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Open Spaces, Hip Places

The County Offers a Little Something for Everyone

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page GZ03

Montgomery County is like the tale of the two Christmas tree farms.

"Sorry," one of the hands at MG Farm in Damascus told customers one rainy Saturday in December. He was friendly and smiling, despite standing ankle-deep in mud.

Alas, he said, new construction at the top of a neighboring hill had worsened a flood problem. The field of fir and spruce was inaccessible just now. "Can you come back tomorrow?" he asked.

That option made sense for his customers who lived nearby, in the wide-open spaces of rural upper Montgomery. But he draws from all over the county. Piling into minivans and lighting out for the countryside is an annual tradition for many families from the more urban lower county. They come armed with saws, thermoses of hot chocolate and cassettes of favorite carols. For them, this journey -- getting lost on purpose on country lanes, fording flooded creek beds in the mighty Volvo, finally putting blade to trunk and hauling home the prize -- is reassuring contact with the elemental stuff of life. Just don't ask those families to find the time to do it twice in one weekend.

The farmer fished out soggy photocopies of a handwritten map. It was directions to another tree farm up the road. He was sending business to a competitor.

And so the caravan threaded up to Rocky Top Farm. The families harvested their timber. They went into a barn, where the proprietor served hot chocolate. She invited each family to sit next to a goofy giant stuffed reindeer, and she took Polaroid portraits, the way she does every year. By now she must have hundreds of these snapshots, generations who intersected beside the reindeer, pasted into a book on display in the barn. A Montgomery County family album.

That's the county for you: There's the productive symbiosis of city and country. The resilience of old-fashioned values -- neighborliness over profit -- in a jurisdiction that also happens to be one of the richest and most cosmopolitan places on earth. And yet also the subtle shadows, the insecurities over a ceaseless tide of change -- there's always new construction on the next hill.

You can tell a lot about a place by what it does on holiday, how it has fun. Montgomery residents adore organization and systematic thinking, even when it comes to play. This is what you might expect from a place where nearly six in 10 residents has a college degree, and -- more astounding -- the number of people with graduate degrees outnumbers those who earned only -- only! -- an undergraduate degree.

E-mail lists for soccer leagues, theater camps and hands-on science programs begin propagating when a new generation of talent is barely out diapers. By age 4, what boys and girls lack in understanding of strategy and field position they make up for in gusto. Wearing brightly colored T-shirts, they chase soccer balls across yellowing autumnal fields like schools of tropical fish.

By the end of high school, this passion for recreational focus annually yields Montgomery's share of outstanding young athletes, artists, scientists. But isn't it so in any of Washington's prosperous and driven suburbs? The county's special sense of fun comes out in places where residents have thrown systematic thinking out the window and lit out for the country, or, heading in the other direction, the city.

Thanks to the county's passion for planning, it has one of the largest fractions of land reserved for open space in the nation, as County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) is fond of saying. Even when trapped in the worst maze of strip-mall sameness, you are never far from deep woods and big parks.

Best of all, much of the parkland is connected by bike paths and hiking trails beside streambeds and train right-of-ways. In these places where you feel closest to nature, you also have the empowering impression you can get anywhere from there -- along secret routes, without seeing a car. This is where residents disappear on weekends. Sleek fleets of bikers, solitary joggers, herds of fundraising walk-a-thonners, safari parties of families with strollers and training wheels and toddler bike trailers -- they all feel just a little bit like Marco Polo as they track Sligo Creek all the way to Wheaton. The Rock Creek Trail leads from the District line to Rockville. The Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda is a crowded social boulevard, a place to stroll with a latte and a poodle, while the athletically inclined sweat all the way to Georgetown, even on to Mount Vernon.

After a hard rain, the trail to visit is the C&O Canal towpath, at Great Falls. The storm-crazed Potomac River pounds through a rocky channel. Fragile-seeming footbridges carry you warily just a few feet above the violent riot. From the overlook you can watch the derring-do of the mad, brave kayakers.

Come October, it's out to the country in search of a pumpkin. Butler's Orchard near Damascus, to name just one source, has an annual pumpkin festival. In the line to catch the hayride to the pumpkin patch, you could eavesdrop on conversations in English, Spanish and Asian tongues, naturally, in a county where nearly one in three residents speaks a language other than English at home.

Driving back down New Hampshire Avenue with a load of pumpkins -- or a Christmas tree on the roof -- you are reminded again of the county's polyglot identity. This so-called "Highway to Heaven" is lined with the exquisitely designed temples, mosques and places of worship of nearly three dozen faiths.

Forays in the opposite direction, from country homes in search of more urban fun, are inspired less by seasonal rhythms than by the appeals of culture and appetite. The American Film Institute's art deco Silver Theatre in Silver Spring is the only venue where you can see a festival of French films or Nigerian videos; a retrospective by Martin Scorsese or Hong Kong cinema ace Wong Kar-Wai; or the annual Silverdocs Festival of new documentaries.

Hungry? Bethesda gets all the attention, and indeed, no matter what your tastes, you can't go wrong there -- though on busy nights it can feel as though there are more restaurants than places to park. But nothing beats the satisfaction of discovering a culinary wonder in the most unlikely places -- Tavira, the Portuguese dining room tucked behind a bank on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase; Sergio Ristorante Italiano in the basement of a hotel on Colesville Road in Silver Spring; Samantha's in a shopping strip outside Takoma Park, where the dinner crowd is evenly split between English and Spanish speakers tasting the same Salvadoran specialties.

There are patches of country in the citified zone. In late spring when the fireflies flourish, the Audubon Naturalist Society holds an all-ages evening ice cream social at its Chevy Chase sanctuary. Bats flutter above the fields, and the silent woods blink like a twinkling metropolis.

Somewhere near the geographical and spiritual center of the county are transition zones such as Olney. Old farmhouses, country crossroads and families going back generations hang on amid fresh subdivisions and newcomers. Returning home after an evening of Nigerian videos or a day in the woods, you might find a way station such as the Olney Ale House. Enjoy the fire with your stew and beverage. On the way inside, you might have noticed that the pine trees planted to camouflage the recent construction up the road are starting to mature.

Whichever way you're heading, you're part of that Montgomery County family photo album, too.

Montgomery is a reporter for the Style section and lives in Takoma Park.


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