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Geographical Oddities

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For those of you interested in some of the irregularities of state political boundaries—for instance, why Michigan is separated into two large peninsulas, why Oklahoma has a panhandle, or why Colorado is just a boring old rectangle—there is a great book to read. That book is How the States Got Their Shape by Mark Stein. In detail, Stein explores each state’s border—explaining the various social and political forces, many oft-long forgotten, that went into the making of each state’s boundary. It’s an easy and entertaining read, and it is quite surprising to learn how often petty disputes (i.e. Missouri’s southeast corner) or rudimentary surveying mistakes (i.e. the Kentucky/Tennessee border) made America’s state geography much more complicated than it ideally should have been.

For some folks, it is simple enough just to read about peculiar political boundaries. For others, it is necessary to visit them (think about the 4-corner intersection of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, which is a modern-day tourist attraction. The allure of being in four states at once is well worth the three dollar entrance fee!)

 

Four Corners Monument

The Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona 4-corner border. Yes, I’ve been there.

 

And, as American political boundaries rarely follow logical physical geographical boundaries, the result is some absurdities in state physical geography extremes. Recently, I spent a weekend exploring some geographical oddities near me; in particular I went to Mount Frissell, a mountain in Massachusetts which oddly enough is also the highest point in Connecticut.

What drew me to this particular non-descript mountain in the extreme southwestern corner of Massachusetts? Well, it was a form of geographical tourism known as highpointing. Simply put, highpointers are people who try to reach the highest point in each state or region. Now personally, I had previously climbed the tallest mountain in a few states before, but I had never really made highpointing more of a goal until I picked up a guidebook of state highpoints at a library used book sale last year. Being somewhat of a geography nerd, I thought it would be a fun travel project to undertake (at least to all the highpoints in which ropes and glacier travel are not required!)

 And hence I learned about Mount Frissell. Though the mountain has its own scenic merits and was quite a lush walk through the deciduous Connecticut uplands, I would have had incredibly little reason to ever visit otherwise.

 

Mt Frissell Large

Mount Frissell

 

My approach to Mount Frissell came from the Connecticut side of the mountain, where an inconspicuous town road out of Salisbury eventually leads to the trailhead destination. I drove northwards out of town, up a narrow dirt road lined with verdant shrubs and trees. Immediately after hitting the state border marker with Massachusetts, I was at the trailhead. Oddly enough, I would not enter Connecticut on this trip again until I emerged at its state highpoint!

The trail to the summit begins deceptively flat and effortless. A quarter mile in, though, as East Coast trails are prone to do, the path shoots straight up the bedrock slopes of Mount Frissell. Fortunately, the trail was short enough, the views rewarding, and in less than an hour I was at the summit of Mount Frissell, elevation 2,454 feet.

Though I was at the summit, I still had not accomplished my highpoint goal for the day (nor was I at the highpoint of Massachusetts. That honor belongs to Mount Greylock at 3,489 feet, just a couple hours’ drive north.) Fortunately, my climbing portion was done. All I needed to do now was to descend about 300 yards down Frissell’s south slope until I reached the Connecticut border.

A rock cairn and a humble state survey marker are the only evidence that you’ve made it to Connecticut’s highpoint, a modest 2,379 feet. The area itself looks little different from the surrounding forest, and, being on a slope, the views are fairly obscured by vegetation. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being the highest person in the state of Connecticut for awhile, as I rested and perused the trail register notes left by fellow highpointers.

 

 

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For geography bonus points, continue walking west on the trail for a few more minutes. Soon you will come upon the tri-state boundary for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. As you stand there deep in the woods, maybe you’ll wonder to yourself ‘why in the world did people bother to put this giant stone obelisk in the middle of the forest?’ Well, that’s geographers for you.

 

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The New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Tri-State Boundary

 

Other nearby state superlatives of note: Bash Bish Falls, measuring nearly 200 feet in a series of separate cascades, is Massachusetts’s highest waterfall. Well worth the visit.

 

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Bash Bish Falls, Massachusetts’s Highest Waterfall

 

 

Counting by Counties

An item on many people’s bucket lists, including mine, is to visit every one of the fifty United States. It’s a large task, considering the vast size of our country…but then again, it’s not too challenging when one considers how large most states are and how merely transiting around this country will often result in unintended visits to new states and to new places. As for me, before I reached the age of 27 in 2017, I had already set foot in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Mapped out, it looks like I have visited most of our country:

Year of First Visit to State

 

But for how many people, is visiting every single county in the United States on the bucket list? Instead of a mere 50 states, the total list extends to 3,142 counties*. For fellow alumnus of Calvin College’s Geography Department Tom Byker, this was a very intentional goal. Byker started his earnest quest to visit every single American county after beginning college, and this county-visit project was one highlight on his resume that helped him in landing a job at the navigational company TomTom. Tom recently brought his county visit project to a close after visiting his final county in Hawaii in 2017.

