Monday, May 30, 2011

Counting Counties

Counties were among the earliest units of local government established in the Thirteen Colonies that would become the United States. Virginia created the first counties in order to ease the administrative workload in Jamestown. The House of Burgesses divided the colony first into four "incorporations" in 1617 and finally into eight shires (or counties) in 1634: James City, Henrico, Charles City, Charles River, Warrosquyoake, Accomac, Elizabeth City, and Warwick River. America's oldest intact county court records can be found at Eastville, Virginia, in Northampton (originally Accomac) County, dating to 1632. Maryland established its first county, St. Mary's, in 1637, and Massachusetts followed in 1643. Pennsylvania and New York delegated significant power and responsibility from state government to county governments, and thereby established a pattern for most of the United States, although counties remained relatively weak in New England.

Bob Ake was a Physical Chemistry professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, when he took a sabbatical and did research at the University of Wisconsin - Madison during the 1976-1977 school year. Bob was (and remains) a fanatic birder who, while living in Wisconsin, traveled all over the state trying to generate the largest state bird list possible in the short time he lived there.

I met Bob in November 1976 when he chased a Northern Hawk-Owl I had found in Barron County. It was the first one I'd ever seen and one of very few records (at the time) for Wisconsin. Bob and his son Jorn drove up from Madison the next day and searched unsuccessfully for the owl. Early in 1977 Bob traveled to River Falls (Pierce County) where I lived at the time. His purpose was to look for a Red-necked Grebe (in St.Croix County) that he wanted to add to his Wisconsin list. Stopping by our meager home in River Falls after a successful search for the Grebe, Bob said that he was torn by the drive home. It was already 10:00 p.m. and Bob pondered his return route. "If I take the Interstate back I can get home in four hours," he began, "but if I follow the River Road (Highway 35) to LaCrosse and cut over from there I can add 7 counties to my state list."

I perked up and asked about his state list of counties. Bob replied "don't you keep a life list of the counties you've been in?" I thought to myself, "Well, I do now."

As soon as possible I found a large wall map of the United States that included the boundaries and the names of each county in each of the lower 48 states and Hawaii. Among all of them there were 3,076 counties plus in places like Virginia there were "independent cities" that took on the same governmental role as a county. I decided after looking at the map that one day I wanted to visit all of them.

My task began by recounting trips I had taken across Wisconsin and into other nearby states. At the time I had been in 71 of Wisconsin's 72 counties. Common sense dictated that I would finish all of its counties first but it took until September 1995 before I got to Lafayette County southwest of Madison to finish off all of Wisconsin's counties.

I had made two trips to Montana as a child. Both trips brought us to Bozeman in Gallatin County where my dad went hunting with his uncle. I dug out an atlas and re-traced our routes and put all of the counties we traveled through on the large map of the United States.

Then there was the Geology field trip we took to the southern Appalachian mountains in April 1972. The professor for our trip, Steve Burrell, put together a stop-by-stop itinerary for the trip. I simply re-traced the route and added counties in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. We came within a hair width of getting to South Carolina and Georgia but never made it. Those states would have to wait for some time in the future.

Not long after the epiphany brought on by Bob's county story my now-former wife and I made a birding trek to the Black Hills of South Dakota and to the Sandhills of Nebraska. It was my first time in either state and I made sure the route brought on as many counties as possible.

Later that same year I started working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in our Regional Office in Minneapolis. My job then was to evaluate lands nominated to the Service for acquisition and protection in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Our area of responsibility included Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. I was given specific responsibility for Indiana and Ohio and after several trips there in two years Indiana was the first state where I visited all of a state's counties. In Indiana's case that was 92 counties.

In 1981 we made a birding trip by car from Jamestown North Dakota to the southeast Arizona mountains. The route I plotted to Arizona and back ensured that I added new counties in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

Working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service afforded me many opportunities to travel and in 31 years with the service I added more than 1,500 counties (parishes in Louisiana) to my list. And at the end of every trip I took out a red marking pencil and colored in the new counties I had just visited.

