Maryland is funny looking. Dangly parts on either end, a seemingly straight-edge top and a bottom that might have been drawn by a seismograph.
The middle is filled with water -- the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country.
It took Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon four years to survey their way across the state in the mid-1700s. Today, a bicyclist would need about a week. But a walker could get from West Virginia to Pennsylvania via the town of Hancock in about 20 minutes. Just start at the Potomac River, walk up Main Street, turn left onto Pennsylvania Avenue until you reach the border. No other state is as narrow as Maryland.
For such a small state (42nd out of 50) Maryland harbors a lot of geographical secrets. Many people think Point Lookout is the southernmost place in the state. Look again.
If you suspect the Mason-Dixon line might not be on the straight and narrow, you ain't just whistling "Dixie."
The highest point is a whisker away from being in another state. The lowest point isn't where you'd think it is. And the center? You probably can't get there unless you wear an Air Force uniform.
"Nothing is a simple answer," says Jim Reger, a geologist with the Maryland Geological Survey, the agency whose mission is to keep track of the state's earth science data.
When it comes to geographical questions about the state, Reger is the answer man. One day, for example, the Department of Natural Resources called to ask for the average elevations of Allegany and Carroll counties.
Figuring it was a matter of some importance, Reger dug out the information and called back. After relaying the numbers, he inquired about the project.
"Oh," said the voice at the other end of the phone, "we just had a bet in the office."
Even the answer man was intrigued by The Sun's quest to locate the extremes of Maryland -- the highest, lowest, most northern, southern, eastern and western points of the state, along with the spot that's exactly in the middle.
Reger's research and knowledge made our journey easier, and along the way, we learned that there is a lot to learn about Maryland.
Uncle Sam makes it nearly impossible to stand at the center of Maryland.
First, consider that the federal government won't even acknowledge that each state has a geographic center. A sternly worded bulletin from the U.S. Department of the Interior warns that "no marked or monumented point has been established by any Government agency as the geographic center of either the 50 states, the conterminous United States, or the North American Continent." Any attempt to establish such a point, it harumphs "should be considered as approximations only."
Luckily, Jim Reger is not cowed by a mere federal bulletin. Using Global Positioning System satellite technology (see box on Page 5R), the geologist locates Maryland's center at 76 degrees 40 minutes west longitude and 38 degrees 58 minutes north latitude, or about 4 1/2 miles northwest of Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County.
"Most people probably think it's closer to Baltimore," he says.
To visualize the center of Maryland, think of first-grade arts and crafts: "If you outlined Maryland on a stiff piece of cardboard and cut it out," Reger says, "the center would be the point at which the state would balance on the point of a pencil."
To get the balancing point perfect, a geologist would have to take into account the thickness of the earth's crust, "but nobody wants to get into that," Reger says.
But it will take more than Reger's calculations to get you past Uncle Sam's second line of defense. Follow Reger's coordinates down a country lane just north of the intersection of Routes 50 and 424 and you'll find yourself at the heavily guarded home of the U.S. Air Force 789th Communications Squadron.
Antennas and other strange-looking communications gear point skyward from the 900-acre fenced facility, directed by the command center at Andrews Air Force Base about 11 miles away.
According to an Andrews Web site, the squadron is part of the worldwide Special Air Missions, which "provides command, control, communications, and computer systems support to customers in the National Capital Region and worldwide, including the President, foreign dignitaries, and high-ranking military and civilian officials."
In other words, when the president picks up the phone on Air Force One to speak to Tony Blair in London or to send a dozen roses to the first lady, he's using Davidsonville as his operator. If the president ordered the use of nuclear weapons, according to the Web site, the Davidsonville facility would send out his command.
Understandably, the center of Maryland is off limits, and the Air Force frowns upon picnicking near its transmitters. But you can get fairly close by going to the Bell Branch Athletic Complex on Route 424. The center is due south of the parking lot, about a quarter-mile through the woods.
How low can you go?
What's down there?
The rotting hulls of doomed sailing ships? The bones of unlucky sailors? The lair of Chessie the sea monster?
No one really knows how Bloody Hole got in the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay or how it got its name. But there it is, a 167-foot-deep indentation, one mile due west of the southern tip of Kent Island: 38 degrees, 50 minutes north and 76 degrees, 23 minutes west.
