A photo-illustration of a county map of the U.S.
Madison Johnson/CityLab

I was haunted by painful memories of growing up. But when I started tracking every county I’d ever visited, I found a better way of seeing my past.

My memories of childhood used to begin with this one: I am eight or nine years old, in a carpeted spare room in my grandparents’ house —where my family lived at the time. I am hungry. But my dad doesn’t offer me food.

Instead, he says, “Why don’t you eat some Christian crackers?”

He meant Communion wafers; this was a dig at the expense of my churchgoing grandparents, who’d started bringing me to services. But I was disturbed by my father’s response. I knew you weren’t supposed to eat Communion wafers as a snack, and there weren’t even any in the house. I also knew that parents were supposed to help their children, not make fun of them.

I don’t remember how I responded. I might have stared, or cried, or tried to treat it as a joke. What I do remember is the hurt I experienced.

For years, many of the childhood scenes I could remember were similarly marked by loneliness and discomfort. The times I played with neighborhood bullies because I had no other friends. The days I walked out of class to wander in a nearby park, hoping someone would look for me.

The instability of my early years must have helped to color my emotional state. By the time I started going to high school, I’d lived in three different states and in six distinct combinations of parents, grandparents, and a stepparent. I knew that my family loved me dearly, spent quality time with me, and in many ways sacrificed to put me first. Yet my memories were hurtful enough that I’d often demur when someone asked about my childhood.

But this has been changing, for a reason I could not possibly have foreseen. Two years ago, I stumbled across a website called Mob Rule, which people use to track which of the 3,142 counties in the U.S. they have visited. Mob Rule is a tool built by and for hobbyists—“county collectors”—who set a goal of visiting as many American counties as they can. Some of these enthusiasts gather annually at meetings of the Extra Miler Club. (Motto: “The shortest distance between two places is no fun.”)

A screenshot of Mob Rule’s map of New Jersey, filled out by Higashide. (Mob Rule)

I have never met an Extra Miler, but I have avidly grown my tally to 334—just over 1 out of every 10 American counties, mapped in a patchwork of blue (for the 5 counties I have called home), green (the 138 counties I have set foot in), and orange (the 191 counties I have only passed through, inside a train or car). And the simple maps I’ve generated through the website have helped me activate a different trigger of part of my memory that isn’t so infused with pain: place.

When I first logged into this arcane corner of the internet, I spent hours mentally retracing old ventures. I looked up the routes of Amtrak trains I’d taken. I thought back to high school field trips and summer vacations. I noted the growing list of places I’d traveled to for work: Portland (Multnomah County, Oregon), Houston (Harris County, Texas), Seattle (King County, Washington). I even made sure to mark an emergency landing at Lehigh Valley International Airport (Lehigh County, Pennsylvania), where I recovered over a beer at the airport’s lonely sit-down joint.

When I traced the line of a New Orleans-to-Chicago train trip I once took with work colleagues, I recalled the jigsaw puzzle we left in the sightseeing car, which other passengers worked on through the night. When I entered a road trip a friend and I took from Atlanta to Savannah, the taste of boiled peanuts filled my mouth. When I looked at my map of Arizona, the shiver of cold air and the comforting warmth of my partner enveloped me. I recalled a night sky full of stars where we first said we loved each other.

I didn’t expect how, through a zeal for completion, I would surface so many happy buried memories—and how, as a result, I came to understand my life as being much more vivid and full. Over time, the fears and anxieties of my youth have become less important. I have been to 334 counties; my worst childhood experiences are held by just two: Cook County, Illinois, where I spent half of my youth, and Middlesex County, New Jersey, where I spent the rest. And as my world expands, those two tiny points on my map grow even smaller.

And once I started spending more time trawling America for memories, I found that my childhood held many joyful ones, too. How my middle-school girlfriend and I would ditch cross-country practice to kiss in the woods. How my dad would take me to sled down hills in Middlesex County parks. How, every year, we would drive from New Jersey to Chicago, and then to rural Illinois, to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. On my Mob Rule map, this trip stands out, like a multicolored bridge between the places I grew up.

Despite the many moves and lonely days of my younger years, I had always thought that my childhood was fundamentally a good one. Now my recollection of it finally seems to match.

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