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The U.S. Map of Counties

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Keeping track of each county as you pass through them is a lot easier when you have a map, especially one that is broken down by county. The challenge is in finding one. Fortunately, Seattle has a terrific place, Metsker Maps, that boasts the largest collection of maps for public consumption in the western United States. It was there where I found the perfect tracking tool -- an oversized map of such extraordinary granular detail that it shows each state and all of their counties contained within, boundaries in black on a blank white paper background, like a page from a coloring book. County names are printed in fine type inside their boundaries for easier identification. In 1995, I bought this map, brought it home and set about shading in each of the counties with a box of colored pencils that I picked up at a drugstore. The process of shading the counties in, however, wasn't random . . .

I decided to shade them in according to the order in which they were visited, starting with the county in which I was born, Pierce County, Washington (county #1). Now one might think this would be an enormous challenge: how do you reconstruct your life's travels starting at the age of 29, remembering every county you've ever visited, and the order in which you visited them? For me, it turned out to be easier than it sounds. I really didn't travel much at all as a child. My world experience extended not more than one or two counties from my place of birth, with just a few minor exceptions. This made it supremely easy for me to stitch together the short excursions from my home in Pierce County and declare without reservation the precise order in which I visited counties in my home state of Washington.

Shading the counties in their order of visitation has become an inviolable rite that must be assiduously attended to after each road trip. Charting progress in this way feels like telling a story that started 25 years ago and is today still unfolding. I took my new map and rolled it up, placing it in a poster tube. Prior to each road trip, I packed it in the car along with a box of colored pencils and a road atlas. The county map came out at the end of the day in the motel room, and was spread out on whatever surface was available, pencils standing at the ready. Using the road atlas as a reference, I retraced my travels and shaded in the new counties from that day. That was my routine each night of the road trip.

As the years went on, and all of the counties within a two-day drive of my house had been visited, and as time was my most precious resource, the logical progression in the quest was to fly into a strategically selected city and rent a car to explore the surrounding counties. In those cases, bringing a poster tube on the flight as stowable cargo did not appeal to me -- too much of a hassle, and more importantly, too much of a risk that something could happen to that document. My compromise was to make photocopies of the map, taken from regions where I would be traveling -- and the photocopy would be my surrogate document. I left the colored pencils at home. Instead, I placed a number in each county that I visited, a "1" for the first county, a "2" for the second, and so on, taking great care to make sure the numbered order was the order in which they were passed through. At the end of the trip, when I was home, I used the photocopy of numbered counties to guide the shading of the actual, and at this point, sacred map.

Here is what my story looks like today in a patchwork of colors stretched out across what Jack Kerouac referred to as "the groaning continent."

. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!

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