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The Story That Started It All

October 13, 2007
We read this story before first visiting Cumberland in 2004. Bill Heavey is a great outdoors writer.

Going to Extremes

To find the heart of Maryland and Virginia, you need to start by exploring the edges. Maryland’s Panhandle, Asking for Change

By Bill Heavey

The Washington Post

Sunday, June 7, 1998

I’d been bouncing down the little dirt track that parallels Ginseng Run near the town of McHenry in westernmost Maryland for what seemed like hours when a wild turkey traipsed across the road. I slammed on the brakes, and so did the turkey. I backed up for a better look. So did the turkey, bobbing across the road it had just traversed. And suddenly there we were, a Honda Civic and America’s largest game bird, 20 feet apart and sharing a single telepathic thought: I’ve never seen one this close before.

It was half an hour later that I finally found someone to ask for directions. The guy was mowing the grass by his mobile home. He was a big, red-faced guy in an American flag rugby shirt. Another flag flew from the porch. He had rigged a second mailbox next to his real one, on a pole 15 feet high. The sign on it read “Air Mail.”
“I’m totally lost,” I said. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, blew his nose mightily and tucked the cloth away. “Most folks are,” he observed at last. “Least you know it.”

If the folks in Baltimore who promote Maryland tourism have their say, the remote, nether reaches of Maryland will not stay lost much longer. A concerted effort by state tourism officials, given a good goosing by Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor, who represents Allegany County, has resulted in a number of events that may conspire to put Maryland’s long-neglected panhandle on the map. There’s an $87 million plan to rewater the terminus of the C & O Canal and create a park in downtown Cumberland.

There’s the plan to continue propping up the area’s historic rail tour, which runs from Cumberland to Frostburg, and feeds patrons to a little olde restaurant that the state just bought. But the crowning glory is Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, a $54 million venture designed to attract something the panhandle has long ignored: high-income business and leisure travelers. The place is basically a glorified conference center located inside a state park, hard by the heretofore entirely unknown waters of Lake Habeeb. While the location happens to be a two-hour drive from D.C., Baltimore and Pittsburgh, convention-goers alone won’t be enough to make the resort pay off. For Rocky Gap to succeed, it has to attract to Maryland’s remote panhandle people who don’t usually venture west of White Flint. Which is why they’re putting in one of the country’s few Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses open to the public. It’s a 7,100-yard beauty with enough underground water pipes to supply a small city.

Whether these plans to turn Western Maryland into a key vacation area work out or not, there is plenty of pretty country, historic clutter and nice walking out there right now. And you won’t need golf spikes and a platinum credit card to enjoy them. At Swallow Falls State Park, you step out of your car into a grove of 300-year-old hemlock trees, then walk a quarter-mile to 63-foot-high Muddy Creek Falls, the state’s highest. There’s world-class whitewater rafting on the upper part of the Youghiogheny River, and tamer water for tubing on the lower part. And don’t overlook the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad just because tax dollars subsidize its operation. It’s a bargain at $16 for a three-hour, 32-mile round-trip down a mile-long gorge, over an iron truss bridge and through the 914-foot Brush Tunnel. PBS found it worthy of inclusion in its “Great Scenic Railway Journeys” TV show.

But the great affair out here is the ramble, to see what’s over the next hill, to poke your nose into places you haven’t been invited.

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