Our latest road trip required a long drive across Texas, a state I repeatedly wish I didn't have to drive across. But if you live in Phoenix and your intended destinations are in the Southeastern US, then driving through Texas is simply the Price of Admission you pay for your trip.
We ended up staying in more hotels than usual on this trip, and given the shorter daylight hours, that meant more time in a hotel room. Luckily, we brought our laptops on this trip as part of a new travel journaling practice we are playing around with.
I thought it'd be fun to chart the roads I've driven in the US, but that seems like a nearly impossible task. That's because I routinely veer off the obvious route to drive a road that might be more scenic, or detour for an inconsequential roadside oddity, or to get lost and ask for directions, or head off to an obscure campground for the night.
In short, I really don't know where all I've been since I haven't really tracked that over all my trips. But I could start doing that now, for this trip at least. So I grabbed some AAA state maps and a sharpie to trace our route. And then I promptly left those in the car each night.
So, laptop in hand, I instead cracked open a website devoted to counting the counties you've visited. Counties I've visited were probably something I could more easily figure out than specific roads I'd traveled anyway. Over the next several nights, I charted out a mostly complete map of my county visits.
Visiting all 3,143 counties in the US is a more popular quest than you'd imagine. Indeed, thousands and thousands of people are tracking their county visits, and at least 70 people have completed all of them! I had no such quest goal. In fact, one of my friends has been working on this quest for two decades and I've always thought it was a somewhat crazy one. I wasn't adopting the quest, I just wanted to see where I've been—or rather, where I still need to go. I wanted to see what "holes" I still had in my domestic travel.
But, of course, after filling out my county map and realizing that I was already past the 50% mark, I started wondering what a good county quest goal might be. When would I feel like I've closed those holes? Was it 2000 total counties? Or maybe >50% in each state? Or both? Or just when I'd finished the whole damn thing? I'm still not sure, but I think it's clear...I have some sort of county quest now.
And indeed, so does Jen, who filled out her own map during our hotel hours. So, for the last few days of the trip, we made sure to take the longer route to some of our destinations, bypassing the quicker route that we had already done in favor of driving through some new-to-us counties. Every time we passed a little green "Entering So-and-so County" sign along some rural highway, there was now reason to exclaim "YAAAAY!"
This is the main goal of questing—inspiring you to go to places you haven't yet been.
One of the other big and unheralded benefits of questing is that it can make "unfun travel" more...well, fun. Even if your quest objective is less enjoyable than you had anticipated, or maybe the weather was awful, or you broke your expensive new camera, or some other sucky thing happened...well, at least you marked the damn place off!
Getting something done makes you feel a bit better about that trip than if you had the same bad experience but hadn't simultaneously completed a goal. If you mark off a quest item, you always have a bright spot on the trip.
And we re-discovered that on the drive home, when we were faced with driving across Texas. Because now we had a new purpose for the drive: we would mark off some random counties! Texas seems to have eleventy zillion of them, each of which is generally small and unremarkable. If we took a slightly longer way home, we'd be able to cross off 15 of them on our drive, and thereby permanently remove them from our list of places to visit. We were getting stuff done. And sometimes never having to return to a place is a pretty good travel outcome.
And that's exactly what we did. We actually extended the drive we were dreading because of this new quest, converting a boring and unfun endeavor into a series of small "yays" and some new blue squares on our county map. It didn't magically elevate the trip into one of my all-time favorites, but it did reduce the cost of that Price of Admission rather substantially.
Many people shy away from big quests that have what seems like an unreachable number of objectives. But the benefits of questing are all found in the journey, not in completion. Sometimes having a huge quest—even one you don't expect to ever finish—simply gives you more ways to make those drives less boring.