It started out as a simple question from her mailman: Do you like to travel?
Oregon resident Marge Brown knew already of course that, yes, she loved to travel. But 3,143 counties and equivalent political subdivisions later, her response in 1992 appears now to be cemented in cold, hard fact.
That’s how many districts Ms. Brown — accompanied by that retired postal worker who later became her significant other, Lenny Fetterman — has visited. On Sunday, she celebrated her 76th birthday by crossing the county line in Barry County, Michigan, near Kalamazoo, to complete her quest.
The travels of the two locals are part of a bigger, national movement by members of the Extra Miler Club, an organization founded in 1973 by two men who met at a license plate convention and recognized they both had the same passionate goal to travel to all the counties. Ms. Brown is currently the vice president.
The group, 300 members strong, has a motto: “The shortest distance between two points is no fun.”
The couple has racked up thousands and thousands of miles on their journey.
“We always take an extra mile. Every time we took a wrong turn, we saw something we would have never seen [otherwise],” Ms. Brown said.
“A lot of times you got construction and you were sent different ways,” Mr. Fetterman said.
It took Ms. Brown 21 years to complete the project. Give or take.
At home, her adventures are recorded in 25 binders, a photocopy of each state mapped out with highlighter, the date of completion for that state written neatly in the top right corner. “Marge’s Counties” penciled on the front. A photograph taken with Ms. Brown at the county line sign at the last county visited in each state was a must and is displayed on each state’s page.
They weren’t always easy to find, those darned counties. Or to get to.
Transportation varied. It’s a trains, planes, and automobiles (minus the train — “we’ve never taken one,” for this particular quest, she laments) type of tale. Oh, and boats.
There were planes to catch ferry boats. Cars driven thousands of miles to catch charter flights.
And at least one mule.
To get to Kalawao County, Hawaii, a county on the island of Moloka’i isolated by quarter-mile high sea cliffs, the couple had to saddle up and travel down a switchback trail.
They took their first trips together using a van as a camper, a double-wide mattress in the back. They added things on each trip — curtains for the windows, a griddle to cook on. As time wore on, hotel rooms became the lodging of choice.
Driving out of their way happened a lot. In Utah, Ms. Brown and Mr. Fetterman found the last needed county — Grand County — but drove hundreds of miles without finding the sign for their mandatory photo. Ms. Brown flagged down a sheriff’s deputy driving by, and he agreed to let them take the photo by his cruiser as evidence.
There were brief interruptions. Ms. Brown entered politics in 1989 when she was elected to Oregon City Council. She retired from teaching in 1996 after 39 years with Oregon School District, and later served as the city’s mayor from 2001 to 2009. When she left politics, Ms. Brown didn’t want to sit on the back patio.
“She said, ‘I’d like to finish my counties,’” said Mr. Fetterman, an Oak Harbor native who finished his own journey to visit every county or county-equivalent, in 1997.
Texas has the most counties with 254. Delaware has only three. Some states do not have established counties, but what are called county equivalents. Alaska has boroughs and census districts; Louisiana has parishes. Given geopolitical changes, the Extra Miler Club estimates the geographical divisions that members strive to visit can range from 3,127 to 3,145.
In June and the first half of July, Ms. Brown and Mr. Fetterman put 8,200 miles on a vehicle visiting 15 counties in Colorado and 27 in Kansas before the grand finale — Barry County, Michigan, where they were accompanied by more than 50 family members and friends, and a sheriff’s escort across the county line near M-37 at 12:37 p.m., to coincide with her birth year, 1937.
The AAA of Northwest Ohio said specific travel requests like those of Ms. Brown and Ms. Fetterman are not uncommon. Marci Zielinski, marketing and development coordinator, said AAA has mapped the World’s Longest Yard Sale (690 miles between Michigan and Alabama), and tours of county courthouses, covered bridges, and all of the gluten-free restaurants between Toledo and Cleveland.
“Every once in a while we get people who, that’s how they want to spend their summer — with a definite theme to their trip,” Ms. Zielinski said.
The stories of life on the road for Ms. Brown and Mr. Fetterman are endless; the adventures more numerous than the number of counties and cities visited. Their rule of thumb through the Extra Miler Club was to be at least a half-mile into each county, but it was never just “visit the county and leave.”
The pair traveled 287 miles down U.S. 50 in Nevada, called the loneliest road in America by Life Magazine. Along the way, a random gas station attendant or patron would stamp their “Highway 50 Survival Guide.” The trip allowed them to check off five counties and one independent city, Carson City.
They gripped the sides of the bed on a marine vessel that carried them to the tip of the Aleutian Islands, riding out 40-foot waves in the Pacific Ocean.
They flew over Mount McKinley in Alaska and peered down into the depths of the Grand Canyon from its glass skywalk.
They met people. There was the woman on the flight from Juneau to Anchorage who cried softly, confiding in Ms. Brown that she had just come from burying her baby sister. In Gibsland, La., they conversed with the mayor, who also owned the restaurant where they stopped to get a bite to eat.
They shared a meal of green vegetables known as fiddleheads, the furled fronds of young ferns, with a man and his grandchildren in the town of Talkeetna in Alaska.
Their meals were always local fare — suggestions by the local postmaster or other community know-it-all. They hobnobbed with customers, made friends. And Mr. Fetterman left his signature $2 bills for tips.
There were adventures within the adventures — Ms. Brown attempted to golf and go to church in every state. Her tally so far? Church, 33. Golf, 32.
They did research and visited as many museums as they could. Still, it’s never enough.
“You can travel it in a lifetime, but you can’t see it in a lifetime,” Mr. Fetterman said.
They have more goals. They want to travel to every continent. Antarctica and Australia are left.
Ms. Brown is still active locally, sitting on numerous boards in Oregon.
They have scheduled a trip this fall to Los Angeles and Seattle. Finally, they are going by train.
“In a boring minute, we might see what states I still have to go to church in — I think I’m 17 away," Ms. Brown said. “I’m not one to sit still.”
For more information, visit www.extramilerclub.org.
Contact Roberta Gedert at: email@example.com or 419-724-6081.