Living in Georgia after my divorce opened up opportunities to get to all 154 counties in the Peach State. It was on one of those county-chasing trips that I met the Ku Klux Klan, complete with their prejudice and hoods and capes. It seems that the Klan was upset because a black boy was dating a white girl in a little town in Wilkinson County. To the ignorance of the Klan this was almost as bad as when General Sherman created a hell of a light show in Atlanta during the "War of Northern Aggression" that the rest of us know as the Civil War. A member of the Klan stopped my car as I was entering this little town and explained to me how everything was going to hell in a hand basket because this inter-racial couple liked each other. After absorbing his vitriol for a minute or two I put my car in gear, said "When are you ignorant pigs going to join the 20th century" and drove away. I'm betting the Klansman still remembers the day he told off that Yankee on the side of that Wilkinson County road.

By the time I moved to Washington DC in September 1994, my wall map of the United States' counties showed some huge holes in several states. Thanks to excellent air fares from Washington National Airport I spent many extended weekends flying somewhere and just driving from county to county. One weekend I found a $58 round trip from Washington to Louisville, Kentucky. I picked up a car at the Louisville airport and 3 days and more than 2000 miles later I returned to Louisville having finished off the last of the 124 counties in the Bluegrass State.

It was on this trip, while driving on the Bluegrass Parkway, that I passed a road sign welcoming me to Muhlenburg County. The name sounded familiar to me but I could not remember why. I'd never been in Muhlenburg County so why did I know about it? A mile or so later I crossed over a bridge and off to my left was a massive drag line used to open the earth and rape it of its coal. One word was painted on the side of the dragline - PEABODY. Then it hit me and I remembered why I knew of this county. John Prine had sung of it so passionately long ago.

Another time I rented a car at National airport and took off for southwest Virginia returning 3 days and 1700 miles later and had visited the last of all the counties and independent cities in Virginia and West Virginia. On this trip I thought I had run onto the Hatfield's and the McCoy's still feuding in McDowell County, West Virginia.

At the conclusion of the 20th century my wall map of US counties was colored brightly red except for a white patch in northwestern Nevada and in central Oregon. I was missing three Nevada counties and eight in Oregon and it bugged the hell out of me that I hadn't been to all of them.

Northwest Airlines offered a great round trip fare from National Airport to Reno, Nevada so over Memorial Day weekend 2000 I flew to Reno and went off to explore. From Reno ("The biggest little city in the world") I drove north to Humboldt and two adjacent counties before entering Harney County Oregon. There I drove first to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge out in the middle of absolutely nowhere in southeast Oregon. From Malheur I drove north and finally west. First I needed eight Oregon counties and then it was seven and then it was six and finally it was four.

I woke up on May 30, 2000 near the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in central Oregon needing just four more counties to have them all. As I drove west I picked off three more until finally at 4:04 p.m. (Pacific Time) on May 30, 2000, I drove into Deschutes County Oregon. It was county number 3,076.

I celebrated this milestone by visiting the Bend, Oregon airport (which I've not flown into or out of) and watching Horizon Airlines planes land and take off from the runway.

I slept in Bend that night and then left the following morning for Crater Lake National Park and eventually back to Reno. When I returned home from the trip I rather triumphantly colored in the last eight boundaries on my nearly 25 year old map and saved Deschutes County, appropriately, as the last one.

Having visited all of the counties or parishes (and all of the independent cities) in the lower 48 states and Hawaii was rather anti-climactic when it was over. Alaska has county equivalents known as "buroughs" and there are 17 of them in an area damned near the size of the lower 48 states. I've been to 16 of them and someday will get the North Slope burough. Still I have difficulty wrapping my head around the fact that a "county" in Alaska can be as large as all of Montana. Somehow something gets lost in the translation.

At one point early in my career I thought it would be to my advantage and to the Fish and Wildlife Service's advantage if I had all this extensive experience having visited all these places in the country. As it turned out all the Service was interested in was who was better at stroking the ego of the Assistant Director or the Division Chief - experience with the habitats of the country meant very little.

Still I'm glad I did it. To this day it still freaks people out on occasion when I'm talking to someone in an airport and they describe where they live and I say to them "that sounds like Throckmorton County, Texas." I can't remember all the times someones mouth dropped open and my guess as to where they lived was true. "How in hell did you know that"? I was regularly asked. Well, I have been there.

