For the last 18 years, 83-year-old Charles Zerphey has been on a quest to reach the highest point in every state and, more recently, every county in the United States. There are 3,142 of them. He's well on his way.
Charles H. Zerphey, who turns 84 on Feb. 22, likes to find high points.
At first it was the highest place in each state. Then it was the highest place in each of Pennsylvania's 69 counties.
Exhausting those -- except for an aborted climb of Alaska's Mount McKinley, through no fault of his own -- the retired farmer and printer is now seeking out the highest point in each county in each state.
In case you're wondering, there are 3,142 of them in the United States. Delaware has only three counties. Texas, ever thinking big, has 254.
So far, Zerphey, who lives in a home his wife, Marilyn, designed and that he built on a ridge near Milton Grove, has tracked down high points in 621 counties in 13 northeastern U.S. states.
It's not always easy, mind you. This is such an obscure obsession that many landowners don't even know the highest point in such-and-such county sits on their property.
Some, Zerphey says, "are happy as a clam because they didn't realize they lived on a highest point."
Others can be a tad suspicious when you knock on their door and ask to walk through their yard.
There also are nightmares like Charles City County, Va., where the contour lines on the topographic map show some 70 different spots sharing the same elevation.
Following County Highpointers Association rules, Zerphey walked to all 70 just to tick off one county on his list.
Then there was Washington County, Md., where the high point just happens to be within a guarded spot near Camp David.
Turned away the first time by guards carrying military rifles, Zerphey wouldn't take no for an answer. He unleashed a steady stream of letters to many government officials explaining his peaceful mission. He appealed to his U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts.
Five months later, likely to get Zerphey to stop pestering them more than anything, two guards escorted Zerphey the final 300 yards to the nondescript high point.
Why does Zerphey do this?
Is it a competition? "No, no, no, it's not a race," he's quick to inform you.
"It's just people who are nuts," comes the reply, as believable an answer as any.
When most people retire, there is some level of slowing down.
Not with Zerphey, where a peripatetic bent runs in the family.
His 80-year-old brother, John Zerphey of Highspire, still hikes all over the place with llamas.
Another brother, grieving the loss of his wife to cancer, sold everything, bought a boat and set out to sail around the world. It took him three years to reach the South Sea Islands. He got as far as Australia, where both he and his son met local women and married.
Charles has been a longtime pilot -- he set speed records in a Cessna 172 -- and raced motorcycles when he was younger. He was a tank commander in the Army.
Even as an octogenarian, Zerphey has made his mark. In the 24th annual Lancaster Senior Games last June, Zerphey finished in the top three among 80- to 84-year-olds in badminton, shotput, javelin, 100 meter run, 200 meter run, 400 meter run, bicep curl, longest drive in golf and modified bowling.
So, when he retired in 1992 from Intelligencer Printing Co. at age 62, you know he wasn't just going to watch more TV.
He bought a motor home, and he and Marilyn drove to Alaska. Then, he read a 1995 Sunday News story about Maytown resident Jack Frank and the Highpointers Club.
Climbing to the highest points in all 50 states had a certain appeal. He called the club's founder and asked if any other 65-year-olds had done all 50 high points. Not that we know of, came the reply. And Zerphey was off.
He started with Pennsylvania's Mount Davis in September 1995 and knocked off Maryland and Virginia the same weekend.
In August 1999, he climbed Montana's 12,807-foot Granite Peak and finished the high points in the Lower 48.
It had taken him three attempts at Washington's 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, and the first time on Wyoming's 13,809-foot Gannett Peak he slid down snow and ice near the summit.
In 2000, he knocked off Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano while attending a Highpointers Club convention.
That left only the daunting Mount McKinley. In 2004, Zerphey was one of three winners of Outside magazine's "Spirit of America Adventure" contest, which provided him with an all-expenses-paid attempt on McKinley.
He started up the mountain in May 2004. He was 74 years old. The oldest person to summit McKinley was 70. His two companions on the unguided ascent were both in their 60s and both members of the Highpointers Club.
On the fifth day, at 9,000 feet, the other two climbers said they wanted to pull the plug. Zerphey said he later found out the two were telling others that they aborted the climb because they felt Zerphey wouldn't be up to the challenge.
Zerphey never spoke to either again.
"It was the most devastating day of my life when I came off that mountain," he says. "I had my heart set on it. I think we all could have made it."
About this time, Zerphey found out about the County Highpointers. "I thought, what the heck, I still didn't want to sit in an easy chair and die."
So off he went again.
The road started off bumpy. He climbed to a point on Lancaster County's Texter Mountain for his first county summit, only to be informed weeks later by a New Jersey Highpointer that the actual high point was one-quarter-mile away.
With 621 counties in 13 states under his belt, Zerphey is currently concentrating on reaching the high points in counties that border the Appalachian Trail with their sweeping vistas. He's done 75 of the 88 counties that stretch from Georgia to Maine.
Most of the time, he and Marilyn will travel by motor home or swap one of the three time-share places they have for a place to stay.
You might wonder if his wife is a willing accomplice to this crusade.
"It's been fun," Marilyn says without hesitation. "We have gotten to so many places that no one will ever get to because it's way back in the boonies. I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Every minute is fun for her because she hikes with her husband only "as far as it's fun." Then she sets up her portable folding chair under a shade tree and reads until her spouse returns.
She's learned the hard way that many of the county high points involve bushwhacking and places with no trails to them.
Many of the county high points are on private land. "I don't trespass," he declares, adding, "If you can't find the owner, do it. Take your chances."
He's gotten horribly lost a few times to the point he feared for his life. He's had to machete his way to high points. On one particularly tough high point encased in briers and thorny hawthorn trees, "I was blood from one end to the other."
Hiking to one high point in West Virginia, he startled workers installing a wind turbine.
No one has ever done all 621 counties and likely no one ever will. In Texas alone, there are many counties on vast ranches whose landowners want no part of interlopers.
But that doesn't matter so much to Zerphey.
"It gets you outdoors. It keeps you physical. I don't plan on giving it up.
"Life is very, very good."
Ad Crable is a Sunday News outdoors writer. Email him at email@example.com.