From countries to counties: some tips on learning geography

Published 5:26 pm Friday, April 14, 2023

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Back in the day, a younger version of myself used to be really good at memorizing things. Of course, I didn’t really use my superpowers for anything important – like remembering to do my chores in a timely manner – but instead, I tried to memorize the names of all the countries of the world along with their capital cities.

I had a nice shiny globe that I’d been gifted for Christmas one year, and I’d spend free time occasionally spinning the globe around and jotting down each name that I could read. The font was, after all, quite small and sometimes overlapped with neighboring countries. If I looked hard enough, I could probably still find the notebook stashed away somewhere filled with my sloppy handwriting. But parts of it are probably inaccurate now these days.

The practice was a good way to learn things for me, though I never got the hang of reciting all the capitals like I could do for countries. A few names, however, stood out to me. I always remember, in particular, helping a friend study in high school. He was trying to name the capital of South Korea, which is Seoul (pronounced “sole” like the bottom of your shoe). Trying to give him a hint, I pointed at my own shoe to help him out. He squinted at my foot for a long moment, and then guessed, “…Nike?”

Needless to say, I don’t think I was actually much help that day.

In later years, instead of using my (somewhat outdated) globe, I turned to the magic of the internet whenever I wanted to refresh my memory of the countries. I particularly like the website Sporcle which lets you take all sorts of quizzes on just about any subject you can think of. So, of course, I sometimes randomly do the one where you have to type all the country names in alphabetical order. (It’s how I learned how to properly spell the country of Kyrgyzstan. And also, how I discovered that Swaziland had changed its name to Eswatini.)

So, generally, I’m still good with country names if you ask me to name them. But recently, I’ve been thinking how I’m not nearly as good with the counties in my own state of North Carolina. My old memories of state-focused lessons in fourth and eighth grades are a bit rusty by now. But there are 100 counties total, and I can probably only name less than half without looking at a map. I’m sure I’ve visited even less than that in my life so far.

With my curiosity piqued, I pulled up a county map of North Carolina. Maybe they would have been easier to learn if I’d realized years ago that some names are probably already familiar to us for various reasons.

A few counties happen to share names with some of our local communities. Gaston County and Union County are both on the South Carolina border, flanking the area around Charlotte. Jackson County is located on the western tip of North Carolina. (There’s also a Franklin County that shouldn’t be confused with our Franklin, VA neighbors to the north.)

Other county names might be memorable to us because they share a common name with former presidents, such as Lincoln County (located right above Gaston County), Madison County (on the Tennessee border), and Washington County (which is near Bertie).

Some county names sound like they belong in other states, like Richmond County and Cleveland County (both down on the South Carolina border).

According to, the oldest counties in the state that are still in existence are our neighbors to the east: Chowan, Currituck, Pasquotank, and Perquimans; all formed in 1668 from Albemarle County (which no longer exists). The youngest NC counties are Avery and Hoke, both formed in 1911.

As the weather gets warmer, I start thinking about places that might be fun to visit. And there’s definitely a plethora of options available in our state.

I’ve always enjoyed visiting the North Carolina Zoo, which is in Randolph County. It’s been a few years since I last had a chance to go, but I always feel like I’m taking a whirlwind trip around the world as I walk through all the exhibits there.

If I’m feeling nostalgic for my college days, I’d go visit Alamance County, home of Elon University and a number of interesting towns, such as Burlington, Mebane, Gibsonville, and Graham. There were always fun things to explore in the area when I was a student out there and had a little bit of free time on the weekends.

Instead of traveling west, it would also be fun to go east and then take a trip down the coast. Probably most of us are already familiar with Dare County and the Outer Banks. But it would be fun to visit other coastal counties such as Carteret County, Onslow County, and New Hanover County. (You could even visit Camp Caswell, located on Oak Island, which is a part of Brunswick County. But don’t get it confused with Caswell County, which is landlocked up on the Virginia border!)

These are just a few examples of what North Carolina has to offer, but I’m sure there’s something interesting to discover and explore in all 100 counties.

I think, if you have the means to travel, visiting fun places around the state might be an easier way to learn about all our counties, compared to simply memorizing a list of names on paper.

And if you have friends who don’t live in our Roanoke-Chowan area, encourage them to come check out what our four counties (Bertie, Gates, Hertford, and Northampton) have to offer. It might be a lot more than you think!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.