves his new name, he said, because it jibes well with his philosophy. "The word Winter," he said, "has a cold, detached quality."

I wondered what Winter's Starbucks project had to do with his philosophy. "It has zero relevance," he told me, his words packing a certain mano a mano challenge. "Visiting Starbucks is just something I'm doing for myself."

Well, not just for himself. Winter hopes that one day he can produce a definitive work of art based on his Starbucking. It might be literary; it might involve the digital photographs that Winter takes at every Starbucks he visits. Winter doesn't know, but he is sure that the work will not be tainted. He will never take money from Starbucks. "Even if they gave me a million dollars, no strings attached," he said, "I wouldn't take it because I wouldn't want to even give the appearance of being compromised." When I offered to pay the highway tolls, Winter bristled. "If I let you pay," he insisted, "that would undermine the integrity of my entire project."

Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder and chief global strategist, would not give me a comment on Winter. Colleen Chapman, the company's director of brand management, said only, "I'm very impressed by Winter's tenacity." Still, Winter took special pains to stress that he exists in a different sphere than corporate spokesmen. He had unkind words for Jared Fogle, the doughy, bespectacled fellow who stars on the Subway sandwich ads, telling viewers that he lost 245 pounds by cleaving to a Subway-rich diet. "Jared is paid," Winter said. "Nothing he ever does will be construed as artistic."

Winter got the idea for his project in 1997 after hanging out, sometimes for six or seven hours a day, at two Starbucks cafes in Plano, Tex. Just before then, he was creating order forms for online catalogues 60 to 70 hours a week. The work stressed him out. Over an 18-month stretch, he was often mired in depression. "I felt trapped," he said. "I just wanted to lie in bed all the time. I just wanted to feel better. I had no energy." But sometimes, suddenly, a burst of energy would come on, and, for a month, Winter would be manic. Then, he devised schemes for all sorts of hypothetical businesses (an online dating service was one) and also pestered his boss at a small Texas software firm called with myriad wild ideas for fixing the bugs in troublesome code. He had heart palpitations; he had trouble sleeping.

Winter says a psychiatrist diagnosed mild hypomania and mild depression. His moods swung radically, the doctor speculated, partly because Winter was drinking six to eight shots of espresso a day. The shifts were scary. "Once," Winter told me, "I was driving to Houston. I wasn't particularly sad, but then a song came on the radio -- 'The End of My Pirate Days,' by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I started crying uncontrollably. I didn't know why. When you feel that bad, you will do anything to make yourself feel better."

Winter started his Starbucks project, and then the darkness subsided. "For the past seven years," he said, "I haven't been tied down. I'm free. I'm happy."

WE KEPT VISITING STARBUCKS cafes. Winter flicked on his laptop at nearly every one. He checked his e-mail, using the store's wireless internet connection, and he updated his Web log, documenting his every move, including his latest underwear purchase. He told store managers about his project, and they said things like, "Cool, "No way" and, in one case, "Wait, you're that guy?"

Winter was polite -- meek, even -- with the baristas. He was careful not to cause irritation. "I don't want Starbucks to make me a persona non grata," he said. "I want to keep bringing TV crews into the stores."

Winter wore the same outfit every day: jeans and a black T-shirt whose tasteful white type read, "Starbucks Coffee Company" and "Estd 1971." When I asked him how many such shirts he had cached in his car, he was wry. "I have to keep some secrets," he quipped, but then added that back in Houston, at his parents, he had dozens of Starbucks T-shirts of other designs. "That's my retirement fund," he said.

From time to time, Winter's cell phone would bleep, and he'd start speaking Spanish into the mouthpiece. His father is from Colombia, his mother from Panama. He was east, in part, to meet up with them for a cousin's wedding, and he seemed indifferent about the impending encounter. "We're not a close family," he said. "A lot of people value relationships primarily. I don't. I value goals."

When Winter was a child, he spent summers in his grandmother's Panamanian village of La Palma, where he frolicked in the woods and streams and played marbles and kickball with the local kids. He found more solace later, as a teen, when he sequestered himself in his bedroom to catalogue and curate his 20,000 comic books, a collection that consisted primarily of Spider-Man and X-Men adventure stories. "I read the comics," Winter explained. "I put them in plastic sleeves. I put cardboard backing boards inside the sleeves. I put the sleeved comic books inside special comic book storage boxes. I shelved them in a dry environment."

Winter was a loner growing up, his mother said: "He didn't have many friends. We live in a mostly white neighborhood, and the kids -- three or four of them -- would always gang up and try to beat him. They called him 'wetback.' One time he came home from school very sad, and he told me, 'I want to spray my hair white.' . . . He was a very hyperactive kid. He always had a project. He painted. He played Legos; he built up a collection of toilet paper rolls. He always wanted to do something different from the other kids."

Winter felt ill at ease around his dad, who is a chemical engineer for oil companies. "My father is the kind of person who is never satisfied," Winter told me.

