ROGERS PARK — In 1953, 10-year-old John Fitzgerald was tasked with marking the route his family took on their road trip to Florida. That backseat chore sparked a lifelong interest in travel.
This year on Aug. 9, at the age of 71, he'll have nowhere left to mark on his oversized map of the U.S. — Fitzgerald's lifelong quest to visit all 3,143 counties in America with his wife will be complete.
The final stop: Luce County, Mich.
He and his wife, Judy, who is his trusted driver while he navigates, will be the 41st and 42nd people to have accomplished such a feat.
To put that in perspective, a comparatively whopping 660 people have successfully climbed Mt. Everest.
"We've enjoyed it, and we've looked forward to getting off the interstates and seeing the historical sites and really learning about the country and its values," he said. "And it's worked, frankly."
Fitzgerald, a retired attorney, said the pair would be surrounded by family and friends as they cross county lines from Alger into Luce, bringing an end to the "terrifically crazy idea" he and his wife began to chase decades ago.
Linze Rice says some spots in Alaska and Hawaii were difficult to reach:
Fitzgerald's 4-year-old granddaughter, who is in recovery from leukemia, has already started filling out her own U.S. map, county by county. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
Included in that group will be their 4-year-old granddaughter, who after battling a leukemia diagnosis at age 2, started following in her grandparents' cross-country trek.
Her small map, kept safely and neatly among Fitzgerald's things, has a thin vertical line made of tiny blue boxes, each documented from a visit inspired by her grandparents.
Always interested in geography and maps, Fitzgerald said his marriage to Judy required a solemn swear to travel the world together.
"My wife is a great travel partner. In fact, one of the conditions of our marriage was that we had to love travel," he said.
A lifelong Chicagoan, he said he always wanted "see the other side of the mountain," when it came to the vastness of America.
At first, he said the couple considered visiting each state capital, but quickly learned it was a plan many others had done. Plus, they decided, it was too easy.
So the couple vowed to make travel a staple in their relationship, dragging their children along on side trips, mini-adventures, winding back roads and beyond.
Fitzgerald said he placed a pin in each place where he and his wife stayed overnight for the first time during their travels. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
They took two-week vacations in Oklahoma — a choice many rolled their eyes or laughed at, he said — but one that also snagged them 58 new counties.
Once their kids went off to college and the two retired, the world travelers became involved in organizations like the Circumnavigators Club and the Extra-Miler Club, a group of people also dedicated to visiting each U.S. county, but each with their own twist.
For example, for some in the group to consider their trip successful, they must take a picture with the county line sign. For others, it could mean they must walk barefoot through the county, visit the highest or lowest point (or both), get a signature from a county employee, or even play a round of golf at the local green.
For the Fitzgeralds?
"You've got to physically cross the county line on the surface of the Earth, you can't fly over it, you can't be asleep crossing it, you've got to be aware of it," he said.
Though it has been time-consuming and expensive at times, Fitzgerald and his wife said the experience of traveling across America, especially over the course of a lifetime, is an "outstanding" feat and privilege.
He said he's seen several shifts in the nation, like a more "homogenized, Americanized" culture that makes it more difficult to distinguish accents and other cultural markers from U.S. regions than in years past.
Fitzgerald in Alaska. [John Fitzgerald]
He said traveling has also been a way for him to experience the deeply rich and diverse tapestry of the country, from chartering a private plane to visit a Hawaiian county containing a leper colony, to counties in the south during Jim Crow eras where segregation was rampant.
"If we wanted to sit at the back of the bus, and we were, you know of the white persuasion, then they wouldn't let us, they'd make us move to the front," Fitzgerald said, who in 1965 participated in the civil rights march to Selma. "That always stuck with me."
Now, as the Fitzgeralds near their final county before their map of America is fully red, they say they're amazed at the lives they've so far led, and encourage others to "broaden their horizons" by traveling, meeting people and confronting their wildest fears and curiosities.
As for what's next: "That's a good question," Fitzgerald said, laughing.
He said the couple are "taking suggestions," but have considered revisiting Yellowstone National Park, a place that both fueled Fitzgerald's passion for the outdoors and travel, but also where he spent his honeymoon.
"We spent a lot of years and a lot of bucks trying to get to these places," he said, chuckling. "And never really regretting it."
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