Where We Live
by Steve Carr
From Here to There
Rivers and streams connect Garrett’s mountains to Chesapeake Bay
I think we forget how diverse the state of Maryland is, with its expansive tidal reaches, bustling metropolitan areas and, of course, the ancient Appalachian Mountains. Those of us who live near the Chesapeake often ignore the treasures a few hours to the west. Places like Frostburg and Cumberland get lumped together with Pennsylvania, and in many ways Western Maryland is another world. But almost all of that distant world drains into the Chesapeake Bay.
A friend recently took me out to Garrett County for an eye-popping tour of Maryland’s most western, and perhaps most interesting, county.
Driving west was like traveling through a time machine. When we left Annapolis, the leaves were still green. By Frederick, where the foothills of the north-south-running Piedmont range begin, the leaves were just starting to turn. As we climbed each ridge, gaining elevation, the colors got more vibrant. By the time we arrived at Deep Creek Lake, fall colors were in full-tilt. It was hard to believe that a three-hour drive could reveal such kaleidoscopic differences.
Let’s start with some basics. Garrett County was established in 1872 as Maryland’s last county. It sits out there beyond Hagerstown and Cumberland, a triangular piece of the Appalachians, jutting into the ribs of West Virginia. It has the largest geographic area of any Maryland county yet the smallest population. Tourism has replaced logging and coal mining as the county’s chief moneymaker. The only city of any size is Oakland, an old B&O Railroad junction near the headwaters of the Youghiogheny River. Much of the county is comprised of state-protected lands: New Germany and Savage River state parks; Deep Creek Lake; the Potomac River Forest; Garrett State Forest; Jennings Randolph Lake; Swallow Falls.
The history of the county is the story of our nation’s westward expansion via the National Road. Negro Mountain, the high point along the old road west, was named after a slave, called Nemesis, killed in a fight with the local Indians. The Fairfax Stone, a miniature Washington Monument, sitting on the border of West Virginia and Maryland, is one of the oldest markers in the country. At this spot, a young George Washington formally established the headwaters of the Potomac. The Casselman River Bridge, constructed in 1813, over the Little Youghiogheny River, was once the largest stone bridge in the world.
From the standpoint of natural wonder, Garrett County is unique. For instance, a person camping at Deep Creek Lake sits on the fall line between the Mississippi River and Chesapeake Bay. Muddy Creek, named for the water stained brown by the tannins in the leaves, is the largest waterfall in the state. Maryland’s highest point, at 3,360 feet is atop Hoye-Crest on Backbone Mountain. And the Cranesville Subarctic Swamp, formed during an Ice Age over 15,000 years ago, is home to plants that flourish in the extreme northern parts of Alaska and Canada.
Most folks our way are probably more familiar with Garrett County because of the Wisp Ski area an upscale hodgepodge of valley condos and behemoth log cabins perched along the ridges of Wisp Mountain. Atop the mountain, Adventure Sports has constructed a surreal white-water rafting facility that looks like a slickrock southwestern canyon, complete with orange-colored faux boulders and tumbling rapids.
Culturally, Garrett County is a place of stunning contrasts. The architecture of every home is more interesting than almost anything you might see in Anne Arundel County. But most of the homes are near the recreation areas and are almost all seasonal rentals. At night, we felt like we were driving through a giant ghost town because every house was dark and empty.
As with most rural places, hunting rules and camo clothing is the uniform of choice. On Sundays, most businesses are closed and liquor sales are illegal. But many of the farms are sprouting lavish homes and golf courses, bringing outsiders into the midst, and making for a potentially flammable mix.
My whirlwind tour around Garrett County taught me several important lessons, starting with the fact that most of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is connected to the Bay through local streams and rivers. But the people feel no real connection to the Bay itself. So if we are ever going to save the Bay, we will need to change our message. How about Clean Water?