58 Counties In 58 Hours:


     This write-up will give some background and explanation to the "58 Counties in 58 Hours" trip by Barry Stiefel and John Bowers of October 7th through 9th, 1993.  On this trip, Barry Stiefel started off at the State Capital and set foot in each of California's 58 counties in a total time of 52 hours and 56 minutes.


     There's sort of a long story involved with how I came to want to do this trip.  I first became interested in the idea of "adventure driving" after reading several articles including:

"Adventure Driving:  Garry Sowerby's Idea of a Road Trip"  (Outside, 1/87)

"Eight Thousand Miles of Bad Road" (Esquire, 7/87)

"The Longest Lap", a special advertising section by Audi that appeared in magazines sometime around 1987

The Dispatches column in Outside, 8/89

"Lurching Towards Reggane", (Outside, 9/89)

"El Road", (Outside, 10/90).

"Road Fever", a book by Tim Cahill, that was published sometime around 1991.

"Climbing to the Top of Every State in 100 Days" (Trilogy, July/August 1991)

"The Eight-Ball Trail" (Outside, 7/93)

     It was obvious that I wasn't the first person to want to do a trip of this type.  It was also obvious that I didn't have the time or the resources to plan a major undertaking.  Spending three days or so in a truck driving around California was well within the range of possibilities.

     Sometime in the mid to late 1980's, the California Office of Tourism began an advertising campaign with the theme of "The Californias", which divided the state into a dozen separate regions based largely upon physical geography.  Some of these regions were fairly well known to me, but others, like Shasta-Cascade and the Inland Empire, were regions I knew little about.  Nonetheless, this advertising campaign and its maps really got me to be thinking about the diversity of the physical geography in California.

     In 1989, I went to the California State Fair for the first time and saw the displays that each county puts up in the exhibition hall.  This was the first time that I'd really gotten a sense of there being 58 counties in California, and that they were each trying to market themselves to tourists, businesses or residents.  Again the diversity of the themes in these displays was amazing.  I went back two years later and took notes on the 41 or so counties with displays.  Some, like Nevada county, emphasize mining and pioneer history.  Others, like Siskiyou and Lassen, emphasize recreation, vacations, and easy living.  Other push the winery angle and still others like Kern push oil, agriculture and the aerospace industry.

     In June, 1990, I received my B.S. in Geography from the University of California at Davis.  While I hadn't really studied the geography of California in any detail as part of my academic program, I had at least acquired the tools for understanding and appreciating California's diversity.

     After getting a better feel for the counties, it became an interesting contest to sit around at Davis' own microbrewery, Sudwerk, and try to name them all and write them down on a napkin.

     After several more or less successful attempts at remembering all the names, it became an interesting question as to how many I'd already visited.  By my best recollections, I'd been to 54 of the 58, having missed only Modoc, Tulare, Riverside and Imperial.

     This led to speculation as to many people had been to all of the counties.  This is a tough question to answer.  I tried to think of what sort of people would have the opportunity.  I decided on two broad criteria:  employment and recreation.  There must be some people who through their employment have had an opportunity to visit all the counties:

State-wide politicians:


There aren't a whole lot of products that would sell in both Los Angeles and Alpine county (pop. 1,113).  Also, any product requiring marketing so intensive as to hit every county would probably split the state into Northern and Southern regions.

Government workers:

Perhaps someone who needs to occasionally visit the various counties to perform inspections, etc.

      The other group of people who might have visited all the counties are recreational travelers.  But still, it's hard to imagine many people having been in all of the counties.  No matter where you live in California, some of the counties are going to be at least 300 miles away.

     Far more important is the inaccessibility of many of the counties.  Even if you traveled the entire length of all of California's major highways (I-5, I-15, I-80, I-40, I-10, I-8, Hwy 1, Hwy 50, Hwy 99, and Hwy 101), you'd have only visited 44 of the 58 counties.  If you then drove the entire length of Hwy 395 (very unlikely), you'd pick up five more (Inyo, Lassen, Modoc, Mono and Sierra).  Driving through Yosemite National Park on Hwy 120 would give you two more (Mariposa and Tuolumne), but that still leaves Alpine, Amador, Plumas, Trinity, and Yuba.  Only if you took Hwy 299 from Redding to Eureka would you get Trinity; only if you took Hwy 20 past Clear Lake would you get Lake.  You might stumble in to Alpine on the way from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe via the eastern route, but without a reason to go to Marysville, you'd never end up in Yuba county, and Plumas county doesn't appear to be on the way to anywhere.