When Winter's parents flew into Washington for the wedding, Rafael Antonio Lozano Sr. would not discuss Winter, except to say, "What my son is doing is a total waste of time."

I rode back to Winter's aunt's house in Bethesda with Georgina Lozano. "He looks tired," said Lozano, a stately woman who wore an immaculate blue dress and pumps. "He is so thin; his clothes are ragged. We have asked him to stop. He is depriving himself of everything; he is wasting his potential." She mentioned hopefully that Winter had spoken of pursuing a master's degree in philosophy. "We have told him you don't have to be successful in the way that you have a nice car and a nice house," she continued. "We've said, As long as you can pay your own living expenses, without your car breaking down, we are happy.

"We have helped him with money sometimes," Lozano said of Winter, who acknowledges that he owes his parents about $10,000. "When he is stranded, we help. But we will help no more. We don't want to encourage him."

WHAT WINTER LIKES BEST about Starbucking is the freedom it affords. "I'll be driving along," he said, "and I'll think, 'I could go anywhere.' In most cities, I could spend an entire month going around from one Starbucks to another using the WiFi. I could stay at each place for a few hours and not a single barista would know that I was basically living at Starbucks."

Winter lives with his parents when he's in Houston and rents a room when he's in any other town, writing code for a software firm for a few months at a stretch. He takes a room, he says, largely because he needs a stable TV source. He is intent on not missing episodes of his favorite shows -- "Alias," "The West Wing," "Smallville," "24" and "Enterprise." But soon, he says, "broadband will be so prevalent that I'll be able to get the shows that I want on my laptop. Then I could just live in my car full time."

Winter does not really favor any one region of the United States, and he couldn't care less about landscape. "I'm not a nature person," he said as I dragged him down to the beach, through legions of seagulls, in Brooklyn. "These waves, they're giving me vertigo. And what are those birds -- ducks?"

The place that sang most to Winter during our travels was Times Square. A new Starbucks was slated to open there, and Winter not only wanted to visit it on opening day; he wanted to be the first customer. When I asked why, he was incredulous. "It's Times Square," he said, as though I was a complete numbskull.

Winter staked his spot outside the door at 5 a.m., and when I arrived 30 minutes later, he was alone and crouched on the darkened sidewalk, his laptop open as he typed up his blog. On an earlier reconnaissance mission, he'd spoken to someone who had intimated that the "Today" show would be on hand for this opening. There was a chance, Winter thought, that some reporter might hail him as the first customer and lob him a few softball questions, live and in Technicolor, right there on the sidewalk. But now such a lucky break seemed unlikely. The store was dark and empty save for a jumble of cardboard boxes and, as yet, there was no menu board over the counter. Winter was worried he'd miss the store opening. He had to leave New York in a few hours; there were other Starbucks cafes to visit.

We waited, the stream of morning commuters flowing around us, and I was aware now of how solipsistic Winter's project was, how lonely. In visiting more than 4,000 Starbucks outlets, he said, he has never once made a friend whom he has contacted again. He's scarcely had a meaningful encounter. His two most significant? "In Framingham, Massachusetts," he said, "this barista saw how tired I was and let me crash on his couch. That was a really nice thing to do. In Hilton Head, South Carolina, I was lost, looking for a Starbucks, and a gentleman at a convenience store had me follow his car. He led me right to the cafe."

At about 7 a.m., a familiar face showed up in Times Square -- a plumber Winter had seen laying pipe at the new Starbucks. "I got the key," the man said, "but I'm not allowed to go in because the alarm's on."

"But when's it opening?" Winter said.

The plumber took out his cell phone and called someone and talked for maybe five seconds. "Tomorrow," he told us. Winter nodded stoically and walked back to the car.

BUT THE MIRACULOUS THING is that, when Winter wrote on his blog about his sad luck in Times Square, someone was listening. Someone was reading: a woman.

Jodi Morgan is a 27-year-old social worker at a domestic violence clinic in Springfield, Ill. When she first learned of Winter last January, while surfing the Web, she sent him an idle tip: A new Starbucks would soon open in Springfield. Winter's response was casual. "I may just drop by one of these days," he wrote. An electronic dialogue blossomed. Jodi confessed a fondness for "B-list celebrities" such as Donny Osmond, Subway's Jared Fogle and Winter. She was not a Scrabble player, but for Christmas her cousin had given her a necklace bearing a single Scrabble tile: the letter J.

Winter was smitten. One week into the cyber romance, after Jodi had moaned about having broken her toe, he signed off, "Many kisses for your little toe." He begged for her photograph.

Jodi is 4-foot-11. Last winter, she was, by her own reckoning, significantly overweight. She e-mailed Winter her photo -- and then she waited.

"I'm trying not be insulted," Winter wrote back, "at your suggestion that you wouldn't hear from me after I saw a photo. I'd hope never to be that shallow." A few weeks later, on her birthday, he sent 27 purple tulips. They talked on the phone almost daily, and on his blog he gave her a nickname: Schmoopie.