Charter boat Capt. Jim Brincefield takes anglers across Bloody Hole or around Bloody Hole, but he never fishes directly over it.
"No reason to," he says from the wheel of his boat on a recent fall day. "There's tons of critters down there, but you can't net them and you can't hook them."
Sure enough, the fish-finder screen to his left has plenty of colored blips, indicating a lot of life beneath the hull of the Jil Carrie. But the strong currents that rip through the murky depths carry away fishing lines and nets and make catching anything nearly impossible. The exact dimensions of the hole are unknown, and what caused it is the subject of speculation.
Jeff Halka of the Maryland Geological Survey says the most plausible theory was put forward by a Johns Hopkins professor who believed a small underground spring kept sediment from accumulating in that spot.
How Bloody Hole got its name leads to even more speculation.
Brincefield and other charter captains say one tale is that in the 1800s, oystermen used to shanghai drunks from Baltimore's waterfront bars to work as crewmen. When it came time to pay them (or when they sobered up), captains would kill them and dump the evidence in the deepest part of the bay.
Another tale is that wooden boats running down the bay would get a false sense of security passing near Bloody Hole, then run aground on the bar between the Hole and Kent Island.
Indeed, a reading of the bottom shows a form about 100 feet long sitting on the north side of the Bloody Point Bar Lighthouse in 154 feet of water.
Capt. Buddy Harrison, who's been fishing the bay for more than 50 years, believes it's a schooner.
Two other explanations for Bloody Hole's name are offered in the book Queen Anne's County, Maryland, published in 1887. One explanation says colonists may have lured American Indians to a party there and massacred them. The other suggestion was that a notorious pirate was captured in Norfolk, Va., brought to Kent Island, and hanged to death in chains. His skeleton is said to have swung from the [gallows] for several years" as a warning to other pirates.
If those explanations are too, well, bloody, Brincefield offers a more gentle option: "I think God made it as a sanctuary to give critters a place to hide from us."
In peak condition
You can't stand any taller in Maryland than on top of Backbone Mountain.
Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Garrett County, the mountain is the state's ceiling at 3,360 feet above sea level.
But Maryland's high point is owned by an out-of-state mining company, and you have to scoot through a slice of West Virginia to get to it.
Backbone lacks the grandeur of Mount Rainier, the ferocity of Mount McKinley or the fame of Mount Washington. But it beats the tiny bumps that are the high points of Delaware, Louisiana and Rhode Island.
Backbone is an unpretentious hill, a nice stroll of 2.2 miles, up and back, that's doable by tykes, teens and just about anybody else.
Although the summit is partially wooded with a view in only one direction, you can plant your flag when your hand-held GPS unit reads 39 degrees 14 minutes north and 79 degrees 29 minutes west. Or you can just stand under the Maryland Historical Society marker.
The huge metal sign gives a too-brief explanation of what's under your feet. Here's a little bit more:
The mountain is known as Backbone, but the peak is officially called Hoye-Crest.
It picked up the second name in 1952, when the locals, with support from the state, decided to honor the founder of the Garrett County Historical Society.
Capt. Charles E. Hoye was born in 1876, went to school in Towson and served in the Spanish-American War and World War I. He taught in the Philippines and Los Angeles before retiring to Garrett County, where he immersed himself in preserving local history. He died in 1951 in a car crash in Los Angeles.
Backbone, which indeed looks like a spinal column on a topographic map, was informally adopted by Lillian and Gene Elliott of Silver Spring, and during the last three years, the couple cleared away brush and installed a picnic table and a camera stand at the top. Below the marker is a mailbox that contains a log book for hikers to sign and certificates that signify a successful hike. The Elliotts, not the state, fixed up the historical marker.
Backbone ranks 32nd highest of the high points in the 50 states. The Highpointers Club, a national organization that keeps track of climbing records and offers hiking advice, ranks Backbone the 22nd most difficult summit to reach.
Getting to the top requires a vertical climb of 750 feet over slightly more than a mile. So it doesn't take much to rise above it all.
On a map, it looks like a straight line stretching from Delaware to West Virginia. Pick any place where a road crosses the Mason-Dixon Line and you've made it to Maryland's northern reaches, right?
