I was determined to visit all 50 states - I wasn't alone

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My father, a traveling businessman, likes to joke that I would happily tag along with him to Ames, Iowa; Gary, Ind.; or any other American town that's not on most tourist maps. It's true. If you have an open mind and an adventurer's spirit, every place has something worth your time.

Had I believed the nonsense about Nebraska being a "flyover state," for instance, I would never have herded cattle on horseback through rolling grasslands lush with purple wildflowers and tall pines. Had I stuck close to home, I might not have tasted heavenly banana pudding in Selma, Ala., or bought stamps from the cutest darn post office you've ever seen, snuggled in the snow in tiny Plymouth, Vt. Rooting out such gems has been a longtime joy of mine, and around 10 years ago I realized that I had gone to 30-odd states in the process.

That's when I started getting serious about seeing all 50.

I pinpointed my weak spots — the Great Lakes, the Dakotas, parts of the South — and planned how I'd get there. I didn't set a particular deadline, but prioritized about two states a year.

I had a decent head start: Growing up in Maryland (and taking frequent sojourns to Walt Disney World) meant that I had been to most of the Eastern Seaboard. Two years of graduate school in Colorado allowed for easy camping or hiking adventures to Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas and Arizona. Reporting trips took me to Idaho, Rhode Island, Michigan, Alaska and Mississippi.

When I could, I tacked new states onto trips to visit friends and family. My sister-in-law in Peoria, Ill., for instance, lives a short drive from Iowa, where I hiked among the songbirds in Lake Macbride State Park.

In September 2016, I ended — you could say with a bang — in Hawaii, watching fountains of bright-orange lava spew from the Big Island's Kilauea Iki Crater.

I felt elated, but also a bit like an oddball.

That's because most people I know can quickly count off how many countries they have visited, but have only a vague idea when it comes to states. I wondered if there were others out there like me.

Are there ever. The All Fifty States Club, I soon discovered, has about 2,800 members who have accomplished the same feat, from all 50 states and 13 countries. Like me, many get the idea once they hit 30-or-so states and finish on either Hawaii or Alaska — the farthest, priciest, and most time-consuming trips to plan, says Alicia Rovey, who founded the club in 2006 to celebrate and encourage travelers on their journey.

The organization, which operates on the honor system, asks that you put your foot on the ground and breathe the air of a state. (My own requirement was having a meal in a town.) Send in $13 with a membership application and you'll get an official certificate; for more bragging rights, you can buy a T-shirt, pin or other wares on the website.

"The club makes it more official," says Rovey, who lives in Nashville and hit her 50th, Oregon, in 2015. "Sometimes, you want that extra recognition that the goal is validated."

There's no typical 50-stater, she says — some are motivated by patriotism, meeting new people or a desire for new experiences. To her, the objective also infuses vacations with a greater sense of purpose: "You're not just going to Hawaii to lay on the beach, you're going to Hawaii to complete this lifelong goal of visiting all 50 states."

Members often have their own spin on exploring the union, setting records along the way. Sweden's Douglas Eriksson is the youngest, at 5. Some have done it twice or more, including James Marchino, with nine (yes, nine) repeat visits to all 50. Several people have sky-dived or golfed across the nation. John Fitzgerald ate a slice of pie in every state, and Boomer Mentzer drank a beer in each. (President Barack Obama — who has visited every state as president, and Al Roker, who has reported the weather in all 50, are honorary members.)

Though the few 50-staters I talked to had various missions and methods, we all had something in common: Travel has rewarded us in ways we didn't expect.

To celebrate his 50th birthday, David Miller, of Orinda, Calif., set his sights on an epic year-long trip. He carefully mapped out a bicycling route throughout the United States — avoiding New England winters and Southern summers — with his Weimaraner, Max, from October 2011 to November 2012. Miller asked his supporters to donate to four charities in the name of his project, Bike 50 at 50.

"The very first lesson that I learned is that we so underestimate ourselves," Miller says. "If you're willing to take that one step forward out of your own comfort zone, you realize, 'I can do this.' "

Anne Corlett, a landscape artist from Saugatuck, Mich., was newly single in 2010 and "wanted a big project, the visual equivalent of the big American novel."

Eventually, the idea came to her: paint a landscape in each state. "Travel is a powerful thing, which I didn't even think about when I started," says Corlett, an honorary club member.

Not only did she build up her confidence traveling solo, she challenged herself as an artist, painting environments so different that they could have been on the moon, she told me.

"I realized later I was testing my courage," Corlett says.

Like Corlett, the more I explored the country, the more I learned to trust myself and be resourceful. When badly blistered feet forced me to backpack through the Grand Canyon in sandals, I found out I was tougher than I had thought.

Another common theme: We all experienced the kindness of strangers.

On Miller's bicycle trips, random people on the street gave him money a few times, pushing bills into his hand even after he told them he didn't need it. "I don't have enough fingers and toes and arms and legs to count all the times I had extraordinary, surprising, wonderful interactions," he says. While I was visiting Greenwich, N.J. — which threw a little-known tea party to protest the British in 1774 - Joe Felcone and Linda Hull Felcone invited me to dinner and showed me their historic home. Corbett says she was similarly "adopted" by a couple while in Mississippi.

Longtime blood donor and club member Al Whitney, of Avon Lake, Ohio, is accustomed to doing things for others. "I don't sight-see," says Whitney, who completed his 50 between 2007 and 2012. "My goal is to get to the blood bank." But when he went to South Dakota in 2009, "my wife made me promise to go to Mount Rushmore," he says. In the gift shop, a woman nearly knocked him over in a bear hug to tell him she owed her life to a blood donor. (She had noticed a Platelets Across America logo on his jacket.) "I was shocked," he says.

If you're thinking of joining the club, a few pieces of advice: Keep costs down by staying in state parks or short-term home rentals. Add new states to trips to see friends and family. "Be intentional," Rovey says — plan a long trip to a particular region, say Yellowstone National Park, to visit as many states as you can in one go.

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