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Jul. 22, 2019
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Lanier Village resident visited every U.S. county, all seven continents

By Jane Harrison
 
She was the quiet one, sitting in the passenger seat stitching on her lap quilts, check-marking a destination list, and recording specific dates as their old Buick Lasabre station wagon wheeled through county-after-county. By the time Emma Cooper put down her last check mark, the girl who grew up in a secluded Kentucky holler had traveled through every county in the U.S., plus all seven continents.
 
Now 87 years old, bright-eyed and spry, Cooper retells the story of traveling with her husband, Walter, to all 3,148 U.S. counties or their equivalents. In her apartment at Lanier Village Estates, near the northern shores of Lake Lanier, Cooper spread maps, pulled out photo albums, and displayed meticulous hand-written and typed records of the journey she shared with her late husband. Walter Cooper, who passed away five years ago at 80, was the talker, navigator, and the driver of the couple’s ambition to cross every county line and visit every continent. Emma Cooper was the organizer who packed up the pup tents, settled two kids in the back of the station wagon, and took notes in neat cursive about each county.
 
“It’s a good thing I like to travel,” said the Kentucky native who never even saw a sunrise or sunset until she ventured out from her home between two mountains on a senior trip in high school. After she met Walter at Berea College in their home state, the couple married and set off to see the world. Freed from childhood isolation and with a college background in business, Emma Cooper documented their trips.
 
Some visits just over the line
Actually, the county counting started years before they met. Heading the list are Boyd and Pike in Kentucky. “We put down the counties were born in,” Emma Cooper said. The main list concludes with their 50th anniversary gift in 2003, a trip to what they thought was their final county, Kalawao in Hawaii. Then they visited dissolved counties to make sure to get every one covered. She’s got it all down.
 
“Every time we went into a new county, I’d write them down in the notebook and put the date,” Cooper said. In a neat notebook, she listed every state and county alphabetically and filled in the date they drove through. “Sometimes we just got over the line” to count it. After Walter Cooper retired at age 55 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they hit the road and airways in earnest. Emma Cooper periodically did medical record keeping and secretarial work and had flexibility to roam with Walter. Their two adopted children accompanied them.
 
The Coopers enrolled in the Extra Miler Club, a non-profit organization founded in 1973 that encourages members to visit every county or its equivalent jurisdiction in every state. As of 2018, 60 members had completed all U.S. counties. Emma and Walter Cooper are listed as numbers 22 and 23.     
 
“We took the backroads,” Cooper said, due in part to Walter’s pursuit of postmarks from obscure places. He collected over a million postmarks from around the world. “I’d just throw things in a duffel bag and go,” she said. “He could read a roadmap like I read novels,” she said. It occasionally took more than one voyage to hit each county in a particular state. “We drove to Alaska three times. It sometimes took a lot of flying to get places, too. It took three trips to get all (254) counties in Texas,” she said.
 
Small towns the favorite
“I liked the little towns best,” she said. She particularly enjoyed Mason, Texas for its barbecue and golf course. “He walked, I played golf and we ate barbecue,” she said. Walter would stroll golf courses while she made her rounds on the greens. She’s got records of all the places she played. That’s not all. She has records of world records they passed, like the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” in Branson, Missouri. Add to that, her notes on mileage, weather, animals they saw, and where they spent each night.   
 
“In the Northeast, it was hard to get around, because of all the people. It was so crowded, especially New York City,” she said. The coupled navigated “all those big cities” to check counties off their list.
When the kids came along, they laid a mattress in the back of the station wagon for one, left a seat open for the other, and filled every empty space with camping gear, coolers, and supplies, recalled her daughter, Amy Outlaw, of Norcross. When they unpacked the wagon at camp, “my mom would set up a kitchen and cook a whole meal after traveling all day,” she said. In the passenger seat, her mother kept her fingers busy, working a needle over fabric squares making dozens of lap quilts.
 
Emma Cooper said touring never seemed like a chore, just to get the county job done. “It was very enjoyable,” albeit sometimes a bit uncomfortable, she admitted, like the time she wrapped her baby daughter in blankets on a ski lift in New Hampshire or the night spent freezing in a pup tent in South Dakota. “It was too cold to fix breakfast so we drove to a little restaurant,” she said. 
       
By the time they covered 300,000 miles in the old Lasabre and replaced it with an extended cab Ford pick-up, Walter had to breathe with a portable oxygen tank.
 
Final county venture
Their county venture in Hawaii ended quite memorably. They staggered into Kalawao County after trekking down 13 switchbacks on a steep slope to the ocean. Emma Cooper had declined the offer to make the descent on a mule. “I wouldn’t get on a mule, I haven’t ever gotten on a horse, much less,” she said. When they got to the bottom, “my legs gave out. I was so weak,” she recalled. Walter helped her onto a bus, where her daughter, son-in-law and their two children met them to celebrate their achievement on their anniversary.
 
The couple also visited six continents together before Walter passed away. In April 2015, Amy Outlaw took her mother on a trip to Africa, completing her world list.
 
Emma settled in the Gainesville retirement development after touring it with Amy in 2014, shortly after her husband died. She said at first she was a little anxious about taking an apartment by herself, but has developed a group of close friends. She relied on her travel experiences to open up new relationships. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about people. I’ve come out of my shell some,” she said.
 
Amy Outlaw said their visits to tiny towns, bustling cities, and every place in between made them independent travelers and gave them something to talk about with almost anyone they meet. “It’s a real conversation starter,” she said, when you can mention some point of interest about anyone’s home turf.
 
The travel’s not over. “We’ll go to New York every once in a while to see shows and to the Biltmore House in Asheville,” Amy said. Her mom, the once-quiet girl from a Kentucky holler, still gets around. 

Posted online 3/29/19
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