Name any county in the United States, and Reid Williamson has been there.
Washtenaw County, Mich.? Yes.
Dinwiddie County, Va.? Naturally.
Hooker County, Neb.? Of course.
Matanuska-Susitna County, Alaska? Well, actually it’s Matanuska-Susitna Borough — Alaska uses “borough” for some jurisdictions, “census area” for others — but, yes, Reid has been there.
Reid has been to every single county in the United States. The 64-year-old from Annandale is one of 32 known “completers,” as travelers who have bagged every U.S. county are known to members of the Extra Miler Club, a group devoted to county-collecting. In case you had forgotten, there are 3,143 counties in the United States, give or take (the number fluctuates as state populations shrink or grow).
Reid started his quest at 14, after an aunt and uncle gave him an atlas. In the atlas, the U.S. counties were highlighted in an oddly appealing way, each shaded border a tiny frontier, a line separating this from that.
Wouldn’t it be something, the young Reid thought, to go to every one of them? Call it a very organized form of wanderlust.
It’s safe to say that Reid is the ultimate expression of the Washingtonians I’ve been writing about this week: people who achieved certain self-created goals. They’re a specific, numerically based subset of the so-called bucket list. Running with the bulls in Pamplona is one sort of goal. Visiting all 30 major league ballparks, 50 state capitals or 58 national parks is another.
Why do we like crossing things off finite lists? I think it’s because we have fingers. We count. And when we count, we collect.
The world of county collecting can get extreme. There are some Extra Milers who aim to cross every county border. In other words, it’s no good to enter Howard County solely by Montgomery County. You have to enter it by Montgomery and Frederick and Carroll and Baltimore and Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.
“There’s like 19,000 of those,” Reid said of these county abutments. “I’m not doing that one. There are about 110 state-to-state borders. I’ve got all but about three.”
The obvious question: Why? Why go to every county? Reid admits that most Extra Milers are a bit obsessive, but not in a bad way. For his part, Reid says he likes beautiful scenery. “I travel for the purpose of seeing the face of the Earth,” he told me.
Of course, the face isn’t beautiful everywhere. Entire stretches of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas registered as little more than vast, featureless wastelands. “I might not have gone to some of them if I wasn’t doing this,” Reid allowed.
Perhaps Reid’s fascination with counties comes from growing up in the place that has the fewest of them: Delaware, a state with a paltry three counties.
“You can finish Delaware in about 45 minutes,” Reid said. “Just drive in a straight line on U.S. 13.” (It should come as no surprise that among the jobs Reid held as a civilian employee of the Army was as a management efficiency expert.)
As with most people whose bucket lists are based on U.S. geography, it all came down to Alaska for Reid. It’s a place that can break a man. He took three separate trips, one requiring 29 flights. “I tried not to think about the money,” he said. “I ate canned tuna fish afterwards for a while.”
Finally, on July 28, 2007, after a 21 / 2-day ferry ride, Reid pulled into Dutch Harbor, part of the Western Aleutians Census Area and, for him, County No. 3,143.
I asked Reid whether he was done with his questing now. No, he said, he still travels. He goes birding regularly and is working on a book about Colonial churches. In fact, he’s visiting every single Colonial house of worship from Maine to Georgia. Apparently there are 370. I asked how many he has been to.
“I’ve been to 369,” he said.
The only one he hasn’t been to is on the grounds of a private Howard estate called Doughoregan Manor, which is still in the hands of the Carroll family. His request to visit it has been politely declined.
“I don’t see a solution to it at the moment,” Reid sighed.
Well, just remember the words of the poet:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”
I have a vacation within my grasp, and so I’ll be off next week. My column will resume June 4.
To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.