published Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Bledsoe man collects counties, memories

Bledsoe County, Tenn., resident J. Stephen Conn and his wife, Karen, speak about his completion of visiting every county and parish in the United States. Conn finished his challenge last September visiting all 3142 counties throughout the 50 states.
Bledsoe County, Tenn., resident J. Stephen Conn and his wife, Karen, speak about his completion of visiting every county and parish in the United States. Conn finished his challenge last September visiting all 3142 counties throughout the 50 states.
Photo by Dan Henry.

BY THE NUMBERS

17: Years counting counties

34th: Member of the Extra Miler Club to complete a visit to all U.S. counties

360th: Member of the Extra Miler club

3,142: Counties or equivalents visited

28,409+: Photographs taken

57: Countries visited

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PIKEVILLE, Tenn. — A Bledsoe County man who's been everywhere lives in the middle of nowhere.

J. Stephen Conn's remote homestead on Brockdell Mountain, several miles south of Pikeville on the Cumberland Plateau, belies the path he's worn across the United States.

Though his "fantasy" would be to visit every country on Earth, Conn had set a just-slightly more realistic goal.

"I thought if I can't see every place in the world, I can see every place in my country," he said.

Conn started out in 1995 marking off counties on a large wall map.

"I colored in every county I remembered having been to," he said.

"I couldn't say, 'Well, I've been from here to here, so I must have gone this route and gone through these counties,'" he said of his own qualifying standards. "I had to have a very specific memory."

He wore out three or four national maps tallying his quest until he started up a digital map so he could print out additions. He kept the same rules, though.

Conn, who grew up in Bradley County, Tenn., has visited every county in the United States. That's all 3,142 counties or county equivalents, ending with the last "county equivalent" he notched on Sept. 1, 2012 -- Carson City, Nev.

As a young pastor, Conn, one of 12 children of well-known Church of God minister Charles W. Conn, traveled all over the country as a "church planter," notching 1,000 or so counties before he set the goal in 1995 of tallying them all.

Now 68, Conn is among the elite of the Extra Miler Club, an organization of county questers bound by the honor system as they check off their visits. Conn is the 34th Extra Miler to get them all.

It's not cheap to travel so much. Conn said he's done much of his county-tallying by camping along the way, staying in the cheapest motels or even in his vehicle if the burg he was in was too small for other accommodations.

BUILDING MEMORIES

Along with the counties came a collection of memories, and some locations were so remote, he'd need a lobotomy to forget them.

Take Wade Hampton Census Area, Alaska, for instance. That's one of the most remote of the big state's 16 boroughs -- or "county equivalents."

"I found a plane that was going out and was going to be there about four hours and would come back," he said.

Conn boarded a single-engine plane headed for a small Eskimo village outpost in Northwest Alaska with a young mother, her boyfriend, their newborn baby and the new mother's mother who were headed home from a Fairbanks hospital.

When they arrived at Mountain Village -- population 830 or so -- Conn set out to see the tiny town along the banks of the Yukon River.

"I walked around, up and down every street, and all the people I noticed were peering out the windows at me," he said.

"One man came out and introduced himself and said his name was Bert," Conn recalled. "'What are you doing here?' Very friendly, not in a hostile way," Conn said, attempting to imitate the man's accent.

"I said, 'Well, I'm a tourist,'" Conn answered.

"He said, 'A tourist?' He was so excited he went and called three of his buddies," Conn said.

"They said, 'We've never had a tourist here. You're our first tourist."

Bert announced he was going to give Conn a souvenir.

"He went back in his house ... and he brought out this 'rock,' and he said, 'You know what this is? It's a mastodon tooth. I want you to have this."

A shocked Conn was a bit reluctant to accept what he took for a priceless artifact.

"He said, 'I've already sold the rest of it to a museum, but this is the piece I've got left,'" Conn laughed. "How can you say, 'No?'"

The tooth, incidentally, was taken from him as a "lethal weapon" on the flight back to Fairbanks.

"ON THEIR OWN TERMS"

One of Conn's most treasured memories is of meeting the people -- residents, fellow pastors, mayors, a museum curator, local historians -- in all the places he's been.

"People are basically the same, if you meet people on their own terms," he said. "I love to meet people and learn about them."

Since Conn marked the last destination off his list, he and his wife, Karen, finished a list she's completing; the 50 states. Conn has visited 57 countries around the world, but says that final dream probably won't be realized. It'll certainly be fun trying, though.

When the supertourist talks of his travels, an old travel song seems appropriate background music.

Conn admits he doesn't know all the words to Geoff Mack's "I've Been Everywhere," performed by Lucky Starr in 1962.

"But I bet I've been there," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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