What can you learn by traveling to every county in the U.S.? One Coloradan found out

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Man in a navy zip up jacket with red trimming takes a selfie looks up at the camera in front of a sign.
Courtesy Danny Zimny-Schmitt
A selfie taken by Danny Zimny-Schmitt at the spot near Lebanon, Kansas that’s considered the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states.

Do you know how many counties Colorado has? What about how many there are across the entire United States?

Before we get to the answers, meet someone who knows. Because Danny Zimny-Schmitt of Denver has visited every single one of them, even those in Hawaii and Alaska.

“As my parents would tell you, I’ve always had this traveling wanderlust ever since I was a child,” Zimny-Schmitt said.

Growing up in Chicago and by the time he was in high school, Zimny-Schmitt was asking for his parents' permission to take Megabus excursions and Amtrak trains around the Midwest. 

He came to Colorado for college, studying environmental science at the University of Denver before getting his master’s degree in geography.

But it was the result of the 2016 presidential election that really sparked his desire to keep traveling until he touched every county.

“I felt like I was someone who had traveled a lot, I thought I had understood this country,” he said. “It really shocked me to see our growing political divide, and [I wanted] to find a way to understand that that was perhaps more up-close and personal.”

So that’s what he set out to do by traveling to all 3,143 counties in the U.S. — including the 64 in Colorado. And it took a lot of planning, budgeting and patience.

“What I tried to do to make it a little more interesting was find state parks, museums, historic sites along the way to kind of trace together a journey, while crossing into as many counties as possible in between,” Zimny-Schmitt said.

He did most of this crisscrossing during his mid-to late-20s, once he could start renting a car at age 25. 

A white historical sign with grey sky in the background along a sidewalk, cars parked on the side of the road to the left to the right are buildings.
Courtesy Danny Zimny-Schmitt
A historical sign in New Bern, North Carolina marks where a local pharmacist created the original formula of what later became Pepsi-Cola.

Planning around his work schedule, Zimny-Schmitt kept a close eye on flight and car rental prices to decide when to book his trips, which also informed his itineraries. He usually flew into an airport and then drove long distances from there.

“I set a budget kind of arbitrarily of something like $10 per county,” he explained. 

He would hit a county, then color it in orange on a printed map filled with many others waiting to be explored. And as the map became more orange, he began to explore counties off the beaten path, like those in the deep South and rural parts of America. He writes in an article on Medium:

“With the low hanging fruit gone, I faced the more difficult (and expensive) proposition of traveling to counties in states along the East Coast and in the broader South. Did I really want to do this? Wouldn’t it be scary to drive through the hollows of West Virginia and the bayous of Louisiana alone?”

For Zimny-Schmitt, that was an opportunity for inner growth.

“I think I’m more naturally an introvert who’s learned extraversion perhaps over the course of the past decade, not solely through this project but in part,” Zimny-Schmitt said.

“I think I became a lot less afraid to say hello to someone that maybe before I felt, ‘Well I have nothing in common with them. What would I ever talk about?’ So I think it helped bring me out of my shell in that way.”

It also opened his eyes to some of the geographic and economic divides of the United States, including one experience when he traveled to the Mississippi Delta with some friends.

“We all met in Memphis, we drove down to Greenwood. We were going to have breakfast there, and both of the places that Google said were open … ended up being closed. And downtown was eerily deserted at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning.” 

For Zimny-Schmitt, seeing a desolate downtown in a small rural area was nothing new. But for his friends, it was much more profound.

“They were surprised and said, ‘This is one of the saddest little towns I’ve ever seen.’ And to me I was like, ‘Wow I’ve been to 1,000 towns that look just like this,’” he told CPR News. “So it was just understanding that most people don’t spend time visiting these forgotten places.”

And so the group ate at a nearby McDonald's instead.

Zimny-Schmitt finished his 3,143 county multi-year odyssey last November on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Alabama. It’s a national park that also crosses into Mississippi and Tennessee.

“I almost couldn’t believe it. I still feel there are places I haven’t seen because counties in the West are big, and I could have gone through one side and haven’t seen other places,” he said. “It was almost like this is the end of one journey, but it’s not necessarily the end of learning.”

People standing in front of and along the grounds of a historical-styled red grey and white building surrounded by lush green shrubbery.
Courtesy Danny Zimny-Schmitt
The North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

Reflecting on his journey, Zimny-Schmitt underscored why he wanted to share his experiences with others.

“The most important thing is to never pass up an opportunity to have a genuine, heartfelt interaction with someone who you feel you might not have anything in common with,” he said.

“If we’re going to heal a lot of the divides in our country, it’s going to take all of us not being afraid to get out of our comfort zones, to humanize other people and understand where their perspectives are coming from.”  

While visiting every county in the U.S. is ambitious, others have done it before.

There’s even a club for those that have accomplished the gargantuan geographic task called the “Extra Miler Club.”

While Zimny-Schmitt thinks he might be the youngest to ever accomplish this feat, he plans to confirm it at the club’s next annual meeting on June 29 in Lansing, Mich.