Squares of rich, dark earth and green pasture; rumpled mountain crests and ice-age swamps; summer cottages and old wooden churches; water skis and wilderness. Such are the diverse fascinations of Maryland's westernmost reach, Garrett County, an uncluttered land at the top of the Alleghenies.

Its terrain is both rugged mountain and open, fertile field split by creeks and rivers, some of which ultimately feed into the Atlantic and some into the Gulf of Mexico.

With an average elevation of 2,300 feet, the county offers an average high temperature of 66.7 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer.

Deep Creek Lake is there; so are the Wisp ski resort, New Germany State Park and the Savage River, just a sampling of the places that make the county an outdoor cornucopia.

It's only about three hours away by Interstate, but it seems farther. Geography has something to do with that, but so does atmosphere.

Garrett County is different, almost out of another time, with a pride of place that shows in the clean countryside, scrubbed-up farms and well-kept towns.

Tourists are called visitors and made welcome, and neighbors are helpful.

"When you get a flat tire here, people stop to help," says Larry Chambers, who moved to Garrett County from Waldorf and now owns the Topsider restaurant in McHenry.

The county hangs off the main body of Maryland like a broken wing, surrounded by West Virginia and Pennsylvania, more Pirates than Orioles. Its narrow grip on Allegany County is its only handhold on Maryland. Until recently, most summer home owners and vacationers came from Pittsburgh and the Midwest, but the opening of Interstate 48, gas shortages and concentrated advertising have changed that.

Now, according to Tom Jones, economic development director, 60 percent of Garrett's $38 million annual tourist business comes from Washington, Baltimore and Northern Virginia.

That doesn't mean it has been discovered. There are still only 28,000 people living in the county's 662 square miles. And, even with with its recent success in luring tourists from the eastern megalopolis, Garrett County ranks only 12th in tourism among Maryland counties. So there's still plenty of room to poke around its back roads and see what you can see. Maybe you'll make one of those special discoveries that make a trip mean more than just days and dollars.

As at the intersection of Westernport and Lower New Germany roads, where two small white frame churches sit side by side on a ridge, looking out over a rolling valley and, beyond, the west slope of Big Savage Mountain. Both are more than a hundred years old. The one closest to the road is the Mt. Beulah New Germany United Methodist Church, built in 1882. The other, with Tiffany-style opaque and stained glass windows, is the Trinity Evangelical and Reform Church, built in 1879.

"How could you not believe," a vistor exclaimed, "when you walk out of church to that view every Sunday."

Or perhaps your discovery will come to the southeast, near Kempton, which Gilbert Gude discusses so lovingly in his book "Where the Potomac Begins." There you might stumble across a technological monument like the Mettikki Mine's overhead coal conveyor.

Mettikki, a modern underground mine that follows a deep seam of coal into Backbone Mountain, uses the conveyor, instead of hopper cars, to get the coal to the surface. The conveyor crosses Table Rock Road about three miles south of U.S. 50, and in the late afternoon, it's eerily impressive, a starkly powerful symbol of the complex industry it serves.

To help you explore the county, its promotion council publishes a free 52-page visitors guide that goes well beyond the average resort tout sheet. It lists motels, chalets and cottages, with prices, descriptions and phone numbers; historic and recreational places to visit; and some basic county history and statistics.

The council publishes a simple, 50-cent tour map that is helpful for orienting yourself, and also offers, for only $2.50, the Maryland Geological Survey topographic of the county, which is invaluable for traveling in the state forests.

Good roads, good maps, good people. It's time to head west. So, grab your Kodak and get your map. Leave your briefcase on the doorstep. July can be so sweet in a mountaintop retreat. And here are a few snapshots to prove it.