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One-Tank Getaways

Has the high price of gas given you second thoughts about taking that long driving trip this summer? Not to worry. There are plenty of places worth seeing closer to home. We sent four writers north, south, east and west from Baltimore to find out where they would end up on a single tank of gas. Read their reports below, and get pumped for a summer road trip.

Heading south, a full tank of gas takes you from the manicured waterfront of the Inner Harbor deep into the secrets of the Great Dismal Swamp, that breathtaking and complicated wilderness straddling southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

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Standing in the heart of the swamp, on the shore of Lake Drummond, you feel pulled into the natural rhythms of life.

There are no motor boats. No parking lots. No cell phones. No picnic tables or candy wrappers or soda cans. No tourists, nothing to buy. There are just wind, clouds and the unbroken line of trees rimming the water.

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You bear witness to an almost perfect circle of solitude, textured by layers of history. A long time ago, the stories go, runaway slaves hiding in the swamp sought out the religious services held here for slave laborers. On a bright day in late spring, the place still feels deeply spiritual.

The Great Dismal is one of the largest areas of forested land east of the Appalachians, a mass of marshy woodland. In its center is the curiously shallow Lake Drummond, with peat-brown waters and a dinner-plate shape. It is no more than 6 or 7 feet at its deepest. One of only two natural lakes in Virginia, its origin remains a mystery.

To see the lake by foot usually requires a hike -- the shortest is nine miles round trip. Only one trail is open to automobiles, and only with advance permission, because the lake lies in a protected area designated as a national wildlife refuge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This vast conservation area contains rare plants, more than 200 species of birds and a variety of animals including black bears and bobcats. The refuge's mission is to preserve wildlife and help restore the wetlands after centuries of commercial logging -- a business dating to George Washington's era.

As you head along a trail, you can see baldcypress and Atlantic white cedars, yellow jasmine and blackberry bushes that bears plunder during mating season. A great blue heron rises suddenly from a marshy area, spreading its pterodactyl-like wings as if it were reaching back into the days before Colonial enterprise and slave labor.

Home to runaways

A trip into the swamp bears the legacy of slavery. The cultural heritage of the Great Dismal is woven with the hardships and hopes of slaves who not only worked here digging drainage ditches but also sought sanctuary.

In February, the National Park Service recognized this history by adding the Great Dismal to its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

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Increasingly, scholars are investigating the human ecology of the swamp. There are tales of African-Americans who were able to buy their freedom after years of labor, and stories of slaves who escaped to the north. Most intriguing are reports of settlements of runaways who farmed on islands in the swamp's interior until the Civil War brought their freedom. These people were called maroons, from the Spanish for wild or savage.

Archaeologist Dan Sayers of the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, is collecting evidence of such habitation. He says he imagines the lives of maroons whenever he finds himself hacking through the swamp's wilderness. His quest has introduced him to voracious insects, dense underbrush and brackish water that shelters copperheads and cottonmouths. The rigors of living in the Great Dismal, he says, demonstrate how horrible life outside it was. Here, at least, a slave had a chance.

Nat Turner's rebellion

Even Nat Turner thought it might provide an escape route. In 1831, as he plotted his rebellion in a nearby county, the slave reportedly made plans to flee into the swamp after he and his "army" of slaves killed their oppressors.

He never got the opportunity. After directing the largest slave revolt in American history -- the two-day insurrection killed between 55 and 60 white men, women and children -- Turner was eventually captured and hung.

A drive through the countryside where Turner lived, about 40 miles west of the swamp, offers glimpses of life in those times. Some of the wooden farmhouses where Turner's band killed their victims still stand on private property. Although most of the structures have deteriorated badly, they give a sense of the scale and style of life in those times. So do some of the place names. One intersection, at Blackhead Sign Post Road, marks the spot where slaveholders stuck the heads of four rebels in the uprising on pikes as a reminder of the consequences of resistance.

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You might also venture into Courtland, the Southampton County town where Nat Turner was hanged. The courthouse still holds the original record of his conviction, which can be seen by the public.

Sunnyside Plantation Bed and Breakfast, a beautifully restored Greek Revival mansion, provides a different flavor of that era. Located on an estate less than a mile from Turner's bloody march through Southampton County, the former plantation also holds a one-room schoolhouse and other period outbuildings.

Since the days of Nat Turner, the Great Dismal has been reduced to less than half its original size by logging, but what's left is still potent, mysterious and underappreciated. Refuge worker Deloras Freeman says people living next to the wilderness often ask her how they can reach the swamp.

It's so big, it's invisible, she says. And elusive even when you know it's there.

When you go

Getting there: Driving from Baltimore, take I-95 south to the Washington Beltway (I-495), then go west until re-merging onto I-95 south toward Richmond. Take I-295 south, then Route 460 east into Suffolk. Follow Route 13 to Route 32 south. Follow signs to the refuge headquarters.

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* Distance from Baltimore: 250 miles

The Great Dismal Swamp, 3100 Desert Road, Suffolk, VA 23434

757-986-3705

greatdismalswamp.fws.gov

* The wildlife refuge contains roughly 110,000 acres of forested wetlands and two historic trails open daily to hikers and bikers. Call ahead to arrange to drive to Lake Drummond.

Sunnyside Plantation Bed & Breakfast, 27459 Grays Shop Road, Newsoms, VA 23874

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757-654-9075

www.sunnysideplantationbb.com

* A former plantation about 40 miles from the swamp. Rates at the restored Greek Revival mansion start at $125. No credit cards.

Attractions:

* In Courtland, visit the Southampton Agriculture & Forestry Museum and Heritage Village, a treasury of antique farm equipment and historic outbuildings. Details: 757-653-9554

* Courtland also offers a self-guided historic walking tour of town. Call 757-653-2222.

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Information:

* Suffolk County Division of Tourism: 757-923-3883; www.suffolk.va.us.

* Southampton County: www.southamptoncounty.org


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