     My conclusion then, is that very, very few people have actually set foot in all of California's 58 counties.  My estimate is the range of 200 - 2000 people.

     In the fall of 1992, I began doing research on the Traveling Salesman Problem for an independent study for my Master's Degree.  This classic operations research problem involves a salesman who needs to travel from his home city to each of many cities on a list, and return home.  The goal is to choose the shortest possible route.  As it turns out, simply measuring all possible routes and comparing their lengths gets exponentially more time-consuming as the number of cities increases.  The problem doesn't have any simple elegant solutions, although significant progress has been made.

     While working on this project, I began thinking about a somewhat different problem, involving the shortest possible route which would take you through all 58 counties.  This differs from the Traveling Salesman Problem in two important regards:  instead of being able to travel in straight lines between cities, one has to travel on the California roadway network, and instead of visiting individual points, one has to merely cross the borders of all the counties.  Without being able to digitize the county borders and highway network, I was unable to use any computer assistance on planning a route.


     The task then became one of planning an automobile route that visited each of the 58 counties in the shortest possible time.  John and I went through several iterations of the master map until we got a route that seemed optimal.  We estimated the mileage to be about 2600 miles.


Diversity of Counties:

     There are several important themes that I was playing with on this trip.  One of them was the sheer diversity of the different counties:

Land area:

     San Bernadino county is the largest county in America with 20,064 square miles, while San Francisco county has only 46 square miles, making it one of the country's smallest.  The makes for a 436-to-1 range of county sizes.  This is far larger than I would have expected.


     The highest point in the 48 states is the summit of Mt. Whitney, on the Inyo-Tulare county border at 14,494 feet.  The lowest point in the 48 states is in Death Valley in Inyo county at -282 feet.


     Per the 1992 Almanac and Book of Facts, the population of Los Angeles county is 8,863,164, the largest in the U.S.  The population of Alpine county is 1,113, representing a 7,963-to-1 range in populations.  This is also much larger than I had expected.


     While California receives, on average, 24 inches of precipitation per year, it is very unevenly distributed.  Del Norte county averages over 60 inches, while the whole southeastern corner of the state averages less than one-tenth of this amount.

Progress in Transportation:

     Another important theme to emerge with this trip was this idea of the progress of transportation in California.  I set a goal of setting foot in each of the 58 counties in a total time of less than 58 hours, allowing a reasonable one hour per county.  It's an interesting question as to how long ago did the transportation infrastructure improve sufficiently that this trip could have been completed.  While we finished the trip in just under 53 hours, I doubt the 58 hour mark could have been reached much before the 1960's or 1970's.  The interstate highways didn't come in until the 1960's, and I'm sure that some of the mountain roads have been improved significantly since then.  The real difficulty lies in the northern part of the state.  The proof of the pudding is this:  If a couple of hacks like us can jump in a pickup truck and set foot in each of California's 58 counties in less than 58 hours, then this is a good argument that the state's highways are sufficiently well advanced for the automobile frontier in California to be declared over.


     I had been looking for a co-driver or co-drivers for over a year, unsuccessfully.  My neighbor and friend, John Bowers, volunteered in the summer of 1993 for a fall trip, offering both himself as co-driver and his new Ford Ranger pickup truck as the vehicle of choice.  One major advantage of the truck was the fact that we could throw some camping mattresses in the back and try to catch some sleep along the way.

     The trip itself was rather uneventful.  We had no breakdowns or other trouble, and we didn't get lost.  We bought gas when we needed, stopped at fast-food joints when we felt the urge, and basically just kept trying to maintain our momentum.  It was largely a triumph of good planning, perseverance and the engineering skills of the Ford Motor Company rather than a hair-raising adventure.  The trip wasn't as scenic as we had hoped, largely because we went through many areas at night, and the non-driver was often sleeping.


     Northern California was more mountainous and twisty than we had anticipated.  It was also slower going and harder to sleep than we had expected.  As a result, our average speed between Sacramento and Angel's Camp was only 47 miles per hour, and for the first 28 hours or so, it was very hard to sleep because whoever was in the back of the truck got thrown around too much.

     Looking at the map, Highway 4 seemed a perfectly reasonable way to leave Mono county and get down out of the mountains fast.  I had even been on Highway 4 up as far as Arnold and then some, and it seemed to be fast and wide and a good choice.  We were not expecting the narrow, winding, hilly, very slow serpentine road that we found in the upper elevations.  This slowed us down quite a bit and made it impossible for the non-driver to sleep.  If this trip were to be attempted again perhaps a better routing could be found.

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