“I had to ask: What counts?”

Author and journalist Beth Harpaz on what it truly means to visit all 50 states.

“I had to ask: What counts?”

Illustration: Erin Maala

I felt guilty about lunch in Montana.

Our family was on one of those epic road trips that Americans love to hate. Somewhere between gazing into the presidential nostrils at Mount Rushmore and watching cowboys on bucking broncos at the night rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, we took a detour to Montana to have lunch.

My husband planned the meal just so we could say we’d been to Montana. But I remember nothing about it—not the town, not the restaurant, not the menu.

We’d already visited lots of states on previous vacations with our kids. At some point, we started counting how many were left before we hit all 50. Most of our visits were memorable: We’d been to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. We’d seen glaciers, whales and bears in Alaska, and taken a Southwest road trip to national parks in California, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

Between those vacations, trips for work and places I’d visited growing up in the Northeast, I had visited more states than anyone else in the family. But when I sat down to list them, I had to ask: What counts?

Did a layover at Hartsfield-Jackson count for Georgia? Not in my book. It took a visit to Savannah to knock the Peach State off my list. But did I have to stay the night or spend a certain amount of time for a visit to count? Once I started planning trips to the 10 states I was missing, I realized it wasn’t how many hours or days I was there. It was the quality of the experience. I had less than a full day in Kansas, but I’ll never forget walking through fields of wildflowers in the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve beneath a bluebird sky. I had no qualms checking Kansas off. But a forgotten lunch in Montana? It didn’t seem right.

One by one, I traveled to my remaining states. I went birdwatching on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, visited Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, danced in the Detroit studio where Motown hits were made and followed the Mississippi Blues Trail. I ate the best steak ever at Cattlemen’s in Oklahoma, and made a literary pilgrimage to Kurt Vonnegut sites in Indianapolis.

Finally, as long as I counted Montana, I had two states left.  My husband accompanied me on the homestretch. We loved the landscape and history of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. My 50-state quest ended in Idaho. We visited cousins in Pocatello and stopped at Sun Valley. But driving to Idaho from North Dakota, we passed through Montana. And so I cleared my conscience. We hiked for two days in Glacier National Park, toured Butte and dined at the Tupelo Grille in Whitefish.

So what if the restaurant was named for a Southern city? At least now, when I say I’ve been to all 50 states, I can tell you what I did in Montana.

Beth Harpaz is the travel editor for The Associated Press and author of books such as The Girls in the Van: A Reporter’s Diary of the Campaign Trail.