Geography teacher collects counties
Geography teacher collects counties
By JIM FISHER - Columnist
LAWRENCE -- Dave Schul, unlike a lot of collectors, eschews stamps, coins, baseball cards, railroad spikes, movie posters, spark plugs or any of the myriad incongruous objects Americans squirrel away because of sentiment, hope of a windfall or even compulsion.
What Schul, 31, collects are counties -- jurisdictions marked mainly by little towns with typically nondescript courthouses. He'll drive to, say, Gove, Kan.; Paoli, Ind.; Marshall, Ill.; Marble Hill, Mo.; or Brewster, Neb., walk around, have a cup of coffee, then check off Gove, Orange, Clark, Bollinger and Blaine counties.
It's all in your head, Schul said. And on maps or journals you keep. There are no boxes full of "stuff" you have to lug around.
"I used to take pictures," Schul said. "But sometimes I forget my camera."
So far Schul has "collected" 1,774 counties, the majority in the Middle West and South. Most of the trips mean merely pointing his car east, west, north or south. But not always; he's used a computer program to plot efficient routes, enabling him to hit 28 county seats without having to make a bunch of U-turns.
Once at his destination, Schul will occasionally strike up a conversation with a local, divulge what he's doing, and invariably get either plain words or a long look implying, in a word, that he's loony.
"I know," Schul said.
Still, such encounters haven't stopped him. The quixotic chase is what counts, he said. Plus knowing all sorts of people share his quest and the realization they are doing something is the antithesis of their everyday lives.
Roaming the highways, Schul said, are wanderers just like him, trying to visit every one of the country's 3,096 or 3,127 counties (the exact count depends on a variety of definitions). Such an avocation, he said, most likely isn't socially redeeming, falls short of the utter seriousness that has overtaken the country, and is probably politically incorrect because it's loads of fun.
Plus, he said, you meet all sorts of interesting people.
Some of his fellow pilgrims have added Canada and foreign countries to their hunt for counties. Others are also visiting the highest and lowest point in each state. One man is visiting all the counties in a 1927 Model T. Some have, for obscure reasons, added lighthouses to courthouses. And one soul vowed not only to visit every county but eat a Big Mac at every McDonald's in the country.
"I got started in college," said Schul, a native of Hamilton, Ohio. "I had a real pompous classmate. He was always saying he's been lots of places, you know, Europe, Paris, and that the rest of us hasn't been anywhere.
"I'd always liked maps, so I got to looking and I had been places. Maybe not Paris, but I'd been all over Ohio and Kentucky and Indiana. So I added them up and went to him and said, `I've been to more places that you.' And I had."
What had been a proposition become an avocation. Schul would take off and head for a county he hadn't been to -- specifically the engineer's office, where a free map could be had for the asking.
A few years ago he found a group of like-minded souls, called The Extra Miler Club. The club is several hundred people -- mostly men, but lately with a smattering of women -- and is run out of Boulder City, Nev.. It publishes a chatty newsletter and now has a Web site at www.emc.cjb.net.
Schul's 1,774 counties pale in comparison to some Extra Milers, who are above the 3,000 mark. And his 1996 Saturn, with 100,000-plus miles, seems pretty posh when compared with the conveyance of a club member named Bill McMurray, who has traveled to almost 800 counties using just a bicycle.
The best Schul has done in a single year is 267 counties. He's been to the one county in Washington, D.C., named, not surprisingly, Washington; four of the five counties in Hawaii (the fifth is a former leper colony); every county in 15 states; and, in all, more than 55 percent of the counties in the nation.
This year, though, he's batting zero. He and his wife. Cathy, have a new baby girl named Molly and, besides, the nearest unvisited county is down in Mississippi.
Schul has no idea how long it will take him to finish his venture.
"But then it really doesn't matter, does it?" Schul said.
Six years ago, Schul was in the disability end of the life insurance game. Monotonous doesn't begin to cover it, he said, rolling his eyes.
So Schul changed careers, becoming a geographer and finishing up his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. He's embraced a profession some might envision as akin to endless actuarial tables and volumes of accident reports.
"What people usually say is, `Hasn't everything already been found?' " Schul said.
As a KU teaching assistant, Schul answers by saying yes to the easily seen stuff, but then brings up the revolution that technology has wrought on his discipline.
In a sense, geography has exploded in recent years. Professional geographers are the ones who set up 911 systems. Computer stores are stocked with CD-ROM maps and trip planners created by geographers. The military is into geography in a big way. Global positioning satellites have spawned new mapping and devices that can pinpoint the location of a luxury car or an 18-wheeler. And the requisites for any environmental project are -- not surprisingly -- maps.
"It used to be geography was droning lectures," Schul said. "Now we get the students out -- to a river, to meet a weather forecaster, all sorts of things. Let them get an idea that geography is real."
Just like all the places Schul has visited.
Towns with courthouses. Some big. Most small. Places, often deprecated as Hicksville (seven such-named places in the United States) or Podunk (five so named).
Yet, as Schul points out, counties are also places where deeds are registered; wills are filed; births, marriages, divorces and deaths are recorded; taxes are collected; laws are enforced; and, in rare cases in the majority of the states, the power to impose the death penalty reposes.
"There more to counties than you'd think," Schul said.
To reach Jim Fisher, mid-America correspondent for The Star, call (913) 681-2320 or send e-mail to email@example.com