Pie in the Sky
A March Up Maryland's Highest Peak
Our first look at Maryland's highest peak was somewhat less dramatic. We were motoring south on U.S. Route 219 and had just passed a roadhouse called Piddles Griddle when Tim, the most hung-over of our quintet, glared out the window. "That's it?" he said, examining the bulbous, tree-covered peak in the distance. "Oh, that's not so bad."
And it wasn't.
Maryland is billed as "America in Miniature," and not for nothing. Our state's geographic features, while plentiful and diverse, tend to be a little underwhelming (the Chesapeake Bay notwithstanding). Colorado we're not. You can bake a cake anywhere in Maryland and not have to follow the high-altitude directions. It doesn't much matter since, come summer, most Baltimoreans make a beeline for Maryland's lowest point--the Ocean-City surf. But at the other end of the state, in that improbable wedge of woodlands called Garrett County, is a tangled nest of mildly wild mountains. And at that county's extreme western edge, Backbone Mountain rises 3,360 feet above sea level (about eight times the height of Baltimore's World Trade Center). Though our group had never climbed anything more formidable than the upper-deck stairs at Camden Yards, we were determined to trod upon Backbone's crest and look down upon all our fellow Marylanders, drawn skyward by the credo that launched a thousand mountain missions: "Because it's there."
It's a good 200 miles from Baltimore to Backbone, and like every mountaineering expedition, we needed a base camp. In the high Himalayas, this would be where the climbers could corral the Sherpas, water the yaks, and sort out the oxygen tanks. We made our base at the Barbara Fritchie Candystick Restaurant, a Formica-slathered slice of roadside Americana just west of Frederick. The Fritchie offers homily-emblazoned cedar plaques (be patient, god isn't finished with you yet), calico sun bonnets, and horehound stick candies at 14 cents a throw. After stoking our stomachs and brains with a greasy breakfast and strong coffee, we took in provisions for the expedition: a couple of miniature Maryland flags to plant at the summit and six slices of homemade pie--lemon meringue, butterscotch, raisin, French apple, cherry, and coconut cream.
Early Everest explorers faced considerable hardships long before they reached the mountain's imposing slopes. For starters, there was a several-day yak trek through leech-infested jungles. We had it easy--breezing westward along Interstate 70 at 65 mph, watching as rolling meadows gave way to rolling hills, which gave way to rolling mountains. The man-made scenery was also interesting, from the slope-clinging town of Cumberland to the bluff-top sign just past Exit 33 that declared, noah's ark being built here (at least someone's taking El Niņo seriously). We drove up and over Cacapon Mountain, Warrior Mountain, and Piney Mountain before even reaching Garrett County, Maryland's youngest and least populated county (it was carved out of adjacent Allegany County in 1872). Never mind that it was named after Baltimore railroad-magnate John Garrett; many folks here look elsewhere for their bright lights and big city (they wear Pirates and Steelers caps). A 1927 Sun article called Garrett the "gay, larking schoolgirl daughter of Maryland."
Eventually we slipped off the interstate to drive (carefully) through the sleepy hamlet of Accident, the Deep Creek Lake resort area, and along the main street of county seat Oakland (a collection of motels and an overwrought neoclassical court house). You could consider it a final insult to Maryland's mountain prestige that the mile-long hiking trail leading up Backbone actually begins in West Virginia, about five miles south of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Red House, Md.
"hortly after crossing the state line, we scanned the roadside bramble for signs marking the Backbone trail head. (A hand-stenciled placard reading smallest church in 48 states tempted us, but exploration of this superlative would have to wait.) Finally, rounding a bend, we came upon numerous tree
trunks spray-painted with arrows and the letters MD HP, telling us this indeed was Maryland's high point. We parked on the conveniently widened shoulder and geared up for the assault. It was decided that the pie would remain in the car (base camp number two, if you will); we needed a reward for making it back alive. Our sole upward-bound provision was a bottle of Spanish sparkling wine.
