THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

For those who keep a count, what counts as a visit?

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2009

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As the verdant peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains nestled under a blanket of Tennessee fog, the magnificent panorama rewarded our decision to take a short detour across the border from North Carolina.

I had still another reason to be happy about our jaunt to the Volunteer State.

“Well, Tennessee is number 25! I’m halfway home to visiting all 50 states,’’ I boasted to my wife as we approached the state line for our return trip.

“That doesn’t count,’’ she said, throwing water as cold as the mountain streams on my milestone.

“Why not? We were in Tennessee for three hours. I even got out of the car a few times and walked around.’’

“Yeah,’’ she said, “but you didn’t have a meal in Tennessee, so it doesn’t count.’’

“Of course it counts,’’ I replied. “If you drive in a state, you’re there. If I get pulled over by the Tennessee Highway Patrol, I don’t think it’s going to fly if I say, ‘Sorry, officer. You see I’m not really here in Tennessee because I haven’t yet gorged myself at a local Waffle House.’ ’’

While I had a sneaking suspicion that my wife, feeling me catching up to her tally of 26 states, was grasping for a technicality to deny me credit for a state she had checked off years ago, our disagreement as to what constitutes a “visit’’ to a state, country, or any geographic jurisdiction was just the latest in an ongoing debate.

Nearly every traveler holds a strong opinion as to what qualifies as a “visit’’ - and what does not. Do you need only to plant two feet on the ground? What about riding in a car or on a train without stopping? Jet-setters looking to rack up states and countries like frequent flier miles may count places they fly over, while strict constructionists believe you need to buy something from a local store or stay overnight or - ahem - use a toilet before adding another notch to your fanny pack.

The desire to quantify our travels has given rise to online applications such as Where I’ve Been, which allows you to post a map to your Facebook profile with all the states and countries you’ve visited highlighted in color. There are even a handful of membership organizations devoted to the quest to visit every country, every state, and even every US county.

Most of these clubs simply require that you get your boots on the ground in a geographic area for it to be classified as a visit. For example, the All Fifty States Club considers it a visit if a person “has set foot on the natural ground of that state and breathed the air.’’

What are not visits, however, are airport layovers, undoubtedly the source of the most contentious arguments among travelers enumerating states and countries. “Counting airport layovers is cheating,’’ says Alicia Rovey, founder of the All Fifty States Club. “The confines of an airport do not allow you to truly experience a state for what it is. You can’t truly experience the people or culture because the airport is full of travelers, not locals. You can’t truly experience the landscape because you’re inside an airport facility. You can’t experience an Arizona dry heat or the windy Chicago cold if you don’t leave the airport building.’’

To many travelers like Rovey, airport terminals should be treated like Cinnabon-laden foreign embassies, within the geographic confines of a country but neutral territory. To others, airports count since they are technically within the borders of a jurisdiction and you can easily spend more time in them than, say, driving through Delaware or Liechtenstein.

Airport layovers and ports of call qualify as visits for the Travelers’ Century Club, whose approximately 2,000 members have visited 100 countries or more. Klaus Billep, club chairman, says its criteria have been unchanged since the origin of the club in the 1950s, when short stopovers may have been the only practical way to visit some countries.

The standards on MostTraveledPeople.com prohibit the organization’s 8,000 members from adding airport transits to their global tallies. “In my opinion, the absolute minimum requirement for a visit is to arrive legally in a place, which means going through the trouble of obtaining a visa if it’s required, and going through immigration,’’ says Charles Veley, the group’s founder. “Where immigration is required, an airport transit is not a legal entry to a country.’’ There is no minimum time requirement for a visit to qualify, but members of MostTraveledPeople.com are required to have both feet on land fully within an entity’s border for it to count.

What about travelers riding the rails through a country? “During the day, count it,’’ Veley says. “At night, you should at least wake up and stand down at a station. Sleeping through the night on a train across an area is the same as flying over - you haven’t consciously experienced it. Same with driving. If you’re navigating yourself through an area, count it, but being asleep on a bus doesn’t meet the common-sense test.’’

Counting states or countries visited is a somewhat useful metric in determining how well traveled someone is, but like many statistics, there are limitations. Am I really more of a seasoned traveler than other Americans who have set foot in far fewer states or do I just benefit from living among the Lilliputian states of the Northeast? If I can color in Mexico on my map because I walked a few blocks in Tijuana, does that carry the same weight as another who spent weeks hiking the Yucatan? No way.

The rankings of the number of geographic entities visited by members of MostTraveledPeople.com read like high scorers on a video game. Veley, one of the ultimate globetrotters who has racked up more than 1.5 million miles and visited all 192 countries recognized by the United Nations, acknowledges that some travelers might be too focused on amassing passport stamps than truly experiencing foreign lands. Next year, the organization plans to work with local tourist offices to establish checklists of places and activities that would encourage depth and quality of visits.

“You can’t say you’ve seen the country just because you’ve visited each state,’’ says J. Stephen Conn. When Conn hit the magical 50-state mark 15 years ago, he pulled out a map. “It struck me all the places where I hadn’t been, and I decided to go back and visit every county.’’

Conn, among several hundred “county collectors’’ in the Extra Miler Club, is just 91 counties shy of visiting each of the 3,142 counties across the country. He adds to his total whenever he sets foot across a county border, no meals or overnight stays required. “The way I look at it is this: If I was struck by a bolt of lightning or hit by a meteorite, the obituary would say I died in Podunk County. How could you die there unless you were there?’’

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.