Updated: Nov 10, 2020
If you have been pursuing an all-50-states travel goal or even the longer all-3,143-counties goal, you've probably developed your own personal philosophy about what counts as a legitimate "visit". It's inevitable. Once you start down that path (again, pun intended), the question naturally surfaces as to how you will account for your achievements -- what litmus test will you use to validate a geographical triumph? For example, if you consider standing on soil to be a bona fide visit, then flying into an airport in a new state in order to catch a connecting flight probably doesn't allow you to mark that state as having been visited. You would have had to leave the airport to find a patch of grass to stand on, or . . . does that even count? Would that be enough of a "visit"? Does there have to be some other qualifying action during travel to make it authentic, like spending a minimum amount of time in a state or county, eating in a local restaurant, visiting a local attraction, or driving a certain minimum number of miles within its borders, for you to say you've been there? For some people, overnighting in a state or county is the true test of an actual visit, for others, it's just a drive-through. For one Wisconsin couple I knew who were attempting to visit every county (Jane and Ted Tofari), they would only count the county if they visited the county courthouse. There are obviously lots of different qualifiers you can take into account when developing your own code. One thing I wholeheartedly recommend that you keep in mind, however, is that the rules you make for yourself are yours alone, and in the end, they should only matter to you.
Early on I made it a personal rule not to count any travel by air. If I couldn't touch the soil, it didn't count for me, and that included airports. In 1990, I was flying to Key West, Florida from Seattle and had to switch planes at Dallas-Ft. Worth. Though technically, as I was running through the airport for 20 minutes trying to catch my connecting flight, I was in Texas. However, I refused to count it. It wasn't a true visit for me because it lacked certain elements that I consider part and parcel of travel.
There was no meaningful experience of travel. I didn't get to go outside, stand on the soil or on the road, or explore any of the surrounding communities.
On the county front, I couldn't even be sure of which one I was in, since DWF straddles the Tarrant-Dallas County line and I cannot today recollect where I was physically in the airport during my 20-minute dash -- I was concentrating solely on not missing my connecting flight.
It wasn't until later, in 1997, that I counted my first official visit to Texas. I drove into the Texas panhandle from Oklahoma and had beef tips at Paula's Corner Stop restaurant in Canadian, TX. That was an authentic, terra firma experience for me.
What Counts for Me
Any time I cross a state or county line or leave an airport, it counts as a genuine visit. That includes driving, riding on a bus, or even train travel (though in truth, I haven't had much bus or train travel experience within the United States). I don't even need to get out of the car and touch the ground for it to count. A recent example involved picking up an isolated county on my trip through the Carolinas -- Johnson County, Tennessee. It's located in the northeastern corner of the state, bordering both Virginia and North Carolina. I merely drove up to the state/county line from the North Carolina side, snapped a photo of the welcome sign, drove into the county about a quarter mile, then turned around and re-entered Watauga County, NC. That's enough for me to make it count. I chose long ago to stick with this guideline in part to save on time and money resources, but mostly to make the goal more achievable. Tacking on additional qualifiers, like visiting the county seat or eating in a restaurant, could potentially stretch the finish line out for years.
At one point in time, I had three concurrent all-50-states goals, each with their own simple rules of validation:
Visit each of the states. This was pretty straightforward. As long as I was physically within the state's border and not in an airport, I would count it.
Visit each of the state capitals. I did not have a specific personal rule about entering the capitol building in order for it to count, but I did so whenever I could. As long as I could see the building with my own two eyes, from the ground, it counted.
Spend the night in each of the states. This was also a pretty straightforward goal with clear rules around it -- if I overnighted anywhere in the state, it counted.
Goal #1 was realized in 2002 with a crossing into Arkansas by way of Texarkana. Goal #2 I completed in 2014 when I rolled into Baton Rouge, Louisiana and took a stroll around the oddly art deco highrise-style capitol building. Goal #3, however, remains unfulfilled. I still have not spent the night in Delaware or New Hampshire (though I have visited every county in both of these states). Hopefully, that will be a topic for a future post in which I can declare the goal to be completed.
Travel goals, like the rules you apply to tracking them, are intrinsically personal. You can make them anything you want. No one says you can have only one at a time. The more parallel goals you have, the more excitement you will create for your own future journeys, and the wider and more diverse your travel horizons will ultimately be. As long as you have aspirations of travel, you will always have the motivation to go places and see new things.
When It Comes to Making Your Own Rules, There Are None
Just remember that the rules you choose and apply to track your travel are always going to be your rules. They have no meaning for anyone other than you. If I could impart one last piece of advice on this topic, it would be to stay away from the burdensome rules; they have a tendency to kill your enthusiasm and make travel more of a chore. Instead, let your travel interests and habits dictate the rules you apply to charting your progress. Make them comfortable and easy to follow, but most of all, make them fun!
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!