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In his own 435-part way, he's traveling to see America

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Cain Pence says his father gave him the unusual first name as a challenge: Here, overcome this; do something good and remarkable with your life and redeem this ancient name.

Geography helped set his course, too. Born 27 years ago in southeast Minneapolis, Pence grew up near the Mississippi River and often walked its banks, wondering where it went and whether people were different there.

But while other young people go to Europe for a year or join the Peace Corps for two years in Africa or laze away a summer boating up the Amazon, Pence's quest is to visit every congressional district in the United States.

Yes, congressional districts: all 435 of them, plus Guam and other territories. Call it a gerrymandered junket: If that's Whitey's Bar in East Grand Forks, this must be the Minnesota Seventh.

Pence says that he's tired and $10,000 in debt, but he's almost done. He has a few districts yet to visit in California and Hawaii, but he has pushed his 2000 Chevrolet Impala nearly 80,000 miles in four years and begged a bed and breakfast from everybody he's ever known -- and their sometimes surprised parents. He's wearing out his sixth copy of a U.S. road atlas.

"The idea came from reading 'The Almanac of American Politics,"' he said. "Everybody else sees it as a reference book, but I read it cover to cover and loved it for the little history lessons it has on all the districts.

"Then I thought, 'Why not use it as a tour guide?' People tell me I'm nuts all the time, but I think a lot of them are jealous."

He resolves to finish his quest this year -- if he can find cheap transport to Hawaii.

Pence earned a degree in government, political theory and classics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he discovered the politics almanac -- and his passion to see the country up close.

But why something so artificial as congressional districts? Characters on TV's "The West Wing" may toss around knowing references to the Louisiana Third and the New York 15th, but such designations are empty and colorless to most people. Who would sing, "I left my heart in the California Eighth"?

"A lot of people go in search of America, but they don't do it with much discipline," Pence said.

If they get to Dallas, they check off Texas, he said. But Texas is also border towns like El Paso, which are different from big cities like Houston or Gulf ports like Corpus Christi or the hill country of west Texas. The districts reflect the great diversity of Texas, and they do that for all of America, like a giant jigsaw puzzle with 435 parts.

"If you really want to understand the country, you have to go see it," he said. "You see how divided America still is by race and class. Some districts were drawn that way -- drawn to be safe Republican districts, white and suburban, or safe Democratic districts, mostly inner-city, poor, minorities."

In the 2,000-page almanac, published every two years, author Michael Barone profiles sitting governors and members of Congress and analyzes the people, voting history and other aspects of each congressional district. Early in his quest, Pence had lunch with Barone and received his blessing.

As he reaches a new district, Pence introduces himself to a few people -- ordinary working people -- and visits local landmarks: parks, mountain ranges and forests; cathedrals, universities and state capitols.

"They're free," he said.

At first, he traveled when he had vacation time, catching rides with friends who were bound somewhere new. But in that first 2 1/2 years, he reached only a third of the districts.

"I knew I'd never get done that way," he said.

Events nudged him to take up his quest full time. His mother died in 1999. He broke up with a girlfriend. His father remarried.

"The road is good therapy," he said.

Pence has worked temporary jobs here and there, but he relies primarily on friends, their relatives or complete strangers to get him fed, rested and fueled for the next stop.

His father approves.

"The idea of seeing the physical place is a very good way to understand your country," said David Pence, a radiation oncologist in Minneapolis and longtime social activist. "And the poorer you are when you travel -- the more you have to rely on fellow Americans to move you around -- the more you'll understand.

"As a dad, I'm a little concerned about him not having a full-time job. There's a line from Rudyard Kipling: 'If you can dream and not make dreams your master.' That's what I hope for Cain. But I think it's a great project."

Cain Pence has slept many nights in his car. He slept once on a Florida dock and once on a bench in a Kentucky park until a cop rousted him. He has subsisted for days on breakfast bars. In Cleveland, when he learned that the friend he was planning to stay with had just left on her honeymoon, he detoured to New York and Pennsylvania. When the newlyweds returned to Ohio, so did he.

"But if there were no adversity, no challenges, what kind of quest would it be?" he asks.

He keeps a journal of his travels and says he may try to write a book when he's done. He says he'll also look for work.

"I'd like to own a home someday," he said. "I'd like to get out of debt, settle down. I don't want to be a drifter all my life.

"But very few people understand how huge America is, how diverse, how divided and unified at the same time. This has given me something to be excited about -- something to be passionate about. It's been my own personal graduate school, and it's the best thing I've ever done."