Not so fast. That line may look straight on your Rand McNally, but it isn't. As a matter of fact, the line -- actually a series of stone markers, many of which are still in place -- sags to the south almost immediately from the "0" stone in the northeast corner of the state, according to a group of professional surveyors who remeasured the line during the 1990s.
"It's not a mistake," says Todd Babcock, a surveyor and chairman of the Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership. Mason and Dixon "were very meticulous," Babcock explains, "but they were using the equipment of their time that was highly susceptible to gravity."
Mason and Dixon were British astronomers hired by the Penn and Calvert families to settle a border dispute. The two set out in 1763 with a team of 115 men. A century later, during the Civil War, their handiwork would come to represent the division between North and South, and free states vs. slave states.
The surveyors used an instrument called a zenith sector, a plumb bob hanging from a six-foot telescope, to get their bearings from the stars.
But plumb bobs are affected by surface gravity, which differs depending on the density of rock at any particular location. Where iron ore is abundant, the local attraction of gravity is slightly stronger, pulling the plumb bob out of true vertical.
"They probably knew it was happening," says Babcock, "but they didn't understand the magnitude or how to correct for it."
The line reaches its low point, as it were, at stone No. 78 near Emmitsburg, where the Mason-Dixon line is 800 to 900 feet south of the theoretical line of latitude.
But then the line climbs as it goes west. By the time it reaches stone No. 132 just north of Hancock, Mason-Dixon is about 300 feet north of where it should be. And that, says Babcock, is as far north as you can go and still be in the south. Specifically, it's 39 degrees 43 minutes north and 78 degrees 16 minutes west.
Ralph Donnelly, who resurveyed the spot in 1992 with GPS technology, says stone No. 132, 16 inches tall and 12 inches square, is in fair condition. Chipped and weathered, it sits isolated in a sea of weeds on private property about a half-mile from Rice Road. Nearby is an old sawmill, and overhead, high-tension lines hum with electricity.
True, the Mason-Dixon line may not be as straight as an arrow, but for almost 250 years, it's been close enough.
Reaching the pole
Maryland's south pole is just that, a metal beam poking out of Pocomoke Sound with a sign on it.
The left half of the sign says, "VA." The right half says, "MD." And the gull posing atop the structure like a fat saltwater eagle says, "Aaggh."
This is Watkins Point, the southernmost piece of property in Maryland, the last stop before Old Dominion. Lots of folks, including some in state government, think the honor belongs to Point Lookout in St. Mary's County.
Not by a country mile or more.
Watkins Point -- 37 degrees 54 minutes north and 75 degrees 52 minutes west, is attached to Cedar Island, a 2,880-acre wildlife area south of Crisfield and owned by Maryland and managed by its Department of Natural Resources.
The state bought all but 20 acres of Cedar Island in 1949. The rest belongs to a private land-owner.
Swampy parts of the island won't hold the weight of a person, but other parts -- especially on the western side -- will.
The variety of vegetation is about as exciting as the vegetables served in an elementary school cafeteria.
"It's very abundant. It's very prolific. But it's not very diverse," says Bill McInturff, a state wildlife manager, as he pilots a boat through the shallows.
Two plants dominate: salt meadow cord grass and salt grass. The spaces between are filled with sea lavender and seaside goldenrod, which attracts migrating monarch butterflies.
What the island lacks in vegetative variety it more than makes up for in critters. Herons, egrets and short-eared owls reside on Cedar Island. Brown pelicans hang around off shore. The marsh grass hides muskrats and otters and that old orange-toothed nuisance, the nutria.
"This is a big-time duck area," says McInturff. "People say the canvasbacks are king of the Chesapeake Bay, but here, black ducks would be king."
The water can be shallow. At low tide, the stretch between Cedar Island and Virginia's Fox Island can be 18 inches or less. At high tide, it might be chin-high on a sixth-grader.
But the water is clear, and on a fall day perfect for kayaking. The western side has sandy beaches, and it's an inviting place for weary paddlers. Beyond the water's edge are two rows of sand dunes, an unusual sight on the Chesapeake.
"There aren't many places like this on the bay anymore," says McInturff. "It's a neat place without much visitation."
East: settling a royal feud
The directions to get to this extremity are simple: Walk east until your hat floats.
