Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

From "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost.

TO THE SOUTHBOUND driver in the Washington area, the road less traveled is U.S. 301, where the tidy, fast-lane life of Interstate 95 is but a whisper escaping the piney wedge of scrub land separating the two highways.

Route 301, understand, is not I-95. What it is, is earthy. And it never has pitched itself as anything but.

Don't expect to shatter any personal speed bests in these humble environs. From its rendezvous with Bowie on down toward Richmond, Route 301 meanders to the beat of its own drummer through Southern Maryland and Virginia's Northern Neck.

The monster 18-wheelers of Frank Perdue, King of the War on Pudgy Poultry, rumble along 301 to southern markets. One imagines them laden with surgeons feverishly excising nasty abdominal chicken fat.

This is the Promised Land of new single-family homes, $69,900, and anemic property taxes. Real estate nirvana.

Onward: Corn and tobacco fields, an ancient sign in a vacant lot proclaiming "The Future Site of Meadows Baptist Church. To God Be the Glory." A rich vein of gritty motels, each with algae-filled pool; hills of tires between cut-rate liquor stores -- the kind you can drive through -- blinking in the neon madness.

In 1964, the clatter and clang of slot machines were silenced on this strip of 301, and the clubs that housed them died, leaving mostly the oysters and tobacco to shoulder the local economy.

Route 301 shows flashes of suburbanization, especially between Waldorf and La Plata, where it has the texture of Rockville Pike a generation ago.

Charles County, which takes in a hefty chunk of the road, has been riding the bandwagon of growth in recent years; the population has rocketed from 32,572 to 72,751. But the boomlet hasn't overwhelmed this backdoor gateway to the South where the seductive aroma of authentic, open-pit barbecue -- still legal in some southern counties and states -- sorely tempts you.

La Plata, the Charles County seat, is the proud host of annual loose leaf tobacco auctions each weekday from mid-April to Mid-July. Tourists delight in the experience as buyers from all the great tobacco companies pick up millions of pounds of Maryland's finest.

Port Tobacco sits dreamily a few minutes down Maryland 6 to the west. Once, this was an Indian village, ruled by a queen. Captain John Smith himself put it on the map in 1608. Alas, its river, which made this a bustling colonial port town, long ago silted up.

Around that bend, quail and deer roam verdant state forests. Lazy streams wander past the tidewater mark to the Potomac shore. And, if you know where to go, you might tote home a cooler of croaker, or snapper or bluefish or perch.

As you near where Maryland becomes Virginia, you come face-to-face with two grotesque monuments to better living. The first is Pepco's red and white fire-breathing plant at Morgantown. The second is the camel-backed Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge over the Potomac. It is a treat for the eyes, this vintage, galvanized contraption, but your stomach pleads, "Do We Really Have to Drive Across It?"

There's been some talk about a second toll span, but it would carry a $242 million price tag, with another $54 million to spruce up the approaches.

Over the hump, the name of the state changes, but the atmosphere does not. Abandoned businesses are as plentiful as the fireworks stands, advertising $2.40 specials. Beside tidy frame houses and antique spots are cheap-o transmission repair joints with ornery dogs. The pace of life is oh-so-mellow.

Despite its proximity to Northern Virginia, this Northern Neck has retained enough of its natural environment to boast of the "Four Fs" of farming, fishing, forestry and fun, although encroachment by nearby urban centers is only a matter of time.

Even the giant Fort A.P. Hill, which Route 301 slides through below the Rappahannock River, looks like an outpost of the National Zoo. Beaver skitter across its grass-strip airfield. Endangered species of birds roost high in the trees.

"This place is unsettled, not messed-up by mankind," says Warrant Officer Mike Kuck, a helicopter pilot who sees it all.

In its bucolic march toward Richmond, the concrete unrolls to its inevitable union with I-95, just north of an altar to taste and civilization called King's Dominion. Only then should you ungag that little voice that's been urging "Faster! Get in the left lane and fly!"