A 67-year-old retired minister from Cleveland was not fully satisfied after he had reached his longtime goal of visiting all 50 states, so he made it his goal to visit every single county and county equivalent in the United States as well.
J. Stephen Conn met his 17-year goal Saturday at 11 a.m. to set foot in every county after a trip with his wife, Karen, to California and Nevada to see the final counties on his list.
One night 17 years ago, he finished his goal of seeing every state with an overnight stop in Maine. He took some time that evening to browse through his well-used road atlas and was struck by what was, for him, a startling realization. There was still so much he hadn’t seen.
“It felt really good, but I still wanted to see more,” Conn said. “Since then, it’s been quite an adventure.”
He announced to his family that same night that he had a new goal: to visit every county, parish, Alaskan borough, census area and independent city in the United States and see the places he missed along the way.
Conn was not alone in his quest; others have done what he set out to do. He is now the 33rd person to ever have visited all the counties in the United States. However, the first person to do so completed the task before Alaska and Hawaii were states, he said.
For him, visiting all those places was less for notoriety and more for the satisfaction of meeting a personal goal.
“I don’t want to turn an old man without seeing these places,” Conn said, laughing and again mentioning his age.
Since the night he finished visiting all 50 states, Conn had been making his way to all 3,143 counties and county equivalents. He made most of the trips alone, but his wife and his brother, Phillip have both joined him in some of his travels.
The journey saw Conn traveling through many diverse landscapes using means of transportation just as diverse — traveling by everything from car to plane to ferry.
“I’ve made an effort to travel every possible mode,” Conn said.
Not every place has been easy to get to, he said. The most isolated location on his list was the Wade Hampton Census Area in western Alaska. He had to wait until someone with a private plane was heading that direction before he could go there himself. When he got to the remote Alaskan outpost, Conn said he met some very hospitable people who were nevertheless shocked to see him.
“One man said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said I was a tourist, and he got very excited,” Conn said.
The man rallied other residents to welcome him, saying that he was the very first tourist they knew of visiting the town, Conn said. They claimed he was the first person not visiting to do business or see someone they knew. One man also offered him a mastodon fossil as a souvenir.
Conn said such experiences made the trip worth it, adding that each person’s hometown is “the center of their universe.”
“It’d be a shame spending my whole life not going to a place where someone spent theirs,” Conn said.
He said his travels have given him a new appreciation for other parts of the country.
“It makes watching the news so much more alive,” Conn said. “It makes everything more real.”
Conn made a visit to the small town of Greensburg, Kan., before it was destroyed by a tornado outbreak in 2007. He said he was especially shocked to see that on the news because of his experiences there.
He said he has had people comment on his photos of the town to thank him for letting them see what the town was like before it had to rebuild.
Conn shared his county visits online through a Flickr album of more than 26,000 photos and the occasional post on his blog, CountyCounting.Blogspot.com.
Conn said many people he met in his travels asked him what he thought made visiting a county an actual “visit.” Many wondered if simply driving through a county counted for him.
“Truthfully, if you step inside a county you are there,” he said. “I try to do more than that.”
When he visited a county, he said he liked to ask locals what they thought made their area unique. Their suggestions led him to various restaurants and attractions to help him get a feel for each place.
“Every town is famous for something,” Conn said, using his hometown as an example. “Cleveland, Tenn., is famous for a bunch of things like M&M’s being made there, Red Clay [State Park] and the Confederate soldiers buried at the Fort Hill Cemetery.”
Conn said his father, Dr. Charles W. Conn, a Church of God minister and a 12-year president of Lee University, inspired him to explore places beyond his hometown. He said his father traveled frequently and would sometimes take him and his siblings with him so they could spend extra time together.
“I was one of 12 siblings,” Conn said. “He would pack us up three at a time and haul us all over, traveling to preach.”
Conn and his wife, who has not yet retired, currently split their residence between two different counties — Hamilton County, Ohio and Bledsoe County, Tenn. The couple plans to sell their Cincinnatti home and retire in Pikeville, Tenn.
Though he has seen all the counties in the U.S., Conn said he has not chosen a favorite out of the ones he saw while meeting his goal. However, he does have a few. He most enjoyed island counties, like the ones in Hawaii and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.
“I think I like the end-of-the-road feeling,” Conn said.
Conn has no shortage of stories ready to tell his grandchildren since he has met his “county counting” goal, but he admits that he also enjoys the sense of accomplishment.
“Of course, it’s neat to feel like you have done something most people haven’t,” Conn said.