Drive up Route 528, Coastal Highway, until you reach the Delaware line. Walk down the beach to the water. With Assawoman Bay at your back and Ocean City to your right, you're standing as close to the Old World as possible from Maryland: 38 degrees 27 minutes north and 75 degrees 2 minutes west.
Looking for something cast in stone? You're in luck.
Stroll over to nearby Fenwick Island Lighthouse across the border in Delaware and look for the rounded marker just outside the fence. On the north side is the coat of arms of the Penn family. On the south side is the coat of arms of the Calverts.
This "crown stone" marks the beginning of the nearly 70-mile Transpeninsular Line, which starts at the Atlantic Ocean and runs to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Penns owned Pennsylvania and the "three lower counties" that now make up Delaware. The Calverts owned Maryland. The two families feuded about land ownership.
Finally, John Watson and William Parsons of Pennsylvania and John Emory and Thomas Jones of Maryland surveyed the boundary, placing the Fenwick Island stone on April 26, 1751. The line was accepted in 1760 by both families and ratified in 1769 by King George III.
The halfway point of the Transpeninsular Line is marked with a "crown stone" that is Delaware's southwest corner. The "Middle Point" stone, as the surveyors called it, is the point from which Mason and Dixon began their surveying to settle that other dispute between the Penns and Calverts.
How simple if the westernmost point in Maryland was in the middle of a park, with a fence surrounding the stone marker and a sign explaining it all. No questions, no ambiguities, no thrashing around in the woods.
And how historical it would be if that stone was one of the oldest surveying markers in the country.
And how positively enthralling it would be if it had a fancy name.
In fact, there is such a stone not too far from Backbone Mountain, Maryland's highest point, that enjoys a historic past and serves as a boundary marker. Many folks believe it marks the line between Maryland and West Virginia.
But the Fairfax Stone in West Virginia marks the headwaters of the Potomac River and where three of that state's counties meet. The marker was set in 1746 by surveyor Thomas Lewis and is the site of a four-acre West Virginia park.
The actual western corner of Maryland is about one mile downstream from Fairfax Stone, near the tiny coal mining town of Kempton. It, too, has a stone. Locals say it's called Marker No. 1 (coordinates: 39 degrees 12 minutes north and 79 degrees 29 minutes west).
But now that we have you out in Garrett County, take a look at Maryland's western boundary. It tilts ever so slightly, so that the northwest corner of Maryland is farther east than the southwest corner.
Not only isn't the western boundary due north-south, it isn't a straight line, either. The line has four or five little "offsets," or steps, that trace their origin back to the late 1700s, when cartographer Francis Deakins plotted the land grants given to Revolutionary War veterans as thanks for their service.
The 50-acre plots -- 4,165 of them -- stretch from Fort Cumberland (in the heart of that Western Maryland city) to what is now the state line. The western edges of the westernmost grants became the Deakin Line, the state boundary. All but one of the offsets cut into West Virginia. The southernmost one, near Gnegy Church Road, jogs east.
Jokes Jim Reger of the Maryland Geological Survey, "maybe someone got 54 acres instead of 50."
WHEN YOU GO ...
For more information about Maryland geography, the Mason-Dixon Line and some of the locations mentioned in the story, try the following Web sites:
* Maryland Geological Survey: www.mgs.md.gov
* Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership: http: / / eawebview.com / masondixon
* Cedar Island: www.dnr.state.md.us / publiclands
* U.S. Geological Survey: www.usgs.gov or geonames.usgs.gov
FINDING YOUR WAY
Many people -- anglers, sailors, hikers and travelers -- have abandoned the traditional map and compass for a hand-held gizmo known as a GPS receiver. GPS stands for Global Positioning System. The units, priced from about $150, rely on 24 government-controlled satellites to provide data to compute time, velocity and distance. Once the satellites lock into your position, they tell you where you are in degrees, minutes and seconds, or on a map stored within the receiver.
Getting your bearings
Any location on the globe can be plotted using latitude and longitude coordinates.
Latitude is measured in degrees (o), minutes (') and seconds (") north or south of the equator, which is zero degrees.
Longitude is measured the same way east or west of the line of longitude running through Green-wich, England (zero degrees).
Baltimore's location would be abbreviated as 39o 11' N, 76o 41' W.