Teacher strives for highest elevations in each U.S. county

Kotzebue math instructor is part of group dedicated to reaching top of 3,142 counties

Posted: Wednesday, September 14, 2005

QUINCY, Ill. - Dick Ellsworth gets high in a natural County Highpointers kind of way.

Ellsworth is an Adams County, Ill. native who teaches math in Kotzebue, Alaska, spends his summers in Quincy and travels around the country in pursuit of his passion. Since 1999, the 58-year-old former rock climber has been at the highest elevations of 549 counties in 40 states, and there are many more hills to climb.

He's a member of the County Highpointers, a national group dedicated to discovering the highest points in every one of the 3,142 U.S. counties.

"It kind of ended up being more than a hobby for me," Ellsworth said during a recent interview. "In a few years, I'll be retired and I can see myself doing it full time, maybe for a year, to see if I can get it out of my system."

To pursue his passion, Ellsworth relies on detailed topographical maps, a hand-held Global Positioning System the size of a calculator, and the good graces of landowners all over the country. A 1993 book by highpointers legend Andy Martin lists every highest county elevation in the U.S., though new heights are occasionally discovered.

"It's the thrill of getting out and going somewhere I'd otherwise never go," Ellsworth said. "I get to meet some really interesting people. In Iowa I met a guy who had a $2,000 marble, and a guy who had a houseplant that he said was 150 years old.

"Plus the exercise and being outdoors, you can't beat that. It keeps me off the couch and away from the clicker."

Ellsworth has been to the highest elevations in all 102 Illinois counties, all 99 Iowa counties and in 93 of 98 Missouri counties.

He also has climbed Mount Whitney in California, the highest peak in the Lower 48 at an elevation of 14,491 feet.

During a recent trip to the East Coast, Ellsworth visited every highest elevation in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He made it to four of the five highest elevations in Rhode Island, but couldn't get to one particular spot because the landowner only allows access at certain times of the year.

"Missed it by 12 hours," Ellsworth says.

Most property owners are understanding and allow highpointers access, but Ellsworth said he's run into some strange situations. In Missouri, a property owner lied about who owned the area Ellsworth was trying to access, then got mad and started yelling at Ellsworth.

"I calmed him down, and on my way back to the car I did a loop and got there, and then I left," Ellsworth said. "Sometimes it takes a long time and you have to be patient and let it ride. Eventually some people will let me go because they just want me out of their hair."

Other times, Ellsworth admits "stealth" is the only way to get to the highest elevation. He'll get permission from an adjoining landowner and quietly traverse the remaining distance "when nobody is looking."

Some landowners go as far as installing alarm systems or shooting guns to keep intruders off their land.

"With some people, you just have to let it go," Ellsworth said.

Some states are easier than others. Illinois, for example, is relatively flat.

Ellsworth has used his considerable rock-climbing experience to mount some of the higher elevations in Wyoming and other states.

An avid camper, Ellsworth often will drive through different states, pull over and throw his sleeping bag on the ground. Sometimes he'll take his 10-year-old daughter, Laurel.

"She loves it," he said. "We'll find bugs, animal skulls, all kinds of things. Every one is an adventure for her."

Ellsworth's wife, Faith, also is a teacher. They flew back to Kotzebue in August to start the new school year.

Ellsworth teaches math for the College of Rural Alaska of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and also for the Kotzebue Middle/High School.

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