They have a saying here, a car dealer in this county seat confided: "We're from Garrett County. Maryland don't own us, West Virginia won't have us, and don't want Pennsylvania."

South of here, in a faded Garrett County mining town on the Potomac some 200 miles upriver from Washington. Ross Sowers paused from pumping gas to reflect, "The rest of the state thinks Maryland ended down around Frederick somewhere. They don't know we're up hgere. They could care less."

Many mountain ridges removed from the rest of their state, the 23,000 residents of Maryland's least densely populated county live in geographical, political and cultural isolation from the distant worlds of Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis.

They root for the Steelers and the Pirates and the West Virginia Mountaineers, and find Redskin, Colt, Oriole and Terrapin-fever somewhat outlandish. Their view of the world comes by cable from television stations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Steubenville, Ohio, and only recently, from Hagerstown, 100 miles to the east.

Crab cakes are considered almost a foreign delicacy and sauerbraten practically a native dish in this county peopled largely by what a 1940 government guide book called "citizens of conservative, Pennsylvania German stock, who show little concern for the outside world."

Further setting itself apart from other Maryland county, Garrett has more Republicans than Democrats; citizens here divide themselves along "moderate conservative" and "ultraconservative" lines.

"God Has Everything Under Control," reads a bumper sticker seen here, which appears to reflect majority sentiment in a county that still bans Sunday liquor sales. Another sentiment, scrawled in restroom graffiti at the county courthouse, perhaps by an outsider: "F -- this faraway place."

This is a land of great distances, where it is common to drive more than 30 miles just to see a movie. It is also a land of splendid scenery, of Appalachian peaks and high meadows, known as glades, laced with miles of dirt and gravel roads.

To the urban refugees who flock to manmade Deep Creek Lake in summers or nearby ski slopes in winter -- some from Washington and Baltimore but many more from Pittsburgh -- Garrett County is Maryland's "Mountaintop Playground." But to year-round residents, it can be a place of economic hardship.

Coal mining fell off sharply right after World War II and never recovered. In recent years, a few mining companies have stripped the land and a large underground mine opened two years ago south of Oakland. But the anticipated boom has not materialized.

"I'm just sitting around twiddling my thumbs right now, partying a little bit," said Franklin Police, whose family-owned mine has been shut for a month, laying off 12 workers. "We just can't sell the coal."

The seasons, more than anything, regulate the country's life cycle. Umemployment triples to nearly 20 percent when construction work comes to an abrupt halt in late fall.

They measure the years here in winters, which are long and harsh, heightening the sense of isolation, and residents like to say, instilling a kind of fierce independence and rugged individualism.

"It's a rugged place to live and it takes people who are individuals to survive," said Gladys Anderson, manager of the state unemployment office, "because there really is no free lunch here in Garrett County."

Newcomers, many of them middle-class professionals escaping from the city pressures, say there is no welcome wagon either. "We have cold winters and cold people, until you get to kown them," said Tom Butscher, whose 500-watt radio station beams Bible Belt conservatism, country music, birth and anniversary announcements from a small studio outside Oakland.

In the 1970s, however, many of the country's top administrative posts have been filled by outsiders, to the chagrin of some longtime residents.

"There weren't people here to fill the jobs," said Don Sincell, the 27-year-old editor of the weekly Republican, which his family has published for a century.

In recent weeks, the newpaper's letters column has been dominated by a controversy over the county budget. The Proposition 13-style battle began when the county commissioners forgot to announce the time and place of their vote to approve the budget -- and a tax increase needed to balance it.

Citing procedural requirements under a state law, Garrett's sole state House delegate, DeCorsey E. Bolden, had the higher rate overturned Aug. 2 by the local judge. Since then, the county commissioners -- one of whom sides with Bolden -- have alternately confronted and delayed cutting the $10 million budget by $707,000, an awesome task for a government that needed state permission last year to change its meeting day from Monday to Tuesday.

