McHENRY, Md. -- THE local promotion council doesn't like it, but there is a comfortably accurate saying that goes: "Alaska is to the lower 48 states what Garrett County is to the rest of Maryland."
The lack of enthusiasm for the expression comes from fears that it makes Garrett County sound too remote from the rest of the state and too cold to attract winter visitors. Yet the implied
remoteness from urban regions and the hint of chilling winters in the comparison to Alaska are two of the very factors bringing about a rediscovery of one of Maryland's most pristine regions. It also means that promotional groups have had to drop a favorite advertising phrase which called the county "Maryland's
"It wasn't all that long ago that many people in the Baltimore-Washington area didn't know that there was anything left of Maryland once you went past Frederick," says Department of Natural Resources Western Liaison Gary Yoder. "Now that's changed in a big way. Of course, for us Western Maryland locals, we feel like we've left the real Maryland once we get past Frederick and head toward Baltimore."
Mr. Yoder, a longtime resident of Garrett County, says the newfound enthusiasm for the state's most western region comes, in part, from improved roads which make the drive to Garrett County only three hours from the center of either Baltimore or Washington, instead of four to 4 1/2 hours as it used to be. The result is a change in the mix of visitors, who were once primarily from Pittsburgh, two hours away, and now are outnumbered by fugitives from the Baltimore/Washington and Northern Virginia megalopolis.
"For people in metro areas who don't think anything of a one-hour commute to work, driving three hours for a weekend getaway is nothing," says Mr. Yoder. "What they get for their brief car time is a physical world incredibly different from their daily realities of city life."
Part of that "world-away" includes thousands of acres of the state's most pristine forests intersected only occasionally by mountain bike and hiking trails. World-class trout streams also beckon, as does Deep Creek Lake, which with its 62 miles of shoreline is easily the state's largest body of fresh water. Some of the region's best cross-country and downhill skiing as well as mountaintop golf courses helps round out the rest of the attraction. But visitors say the appeal can be more subtle than the outdoors activities or even the beautiful environment.
A sense of security
It may have as much to do with the feeling that cars and even
front doors can be left unlocked without much concern. And no one complains about the 3,300-foot elevation with its cool summer breezes, as the not-too-distant cities swelter in high temperatures and wilting humidity.
"It's like having your very own Aspen just a few hours' drive from Baltimore," says Robert Aherns, a free-lance videographer. The "rediscovery" of Garrett County has brought with it some benefits for lifelong residents such as the Sincells, whose family has owned the local newspaper, the Republican, since 1890. In an age when large metropolitan dailies are folding, the Garrett County weekly enjoys a hefty increase in its advertising pages.
"Part of that has to do with the fact that we are the only connection here for everyone in the county," says one of the newspaper's three reporters, Mary McEwen. Ms. McEwen, who is also the daughter of Bob Sincell, the newspaper's publisher, says the paper is something that people look forward to each week. Its long-term track record and recent advertising gains have not changed the time-proven method by which the paper is published every week.
Thursdays at the Oakland-based paper see reporters and the editor hurriedly finishing articles. The news staff then pastes up the pages and changes clothes to go downstairs to work the presses. The editor, Don Sincell, Mary's brother, throws the freshly bundled papers into the back of a pickup truck and takes on some of the responsibilities for the weekly deliveries.
The U.S. Postal Service sends copies of the Republican to subscribers in every state of the Union. "It's a reflection of national interest in this area," says Ms. McEwen. "People who have lived here or even just passed through here want to keep up with what is going on in Garrett County."
Ted Koppel is a long-time subscriber and can be seen enjoying some of the restaurants along Deep Creek Lake. Chief executives from some of the nation's largest corporations, including Coors Beer, come here for frequent respites from their busy lives. And the inventor of the Big Mac has not only invested in a summer place here but owns several of the most popular and successful businesses in the county.
Frequent visits by some of the nation's high achievers is not new to the area. Grover Cleveland spent his honeymoon at Mountain Lake Park in 1886. He is quoted in local publications as telling his hosts at the time: "It is just the spot for a businessman to come to. I could not have found a more suitable retreat had I searched the entire United States."
Albert Einstein practiced his sailing skills on Garrett County waters. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and the naturalist John Burroughs came for the fishing and the cool summer days.
More recent professional movement into the area has come about because of the invention of the computer and the fax machine. Couples like Mark and Laura Stuzman, illustrators whose portfolio includes the Postal Service's Elvis stamp, moved to Garrett County several years ago.
"We checked with our clients before we decided to make the move and asked if it would bother them if we left their immediate area," says Mr. Stutzman. "They assured us it wouldn't. With modern communications and overnight deliveries everything has worked out fine. It's a great environment for artists and a
wonderful place to raise children."
No need for endorsements
But native Garrett Countians like to point out that the area doesn't need validation from outsiders who bring their name recognition. Sherry Lane Frantz, an entrepreneur who produces videos and operates an herbal and dried flower wreath business, is the daughter of a former county sheriff. Ms. Frantz resents any need to justify the attraction of the area by a list of "Who's Who" newcomers. "Just because we were born and raised here doesn't mean that we had no choices in life," she says. "Many of us have traveled and lived elsewhere. We're here because we want to be here. But the increase in tourism and general interest in the area could be a mixed blessing. We don't want to lose the very thing that makes it so special by ending up with too many people being here."
At 657 square miles, Garrett County is Maryland's largest, but it claims only 29,000 full-time residents. Mr. McEwen and others are hoping that it will take many more generations for the population to grow anywhere as dense as in Garrett's more hectically paced eastern neighbors. And the newcomers agree. Jane Lang, who practices law with her husband, Paul Sprenger, in Washington, has concerns over what she calls "the Bethany Beach factor." She recounts going to a local store here one day and seeing someone she knew from the city.
"That worried me," she says. "I can't stand the thought of this becoming like Bethany Beach, where you go there to get away and find that the city's population has just moved with you."
The couple bought a house on Deep Creek Lake after seeing an advertisement for the area. "We drove up the middle of a #F snowstorm and knew that this is where we wanted to be," she says. "There is an ease of mind here that's hard to explain. Maybe it's just simply a feeling of being safe just because you are safe. And there's also a different attitude toward work and friendship. Work is not just something you do to be able to do something else. The carpenters, the repairmen, take pride in what they do. There is a real sense of joy and satisfaction. Work isn't about showing off or getting a title. It's not about trying to be anybody else but just about who you are."
Jane Lang has already done things for the county using her impressive family and professional contacts. She is the daughter of Eugene Lang, the philanthropist who began the nationally lTC renowned "I Have a Dream Foundation," which provided financial aid to New York City grade-schoolers who went on to graduate from high school. Mrs. Lang found that her new mountain retreat readily lent itself to her passion for writing. Tapping into the Eugene M. Lang Foundation, she opened Garrett County's first Young Writers' Summer Workshop.
Glenn Tolbert is a writer and film producer who lives in McHenry.