published Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Kennedy: I’ve been everywhere, man

Sometimes the odds are against you.

Only 3,142 people have ever climbed to the top of Mount Everest.

Only 2,671 people have swum the English Channel.

J. Stephen Conn, a 67-year-old retired minister from Pikeville, Tenn., set out 17 years ago to do something even more rare.

Conn announced to his family one day in 1995 that he would visit every single county in America.

If you are wondering, there are 3,142 counties, parishes and independent cities such as Washington, D.C., in the United States.

Conn vowed to visit them all, something only a few dozen people have done since anybody began keeping records about such things in the 1930s.

"I've learned in life if you announce you're going to do something, you increase the chances of actually doing it -- so you don't look bad," said Conn.

Now comes September 2012, and Conn and his wife take an airplane to California to color in the last few counties in his quest.

His obsession actually ends in Carson City, Nev., one day earlier this month. He was a little happy and a little sad that day, he said, realizing that he'd come to the end of a long road.

Conn is one of 34 known American "county counters" to have bagged all 3,142.

The Internet has brought together those who set out on this odd journey. They call themselves the "Extra Miler Club" (www.extramilerclub.org) and they give you a wooden plaque if you complete the mission. They take your word for it. Who would lie?

While Conn officially started counting counties in the mid-1990s, he began unwittingly racking them up as a kid.

The child of a famous Church of God minister, Charles W. Conn, Stephen and his brothers and sisters would sometimes accompany their father as he traveled the United States preaching. They traveled on a budget: hamburgers, yes; fried chicken, no.

As a young preacher himself, Stephen Conn set out for the Great Plains states, often hitchhiking from church to church.

Later, when he began to count counties, Conn bought a big map of the United States with all the counties outlined and began to retrace all of his travels.

A lifetime of faith-based travel gave him a 1,000-county head start; but in the last two decades, he had to get serious.

He didn't have a lot of money. Once he set out for west Texas and ate nothing but peanut-butter sandwiches and canned beef stew for a couple of weeks.

Through the years, Conn took pictures of his travels, often looking for a landmark to frame. He has 27,000 posted on the image hosting website Flickr.

His most vivid memories are his mental pictures:

• Seeing Quaker church in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. (Door County), where "The Old Rugged Cross" was first sung.

• Eating a banana split at the birthplace of the dessert, Clinton County, Ohio.

• Visiting the coon dog capital of the world, Burke County, Ga.

Conn said his odyssey has made him feel more connected to America.

"Every night I watch TV news," he said. "When they say something happened in Greensburg, Kansas, I can say 'Hey, I've been there."

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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