"The slush can come out of road maintenance," real estate man Robert Railey suggested the other night at the Red Run Inn at Deep Creek Lake. But Gary Yoder, his drinking companion, cautioned, "You better pray to God we have a soft winter."

The budget battle aside, there remains a century-old division between northern and southern ends of the county. The rivalry stems, some say, from the routing of the National Road through the north in the early 1800s and the coming of the B&O Railroad through the south decades later.

Garrett, named for the railroad president who also built resort hotels here, was carved from Allegany County in 1872 because residents found Cumberland, the Allegany County seat, too remote.

The selection of Oakland over Grantsville, by 53 votes, for the new county seat, however, triggered demands that the young county be split in two.

Consolidation of the county's six high schools into two -- Northern and Southern -- in the 1950s added an annual football classic to the rivalry, which extends also to politics and commerce.

DeCorsey Bolden's 14-vote victory over George Edwards of grantsville to last year's Republican primary was largely along geographical lines.

Northerners were envious when Bausch & Lomb, the optical company, located in Oakland in 1971, bringing 435 jobs to the county's southern end.

Notherners rejoiced, however, over the opening two winters ago of U.S. Rte. 48, a freeway paralleling U.S. Rte. 40, the old National Road. In its wake, there is a new Holiday Inn, and the Casselmen Hotel in Grantsville, built for drovers in 1824, has added 40 motel units behind the main building.

But even the road is a source of disagreement. State's Attorney James L. Sherbin describes "that road" as "the beginning of the end" of Garrett County, providing access for metropolitian area criminals who robbed a bank and killed a deputy here in recent months. Grantsville residents, meanwhile complain that the southern end gets more police protection.

At either end of the county, the small-town ambiance is the same. "Yesterday after I got off my mail route," said Grantsville Mayor William Edwards, 32, "I stood in hip boots at the sewage treatment plant shoveling [sludge]."

Harvey D. (Hub) Swartzentruber, Oakland's 79-year-old mayor, doubles as his city's truck scale attendant. His chore is to collect $1.50 from users of the facility across from his shoe repair shop.

The sectional feud, some say, is subsiding, but the bridge over Deep Creek Lake is still called "the border" dividing the county in half. Just north of the border are two unifying factors -- the county fairgrounds and Garrett Community College, where academic credit is given for "leisure studies" such as angling and backpacking.

Such pursuits are foreign to the people of Garrett's Amish communities, whose members farm the fertile land near Grantsville and south of Oakland. The south county Amish, about 75 families, use electricity and drive tractors, but many in the smaller Grantsville group still walk behind horse-drawn plows.

Away from the Amish farms, at the southwesternmost corner of Garrett, is Kempton, a near ghost town of a half-dozen homes where once there were more than 100. The Potomac River is a three-foot stream here, at the base of 3,360-foot Backbone Mountain, Maryland's tallest, and the rest of the state seems just too far away to matter.

"We never give it a throught," said Martha Clark, who lives here with her husband Elmer, a retired miner, their daughter and grandmother. Their mail comes from Henry, W. Va. A Parsons, W Va., newspaper and a snowy television picture from Clarksburg -- there is no cable TV here -- are their other links to the outside world.

Behind the Zion Lutheran Church in another town called Accident, they buried Walter H. Fratz in a gold casket the other week (next to his first wife and within sight of his first store).

The 80-year-old patriarch left nine children, 22 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and a multi-million-dollar business selling fuel, food, farm supplies and trailers to the people of garrett county.

As a teen-ager Fratz had gone to Akron, Ohio, like a lot of people around here, to work in the rubber plants. A year or two later, he returned home, the place to which his ancestor, Leonhard Fratz, had immigrated in the 1850s.

In his later years, Walter Fratz's minister recalled at the gravesite, the old man had reflected, "I could've stayed there and made it with the rest of those guys, but I didn't do so bad, did I?"