Inspired by the fine-scale travel goals of Tom Byker and the other ‘County Collectors,’ I decided to make my own map of county visits, mainly out of curiosity of where I’ve been in each state. I have never kept a formal list of counties that I have visited, so the entire map is based off memory of past travels I have been on. The majority of county travel has occurred during college and beyond, but I did try and reconstruct the county locations of some early family trips. And yes, I did count driving through a county as adequate for a visit. Here is what my county-scale map looks like:

 

US County Visit Map_2

 

And what can I learn from the county-level map?

  • In total, I have visited 924 of 3,142 counties, which is about 29% of all counties.
  • Despite visiting 48 of 50 states, there are still large swaths of the United States that I have not visited, namely the South and the Southeast.
  • It becomes quickly apparent in which counties the interstates are. Interstates 94, 90, 80, 70, 44, 40, 35, 55, 57, 65, 69, and 75 all readily pop out, as well as U.S. Highway 2. Can I say, ‘Road Trip?’
  • It’s easy to tick off county visits in the Western U.S. Not only is the West a great road trip destination, but the counties are also much larger. For example, Wyoming’s counties average 4,257 square miles while Georgia’s counties average only 373 square miles.
  • I have visited every single county in two states: Oregon (completed in 2014 after a 2012 summer internship and lots of Grad School fieldwork in the state) and Massachusetts (completed in 2017, which included visits by ferry to both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands, which are their own respective counties).
  • Broken down by counties, the states I have seen the least of are Louisiana (<5%), Arkansas (<3%), and Texas (<2%) (excluding North and South Carolina, which I have not yet visited).
  • I have visited less of my own home state of Michigan than many other states. I have visited 71% of all Michigan counties, which ranks my home state as only 12th on my list according to percentage of counties visited.

 

*Here I use the term county broadly to include all U.S. counties or county equivalents. Most states are divided into counties, but Louisiana is similarly divided into parishes, and Alaska is similarly divided into boroughs. Additionally, several states (although primarily Virginia) have cities that are independent of any county. All of these categories are combined to get the number 3,142.
Maps generated are courtesy of mapchart.net

 

Here is the state-wide data on visits to each state:

State # Counties # Visited % Visited
Alabama 67 16 23.88%
Alaska 29 3 10.34%
Arizona 15 5 33.33%
Arkansas 75 2 2.67%
California 58 52 89.66%
Colorado 64 26 40.63%
Connecticut 8 7 87.50%
District of Columbia 1 1 100.00%
Delaware 3 1 33.33%
Florida 67 10 14.93%
Georgia 159 24 15.09%
Hawaii 5 2 40.00%
Idaho 44 40 90.91%
Illinois 102 44 43.14%
Indiana 92 36 39.13%
Iowa 99 21 21.21%
Kansas 105 18 17.14%
Kentucky 120 9 7.50%
Louisiana 64 3 4.69%
Maine 16 13 81.25%
Maryland 24 8 33.33%
Massachusetts 14 14 100.00%
Michigan 83 59 71.08%
Minnesota 87 32 36.78%
Mississippi 82 25 30.49%
Missouri 115 22 19.13%
Montana 56 34 60.71%
Nebraska 93 19 20.43%
Nevada 17 9 52.94%
New Hampshire 10 7 70.00%
New Jersey 21 15 71.43%
New Mexico 33 7 21.21%
New York 62 25 40.32%
North Carolina 100 0 0.00%
North Dakota 53 20 37.74%
Ohio 88 26 29.55%
Oklahoma 77 13 16.88%
Oregon 36 36 100.00%
Pennsylvania 67 40 59.70%
Rhode Island 5 4 80.00%
South Carolina 46 0 0.00%
South Dakota 66 18 27.27%
Tennessee 95 12 12.63%
Texas 254 5 1.97%
Utah 29 13 44.83%
Vermont 14 7 50.00%
Virginia 133 14 10.53%
Washington 39 34 87.18%
West Virginia 55 6 10.91%
Wisconsin 72 49 68.06%
Wyoming 23 18 78.26%
Total 3142 924 29.41%