The trail was surprisingly wide, bearing evidence that four-wheel-drive vehicles had blazed up before us. We dodged mud puddles and clumps of blooming violets underfoot, while overhead the maples and oaks were just beginning to leaf (weeks behind the trees in balmy Baltimore.)
The going was steep, but walkable. We slowly spread out along the trail, each member of the party choosing his or her own pace. Inexplicably, hung-over Tim took the lead, followed by transplanted-Kansan Jennifer; Dave and Michelle, the token married couple, brought up the rear. Only the intermittent rap of a woodpecker broke the clinging silence. We thought about our loved ones far below us. We though about the primeval ecosystem all around us. We thought about pie.
After 25 minutes of steady, sweaty walking we negotiated a boulder field and came--excitedly--upon a large cement obelisk. A false alarm, Bearing a 1910 date and the names of several long-dead state commissioners, it marked only the Maryland/West Virginia border. Crossing into Maryland and hiking another 100 yards brought us to the real top o' the state, marked by a metal sign from the Maryland Historical Society, the same kind you usually see along roadsides. The apex, it explains, is named Hoye-Crest in honor of Charles E. Hoye, founder of the Garrett County Historical Society. Attached to the sign pole is a mailbox containing pamphlets for the Highpointers Club (folks who make a hobby of reaching each state's loftiest location; see "Like to Get High?," page 18) and a stack of green certificates reading, "This certifies that your name here has climbed the highest point in Maryland."
Backs were slapped, and the tiny Maryland flags were temporarily planted in the mossy mud. Due to the jostling it received en route, the champagne detonated with considerable force. (The cork was last seen heading west through the treetops, and may well have put someone's eye out in Wheeling.)
"Here's to being the highest people in Maryland," toastmaster Tim declared as we raised our glasses. (Obligatory disclaimer: I'm not advocating you turn Backbone into a reckless party spot. Our lone bottle of bubbly was a ceremonial gesture, and save for the errant--and biodegradable--cork, we took only photographs and left only footprints.)
Come summer, the view will be minimal from the wooded crest. Through the still-budding trees, we could make out the ranch-house-sprinkled valley floor, disappearing into the bluish horizon. We drank in the vista (and the champagne) and slowly caught our breaths. After maybe 20 minutes, the drama of the moment waned. But then, the mountain wasn't through with us just yet.
"Jesus!" Jennifer suddenly shrieked. "Look at that snake!"
A five-foot-long black serpent darted with surprising alacrity from the under the brush--as alarmed by our presence as we were by its. Minutes later, a second snake crashed our party. Personally, I was relieved that our sole close encounter with local fauna concerned black snakes and not black bears. Nevertheless, those of us who hadn't yet relieved ourselves of the earlier coffee opted to wait for the comfort of a gas-station rest room.
The hike down was anticlimactic, as post-epic-achievement actions tend to be. The trees rustled. The woodpeckers pecked. We marched en masse this time, filling the air with idle chatter. And then the pie-eating began, in an orgy of flying forks and whipped cream. Flannel-clad West Virginians shot us odd looks as they roared by in their oversized pickups (What? You've never seen a group of tired but ebullient Marylanders eating pie off the hood of a car?) We couldn't leave this remote spot without seeing the smallest church in 48 states, which was only a short drive away. Our Lady of the Pines, as the tiny stone sanctuary is called, has pew space for 12 worshippers and postcards you buy on the honor system. In its hushed interior we reflected on our recent feat, and the time spent playing with the gay, larking schoolgirl daughter of Maryland.
As an expedition postscript, back in Baltimore I boned up some more on Backbone. Seems its crest was once reached by a challenging cross-country brush trail. The wide path we followed was one of several cut by an enterprising developer, who plans to plaster the environs with vacation homes. Maryland's mightiest mountain may soon become a subdivision. Where's the fun in driving to the top in a minivan?
But then again, some eager real-estate agent might give you a toaster oven as incentive to tour a Hoye-Crest A-frame.
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