Chattanoogan Charlie Steinhice is a man on a mission to visit every county in America

Photo contributed by Charlie Steinhice / Charlie Steinhice and his wife, Linda Matthews, stand in Death Valley in 2017. Steinhice made a social media post saying that their relationship had hit a new low.

There's an inside joke among folks who share the odd hobby of visiting every county in the United States.

They'll ask: "Why do you think they call them count-ies ... if they weren't meant to be counted?"

It's a real knee-slapper, apparantly, if you are part of the club.

And it's a small club. Only an estimated 100-150 Americans have ever touched all 3,144 U.S. counties (and equivalents). There's an actual group called the Extra-Miler Club that gathers once a year — really, it's a subset of the national Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, which holds a break-out session each year at its national convention for the smattering of county-counters.

Counting counties is not something you stumble into. It's an extremely intentional hobby. At some point, it becomes a life obsession — it takes decades for most county-counters to reach their goal. The rules of the game are that you can count any county you touch by foot, tire or boat hull — yes, some counties are only reachable by ferry.

Charlie Steinhice, 63, a lifelong Chattanoogan and a BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee employee, is one of these hobbyists. He's been at it for four decades. Some people collect stamps or baseball cards, but Steinhice is 85 percent of the way to visiting every county in the United States.

"I collect counties," said Steinhice, who says he has bagged 2,670 so far. "That odd hobby has led me to some of the greatest experiences of my life, in places I might never have gone otherwise.

"I actively started collecting counties when I was 25, although I was able to include counties that I knew for sure I'd visited before then," he continued. "It helped that my dad would give me a road map to follow on family vacations, starting when I was maybe 8 or 9."

Steinhice began this pursuit in the 1980s when he bought his friend Bob Selcer a road atlas for $3.99 and highlighted all the places they had been together on road trips.

At the time, Steinhice was working in Chattanooga as a balloon delivery guy who occasionally dressed up as a tutu-clad gorilla. He was short on cash one Christmas, so the atlas was all he could afford as a gift for his friend. Meanwhile, the act of highlighting road trips in the atlas sent his ample brain spinning — Steinhice is president of the American Mensa Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the high-IQ society, Mensa. (So yeah, he is probably the smartest tutu-wearing gorilla impersonator in world history.)

After contemplating the atlas, Steinhice settled on the idea of collecting counties on all of his leisure and work trips. He thought to himself, "You know, if I'm going to do this, I want to go to all of them. I wonder if anyone has ever done that?" He found out later that many others had accomplished the feat, but also that it was harder than he had imagined.

For one thing, the number of U.S. counties is constantly shifting. It's not unheard of for new counties to form and old counties to dissolve. Connecticut, for example, abolished counties and created new "regional planning districts" that erased Steinhice's 100-percent visitation rate on the previous counties there.

Also, it's hard to find willing travel companions when all you are doing is touching the bases. Steinhice says his wife, Linda, will sometimes accompany him on county-counting trips, but only if he promises an interesting destination in the mix.

Things have gotten more sophisticated for county-counters over the years. There is now a website ( where you can log your personal county list and color-code your travels by decades. Steinhice can look as his maps and remember when his daughter attended college in Minnesota, or when his sister lived in Washington, D.C., or when he began going to conventions out West.

Steinhice said his biggest swath of unclaimed counties is in the northwestern quadrant of the United States. Knock those out, and he will be at 90 percent-plus, he said. He thinks he can complete the whole list of counties by the time he turns 75.

He said he loves the hobby because it appeals to both sides of his brain — the left side's sense of order (checking off the counties) and the right side's zest for adventure.

"The biggest thing that it has taught me is that there is something worthy of note in every county," he said.

Some of his travels are fun — he's seen the world's largest ball of twine and has drunk a delicacy called a "pie shake," which is just what it sounds like: a milkshake made of pie.

One of the most inspirational places he's visited is a county in Hawaii that's essentially a leper colony with only a few residents remaining. When the last person dies at the Molokai Leper Colony, which was first opened in 1866, the land will be converted to a national park, Steinhice said.

Far from the red state vs. blue state cliché that hangs over America, Steinhice said he finds every locale he visits to be distinctive and interesting.

"You appreciate differences and common threads more," he said of his travels. "You start talking about where people live, and you get great stories. You meet interesting people."

Steinhice encourages more people to play travel games like counting counties to learn more about America.

"You don't have to go to my extreme," he said. "Maybe you just visit the state capitals."

  photo  Photo contributed by Charlie Steinhice / Charlie Steinhice arrived in Punxsutawney, PA, in 2016.