Although it was 11 years ago today that I visited the last of the 3,076 counties or parishes, I still have a rabid interest in them. It still gets a little tingly when I pass a county boundary sign no matter what state I'm in. Here in Florida with its 67 counties (I finished off Florida's counties in Union County in 1995) I am working diligently at seeing a minimum of 101 bird species in each county. Now when I'm out birding I have started to take a picture of the county boundary sign for each Florida county like this one for Manatee County where I now live.

Through all of the travels I kept a lot of notes about where I was, what I saw, who I conversed with and my feelings about each place I visited. Once I get two books published that are now finished manuscripts, and then get a book on travel in Asia and the Southern Hemisphere written, I want to write a book about counting counties. I think I will take one county in each of the fifty states and tell a story about it. My Wisconsin county would have to be Barron County where I was born and where all the journey's began. For Oregon it would have to be Deschutes County where all this nonsense ended. For the other forty seven states I'll think of something.

No doubt the book will be dedicated to Bob Ake because he was the one who got me started. His simple quip that night in River Falls, Wisconsin set me off on an odyssey that has taken me to every corner of this huge country. I've learned a lot about America in the process; its history, its geography, its customs and its some times crazy people. And I have Bob Ake to thank for giving me the push to experience it all.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Where Did The Time Go?

Forty two years ago tonight, May 29, 1969, the Rice Lake Wisconsin Senior High School Class of 1969 graduated and was let loose on the world.

At the time the war in Vietnam was grabbing all the headlines and beneath our high school bravado many of us feared that we'd be shipped off to Nam and come home in a box. Only one kid from Rice Lake ever did that - my cousin Dean Beranek. Nobody wanted to be the next one and luckily nobody ever did.

There were 209 of us in that graduating class and what a bunch we were. There were the brainy types like Marilyn Drew and Tim Lindgren, and the shy ones like Mike Staub (whom I never once heard say a single word), and the Playboy quality babes like Sue Johnson and Mary Holmstrom and Marla Williams to the hell raisers like....well...the Benavides brothers and me :) Our unofficial class motto was "Booze, Broads, Butts, Wine; We're The Class of Sixty NINE". As Steve Benavides told me recently, our class motto now is "Booze, Broads, Butts, Wine; We're STILL the Class of Sixty Nine".

Although some of us were hell raisers we never did anything really stupid - well - maybe just a little. Like the night in April 1969 when Tom and Steve Benavides and I ran out of beer and it was too late to get more from Orville Johnson, everyone's "source". One of us came up with the brilliant idea that we should break into the Omaha Bar and steal a six pack. Known as the "Big O" we drove there immediately. I parked directly in front of the bar and we three walked with larceny on our minds to the side of the bar. One of us knew how to break in locks (don't ask how he knew) and soon we were in the door. We have now committed breaking and entering. Quickly we walked to the cooler where one of us removed a six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. As we walked out the door Tom became overcome with guilt and left $1.25 on the bar to pay for the beer - technically we hadn't stolen anything but it would have been difficult convincing a judge otherwise.

Leaving the scene of the crime we drove out near Desair Lake and drank our ill-gotten booty. The next morning after milking cows my parents and I were listening to Dick Kaner present the news on WJMC radio. His lead story was how police were investigating a break in at the Big O. My dad, sitting across the table from me, mumbled "I hope they catch the sons of bitches." With most of the blood drained from my face I thought to myself "I hope the hell they don't." They never did but 27 years later when I returned home for my mom's funeral I went to the Big O and confessed. The bartender, who likely wasn't even born the day of our crime, bought me a bottle of beer for my honesty.

In the run up to our graduation the Class of 69 started training in January for the legendary Senior Class beer party. That first weekend we had one half-barrel of beer in the pole barn of a class mate. As winter turned into spring our training got us drinking more and more beer until the night of the beer party (held on land owned by another class mates parents north of the V and M Bar by Brill) nearly 200 of us consumed nearly 5 half barrels of beer (16.5 gallons per half barrel) before the sheriff's deputies raided the party and sent us all home. It was that night, sitting on the bed of a pick up truck that I kissed Liz McGough for the first and only time in my life. That was the first time I ever kissed a redhead and I think that one kiss set me off on a lifelong addiction to redheads. Thanks Liz!

