It's hard to believe that the Potomac River, which stretches for 383 miles and widens to eight miles at the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland, begins as no more than a puddle of water from an underground spring. But there it is, way off the beaten path, on the slopes of the 3,300-foot Backbone Mountain, Maryland's highest peak, in Garrett County.

When I arrived on a recent Saturday, there wasn't a soul there. I could see why. This was a navigational challenge. After taking I-270 north to Frederick, connecting to I-70 west for Hancock, hooking up with I-68 and exiting south at Maryland 219, I passed the popular tourist attraction of Deep Creek Lake, then sailed through Oakland toward the Maryland-West Virginia border into Monongahela National Forest. You go uphill past a sign saying "Smallest Church in the 48 States" and another sign that I swear says "Male Dancers," and then into a strip-mining area. About a quarter mile beyond that is a marker saying "Fairfax Stone Historical Monument--2 Miles."

The road to the stone is bumpy and unpaved and it feels like much more than two miles before you reach a clearing that has been made into a park, with another stone marker saying George Washington surveyed this land as a young man. The story goes that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac. But I can top that feat. Here, I was able to leap across the river in a single bound. And I have eyewitnesses--two bearded gentlemen in bib overalls from nearby Oakland. They said they came here often, drawn to the isolated splendor of the place. And we had it all to ourselves.

--Eric A. Green

Key to the Lock

Swains Lock, just 3.2 miles north of the Great Falls Tavern on the C&O Canal in Potomac, Md., offers free parking and very reasonable rates for renting bikes, canoes and even kayaks ($8.50 an hour for watercraft, $5.55 an hour for bikes). But the real bonus is the concessionaire, Fred Swain, who is the fourth generation of Swains to operate this lock. Swain is a built-in tour guide, voluble as the day is long (and in summer, it's very long indeed). When you visit, make sure you notice the metal tabs on the corner of the lock house showing just how high the Potomac can get when it wants to. My husband and I have been there for the last two floods to help the Swains evacuate the furniture. With a lot of help from friends and family, the house gets emptied, a bonfire is lit and a cookout ensues. They have done this so many times that it is carried off with military precision.

One last tip: Blue herons abound, and if you are willing to walk 1 1/2 miles north on the towpath (just past the 18-mile marker), look out across the river high up in the treetops and you will see more than 20 heron nests.

To get there, take the Beltway to the River Road exit (Exit 39). Travel west for 5.2 miles and you will see the sign for Swains Lock. Turn left and follow the road to the end.

--Ruth Haynes, Potomac

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