KENNEDYVILLE - Coaxed to reflect on his 18 years in Washington, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest acknowledges a single regret.
"If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have run," he said. "I probably would have rested my days as an outfitter taking people on horseback rides in the northern Bitterroot towns of Idaho. Lived out a peaceful existence, in a log cabin that was still filled up with snow in May."
It is a typically idiosyncratic answer from the Eastern Shore Republican, who spent time counting moose in Idaho between jobs as a high school history teacher and a house painter before he won his seat in 1990. He never had much use for politics - he says he registered as a Republican for his initial run against Democratic Rep. Roy P. Dyson in 1988 only because it was cheaper than filing as an independent candidate - and, once on Capitol Hill, earned a reputation for independent-mindedness that might eventually have cost him his seat.
With his ninth and final term representing Maryland's 1st Congressional District coming to an end, Gilchrest finally has more time to enjoy the outdoors. On a recent morning, the 62-year-old former Marine hauled his Old Town canoe up the bank of Turner's Creek and helped his dogs onto the shore. He grabbed a backpack holding a steaming thermos of hot chocolate and trudged up a path to a clearing where he could stretch out.
On the way here, Gilchrest pointed out a 1790 house that he's hoping to preserve, saluted a pair of watermen working this arm of the Sassafras River and spotted a bald eagle circling overhead. Bespectacled and balding under an Eastern Shore Land Conservancy baseball cap, he is leaving public life pretty much as he entered it: focused on the environment and thinking about ways that it might be safeguarded for the future.
These are peaceful days for Gilchrest, who spoke of feeling liberated after losing a bitterly fought primary last year to conservative state Sen. Andy Harris. It pleases Gilchrest that tomorrow, Frank M. Kratovil Jr., the Queen Anne's County Democrat whom he crossed party lines to endorse in the general election, will be sworn in as his successor.
Kim Coble, for one, is glad that Gilchrest stayed in Washington for as long as he did.
"Wayne Gilchrest was one of the consistent backbones of working to protect the bay at the federal level," said Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who noted his work safeguarding fisheries and promoting environmentally sound farming practices. "You could always count on him to support and carry legislation, and to bring concepts to light during committee hearings."
Gilchrest said he feels as if he's "being propelled into a much more satisfying life."
"The problem with being a member of the House, especially if you like to be out here canoeing or doing other things away from Washington, is that if you take your job seriously, it's physically and intellectually restrictive," he said. "If you want to branch out, to do things a little more broadly, politics is not the place for you."
In Washington, Gilchrest did not project the air of a man restricted. After voting to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq - "We had an assumption that the administration was competent, was informed and had integrity," he said, "and we were wrong" - he was one of the first congressional Republicans to turn against the war, joining Democrats in a 2007 vote to set a deadline for a troop withdrawal. He has long expressed concern about climate change. And, in recent years, he has met with officials of the U.S. adversaries Iran and Syria to promote diplomacy over conflict.
Those maverick ways made Gilchrest a target of conservative Republicans, who derided him as a RINO - a Republican in Name Only - and found in Harris the viable challenger they had long sought. The anti-tax Club for Growth and others poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, and despite endorsements from Bush and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Gilchrest was defeated soundly in the primary.
When he campaigned for Kratovil and, later, endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, conservatives said that Gilchrest had at last revealed his true colors. Gilchrest, who has had several conversations with Kratovil since the election, says he is content with the result.
"Frank is independent, he's competent, he keeps himself informed, and he has integrity," Gilchrest said. "You can't ask for anything else on either side of the aisle."
Kratovil, a Democrat who will represent a district that usually elects Republicans, says that Gilchrest is a model for how he wants to serve.
"His legacy is the ability to look at issues and get past the propaganda on both sides and made decisions based on a careful and thorough review and doing what's right," Kratovil said. "I hope to be able to continue that outlook."
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat and Kratovil family friend who campaigned for the congressman-elect, nonetheless described Gilchrest's departure as "a loss to the Congress and to the sort of comity that we try to create here."
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a conservative Republican from Western Maryland, said Gilchrest "always acted with political courage and personal decency to support what he believed was in the best interests of our country."
Asked what he achieved in Congress, Gilchrest demurs.
"I don't know if the word achievement is that appropriate to a member of Congress who legislates with 434 other people," he said. "It's a continuum. I didn't solve the climate change issue. I didn't solve the energy issue. I didn't stop the war in Iraq. I didn't create peace in the Middle East. Good people can make advances in those areas. ... You get in there and continue the struggle."
Gilchrest plans to continue the struggle from outside of Congress. He is scheduled to speak this month at a meeting of Americans and Iranians interested in diplomacy between their countries. He is working with a group to develop an ecologically sound plan to farm the land around Turner's Creek. In the longer term, he wants to continue to advocate for the environment.
"I would just like to - and I will, in some way - pursue policy that takes a deeper view of long-range planning," he said. "For example, economic growth is a term that doesn't apply anymore if we want to have a good economy a hundred years from now. You can't continue to grow an economy where your resources are being depleted so future generations won't have the kind of the air that they need to exist, or the land, or the agriculture."
For now, Gilchrest is in a transition that he says feels natural. He says he felt no sadness when he cast his final votes or packed up his offices. As a platoon leader who was seriously wounded in Vietnam, he gained perspective on life early. While a member of the House, he avoided the Washington cocktail party circuit to spend evenings at home with his wife and three children.
"I'm probably not going to miss anything about Congress," he said. "Really. I've done it, it's over, that's good, now I move on. In other words, I'm not going to sit at home at night watching C-SPAN, wishing I was on the House floor.
"You finish, like when you're done with breakfast, and then you move on to the rest of the day."