Some of us had really hot cars. Earl "Buck" Smith owned a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle with a 396 cubic inch engine. One night we got it up to 132 miles per hour on Highway C east of Rice Lake. We slowed down only after a skunk unwittingly waddled out in front of the car and was promptly ground up by the radiator fan. Richard Uchytil used to drive his brothers Corvette to school. One day during lunch hour Richard cranked up the Vette in the High School parking lot, popped the clutch and took off south toward the auditorium in a thick blue haze of burning rubber. When he finally shut down the engine he discovered that he'd burned off both of the rear tires. I can still hear Richard saying "Oh, fuck, my brother is going to kill me."

Alan Arnold, whom I had known since the first grade in Menomonie Wisconsin, was selected to present our class speech. Those of us who knew Arnie well expected him to do something goofy on the stage but, looking back at it now, he did a masterful job. In part of his speech, as he talked about us being let loose on the world, Arnie mentioned that some in our class would become doctors (like Valedictorian Tim Lindgren did) and some would become lawyers (like Bruce Elbert did) and with a smile on his face Arnie said "and some of us might even be mayor of Rice Lake one day." Nearly 20 years later while switching planes in the Minneapolis airport I picked up the St. Paul Pioneer Press, turned to the Wisconsin section, and read a story in which Rice Lake Mayor Alan Arnold was quoted. I'll be damned - Arnie did it!

Some of us took off to explore the world. Clara Hein has been teaching in Australia for as long as I can remember. Tom Nelson joined the Navy and was once stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Others, like a large percentage of the class, stayed closer to home. Some of us like Bob Sharp and Lee Anderson and Eugene Heinz and Tom Benavides were sent to Vietnam while others of us (me) stayed home protesting in an attempt to get them home safely. However no matter where we went or what we accomplished or how many divorces we went through, many of us (probably the vast majority) have remained northern Wisconsin kids even if we are far away from "home."

My time in Rice Lake was only two years because my parents moved us from Cameron (six miles south) to a farm east of Rice Lake between the 10th and 11th grades. Although I graduated from Rice Lake I actually grew up with the "Cameron kids" and always felt a kinship with them. I still do today.

Two hundred nine of us received diplomas 42 years ago today - well 209 of us went through the graduation ceremony 42 years ago today - there is some speculation even today about whether all of us actually had a diploma in our diploma case that Principal Willard Swamson handed out that evening. Today 42 years later we aren't as many as we used to be. Some of us have departed the earth because of suicide and some because of cancer and some because of other diseases. After spending 13 months in Vietnam Lee Anderson returned home in August 1973, entered the Technical College in September and was promptly killed in a three-wheeler accident on a forest trail in Burnett County in October. I'm still angry with "Butch" for being in a drunken situation where that horrible thing could happen. I still feel like a part of me died that night in Brunett County when he died.

With the coming of 2011, all of us are now at least 60 years old or will be by the end of November when Bruce Kleven, the youngest kid in the class, turns 60. Accuarial tables tell us that it wont be long before the rate of our departure accelerates. Each week I read the online version of my home town newspaper and my first stop is always the obituaries to see if anyone I know is on the pages. Increasingly I see more and more familiar names that have passed on before me. And it makes me really sad to think of all those young and vibrant faces (and fantastic chest development in Sue Johnson's case)or near-perfect asses (in Trudy Owens' case) growing old and our hair turning gray and falling out and gravity shifting things around and eventually we are no more. Someone once said that you are never really dead until nobody can remember you. Given the personalities in the Class of 1969 it will be a very long time before the last one of us is ever forgotten.

Looking back on things now it is almost comical how we thought we knew everything back then when in fact we knew nothing at all. Almost everyone who survived puberty and their 20s has had the same epiphany but still its more stark when it involves yourself. Some times I wonder if Kenny Chesney didn't record his song "Young" for all of us back then.

Its because we aren't as many as we used to be that I think the song in this video by James McMurtry titled "Just Us Kids" is a fitting tribute to those of us who graduated from RLHS (Go Warriors) 42 years ago tonight and to my brothers and sisters in the Cameron High School class of 1969 who were let loose on the world on almost the same night.

I will never forget the wrap up of Alan Arnold's now-famous class speech that night long ago. He finished his script, looked up from the podium, gave everyone the peace sign and said, simply, "peace."

I can not think of a better way to sum it up even now 42 years later.