"Am I in love with her?" Winter mused as we drove south from Times Square. "I don't know. I try never to use that word. It's too vague. I'm infatuated. I'm serious, at least, about meeting her." He threw back a Vivarin caffeine pill (because there were no new Starbucks outlets nearby), and then we drove on -- through Washington, in haste, and to Vienna, in search of store No. 2804. Winter saw a Starbucks sign on the main drag and then, instinctively, he went in. He began checking e-mail, but there was something awry: The carpet was frayed; there were little chips on the chairs. Almost ineffably, the place lacked that new car shininess that pervades a just-opened Starbucks. So Winter got a receipt -- and learned that we were actually in store No. 706, which he had already visited, four years before.

"Ohhh," he groaned, "What happened to my database?"

But we have heard him say this before.

THERE'S MORE TO SAY, though, about the woman. In the days after I returned home, Jodi kept e-mailing Winter, and I imagined him receiving the messages, bleary-eyed, unshaven and road-weary as he hunched before a glimmering screen in yet another nondescript strip mall.

Somehow, I regarded those notes as important. I saw shades of America's future in Winter. I saw all of us ricocheting, ever faster, among shopping pavilions, and forgetting, a little more every day, about the land beneath us, about what it means to stay in one place and know it, and about the simple pleasure of stopping and talking to someone. It gave me faith to know that even Winter appreciated some human connection. And I was not the only one who found hope in his gestures of romance.

From her bedroom in Springfield, in the small white clapboard house that she shares with her mother, Jodi, who has a master's degree in public relations, was now making intricate preparations for her first meeting with Winter. The date was set for early June, at a Starbucks in Springfield. The State Journal-Register would be covering the rendezvous, and a radio station, WQLZ (92.7 FM), would also interview Jodi and Winter before the Internet lovebirds slipped out of Springfield for a gala long weekend: a night at the Extended StayAmerica near the St. Louis airport, a few Starbucks visits and then a Scrabble tournament in Indianapolis.

I flew in for the festivities. I took the Greyhound bus from St. Louis and met Jodi in Springfield, outside the terminal. She was wearing a black shirt and a khaki skirt. She had shed 40 pounds over the previous four months, and she'd had a new Scrabble necklace made for the occasion. This one bore the letter W. "I didn't get any sleep," she fretted. "I was too excited. Winter and I have been waiting so long to meet."

Winter arrived at the curb outside the cafe 15 minutes late. He was wired, having just whipped through five Starbucks outlets in Chicago that morning, and he approached Jodi shouting. "Hey, I'm here!" he said, waving his arms. They hugged, a bit awkwardly, and then, at a distance, the Journal-Register reporter, a photographer and I followed Winter inside, where he leaned toward Jodi and half-whispered into her ear. "If we stay here, you're going to have to buy me a drink."

All day long, Winter trampled rules of decorum. In midafternoon, as he and Jodi sat outside the Starbucks, he simultaneously played a game of Scrabble online and read a book. He did not look up for minutes at a stretch. "This woman I'm playing," he said, "she's so lucky." Later, when I showed up for a dinner coordinated by Jodi, I found Winter standing by the restaurant's entrance, reading a newspaper and making off-color remarks about the massage-parlor ads in the back. There was a fiftyish woman standing beside him -- a waitress, I thought at first. It was, in fact, Jodi's mother.

Winter was out of his element, but if you looked past the force field of his anxiety, you could discern that he was being, well, charming, by his standards. He kept teasing Jodi by making cutting remarks about Springfield, a sleepy burg where hundreds of tourists visit Abraham Lincoln's house every day after driving through dairy farms outside of town. "So," he said, "I guess they kind of downplay the assassination around here, eh? So do they roll up the sidewalk at night so the cows can graze at the Hilton?"

There was so much game flirtation, so much wisecrack joie de vivre, that Jodi just glowed. "Stop!" she shrieked when Winter ribbed her about the wealth of luggage she packed for Indianapolis. "I'm a girl!"

When the weekend was nearly over, Winter and Jodi sat side by side on a park bench for a few minutes, gazing out at a tranquil pond. Then they drove back to Jodi's, and she dissolved into tears. "I promised myself I wouldn't cry," she sniffled. "I didn't want to."

"Winter was uncomfortable," Jodi said later, "so he went into my house, to use the computer, and then he basically just grabbed his stuff and left." He kept going. In five days, he ripped through Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma again, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. He reached California and then drank coffee at 47 stores inside 31 waking hours. He told me: "I will never stop moving. If I even think about settling in one place, I get anxious."

But what lingered most was a certain wistful passage that appeared on Winter's blog on the day he parted with Jodi. "Schmoopie and I said our goodbyes," he wrote. "I would miss her, but I didn't cry. I was much too accustomed to leaving. Still, I would look forward to returning to Springfield, and not just because of the Starbucks that would be opening later in the summer."

Bill Donahue's most recent story for the Magazine, about Tangier, Morocco, will be republished this fall in Best American Travel Writing 2004.