It was in college that the love affair began -- the love of a city girl for country living.

My roommate took me home with her to Livonia, N.Y., a town where the cows outnumbered the people, the post office didn't deliver and the men played pitch on the porch of the local hotel.

The winter nights were frigid, but the natives didn't insulate the house. They insulated the house guest with bourbon to keep the blood from freezing. That is when I first developed a rosy view of rural life.

Ever since, I have looked for an opportunity to initiate my city offspring into country life. This year, I found the perfect place to introduce them to the country: Garrett County, Md.

Garrett is the westernmost county in Maryland, sandwiched between Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It is an agricultural area where men in boots still count for more than men in suits.

I packed my kids, my cowboy hat and my no-label jeans and prepared for total immersion in the country culture.

First stop was the Garrett County annual agricultural fair.

"Up here you know people by what they grow," I explained to my family. "In Washington, we divide the world into Republicans and Democrats or civil servants and Schedule Cs. Here it's the cow people and the chicken people."

A nearby 4-H-er quickly corrected me. "We don't grow cows, we raise them," she said. "And I think you better watch where you're walking."

My mother never told me not to wear white moccasins in the barn. It took two hours to remove the local color.

By then I was ready to abandon both my fancy footwear and my cowboy headgear. All of the women around me were bareheaded. Every man in sight had a hat all right, but it was more of the Caterpillar tractor variety.

Hat in hand, I proceeded to the baby beef competition to cultivate some cows up close. "This is your chance to see a roast beef walking, so watch each cow carefully," I lectured my kids.

"Those aren't cows," whispered the woman next to me. She offered a quick explanation of birds, bees and bulls and then volunteered to steer me through the Angus steer competition.

As the judges pushed, pinched and prodded the unhappy hoofers, I tried to establish eye contact with the black brutes before me. "You're looking at the wrong end," my new friend explained. "The high-priced cuts are all in the hindquarters."

It rapidly became clear that the beauty in these beasts is in the butchering. The kids raising these steers do it for dollars, not sentiment. And dollars are in short supply down on the farm these days.

The bookstore owner in Oakland, the county seat, told me that the only people making any real money in Garrett County are those who work for a mining company that ships coal to Europe and Japan.

With the average family income in Garrett County reported to be $13,400 -- compared to $23,400 for the rest of Maryland -- it is easy to see why more people may have to work under the land than on the land.

I left Garrett County with my love of country intact, but the rosy glow gone. It is easier to romanticize rural life when I'm in the city wearing a prairie skirt than when I am face-to-face with the country itself.