I have read of people who, in order to confront some elemental terror, ride all night on the New York subways. Once I met a man who hiked across New Jersey, traversing miles of broken glass and tire peels before losing himself, at last, amid the bleak warehouses and industrial lots beneath the Pulaski Skyway. Never, however, have I known anyone who admitted to having spent a Saturday walking in Waldorf.

A vast highway intersection at the headlands of Southern Maryland, Waldorf is the sort of place that everyone knows but nobody much cares to remember. It's a place you pass through--on your way to Washington, on your way back home. It straddles those worlds, a frontier for both.

Just this side of Waldorf, the tobacco and soybean fields begin in earnest. Over on the other side, the highways get faster and the shopping centers get bigger. Both worlds use Waldorf; neither exactly lays claim to it.

Waldorf strikes you as having grown and changed, never for its own sake but always in the service of some other phenomenon. Rte. 301 made Waldorf a pit-stop town: a place to tank up, grab a bite, catch a few winks. Slot machines, legal in Southern Maryland until the late 1960s, made Waldorf a giddy, cash-flooded gambling strip. It was the kind of town that was open all night.

Then the expansion of Washington turned portions of Waldorf into bedroom communities. Its acreage sprouted subdivisions and town houses.

Today, Waldorf trafficks in, well, traffic. Or so it seems. Car lots, food joints, nightspots, convenience stores, shopping centers--they line the highway in ragged rows, never quite managing to assert individual identities over the incessant, throbbing drone of cars and trucks.

The traffic reduces everything to a single repeated image of plastic signs and parking lots. And it has little patience for the traveler who would bide his time. It certainly doesn't encourage walking.

I did walk, however, not out of some perverse quest for danger and not to prove anything. No, I simply wanted to look more closely. In this place that seemed to foster such anonymity, I was curious to see what kinds of personal encounters were possible.

My first experience did not exactly inspire confidence in the idea of any personal encounter at all. Hardly had I left my car when a grizzled specter of a man crossed my path, staring blankly as he trudged along the shoulder of 301, pushing an ancient bicycle. I walked with him for a while, listening as he discoursed on the economy--stringing together, in an intelligent, well-modulated voice, phrases that seemed to want to be something but never quite were.

Finally, while we were standing in a parking lot, I asked the Bicycle Man if I could take his picture. "Well, no," he answered, looking at me. "The satellite already has." Before we parted, I noticed that he was wearing a watch that had no face.

It was with relief that I entered the Wigwam. The Wigwam is a Waldorf landmark, identifiable by the Indian ornamentation on its prominent sign and by its architecture: It features a tall, unmistakable tepee. Like so many other buildings along Rte. 301, the Wigwam was once a restaurant or nightclub where the chief attraction was slot machines. Today, it is the home of Walls Bakery, blasting out over the highway such palatably delicious smells that drivers in their cars may well forget the road for a moment as they inhale.

At the Wigwam I met Donald Walls, a member of the extended family that runs the bakery. As customers came and went, leaving with large boxes of pastries or bags of biscuits, Don introduced me to the store's considerable charm, not least of which were the chocolate eclairs, stupefyingly long and swollen beyond the proportions of any single mouth. According to Don, travelers from as far away as New York and Florida make a point of stopping for these mammoth delicacies.

The Wigwam also, despite its pagan name and sinfully sweet enticements, devotes itself to Christian salvation. Don's parents, George and Christa Walls, head a devout family and they have placed at strategic points in the store--among the knickknacks, greeting cards and Indian souvenirs--a host of religious books and pamphlets.

They have even transformed the circular nook directly under the tepee into a kind of sanctuary, where customers can sit at tables, eating sandwiches from the deli while browsing through fundamentalist tracts available on a nearby shelf.

Refreshed by a maple walnut danish, I headed out again onto the highway. Past the Stardust motel, I trekked, past the Moonlite Inn and past innumerable signs in weedy lots that proclaimed "Office and Store Space Available" or "Approx. 10 Acres Zoned Commercial." Near one such lot, just as I felt myself going into a daze, Roy A. Farrar Sr. came up and said hello.

Roy willingly told me his story, which is a proud one. His father moved from Washington to Waldorf in the 1930s and opened the Bluebird Inn, a restaurant that had some rooms upstairs. At the time, it was one of the few public places in Southern Maryland where blacks could find a place to stay for the night.

Roy himself later opened the Bluejay Motel, right on 301. He told me that for years it was the only black motel on that highway between Maine and Miami. Noble Sissel stopped there, Roy said. And Althea Gibson used to come by, having never forgotten how Roy helped her get a car repaired once.

Roy, who also founded the first black American Legion Post in Southern Maryland, today works with his wife at home selling Shakley products. The old Bluejay Motel building is leased to three businesses--a liquor store, a topless dancing joint and Ted's Seafood. It was too hot and too early in the day for liquor, and I didn't have the stomach for topless dancing. So I went into Ted's.

Although not as prominent architecturally as the Wigwam, Ted's Seafood is every bit as much a local institution. Like the bakery, the seafood store is a family business, run by Bobby Ted Brown and his wife Betty, along with various relatives. And Ted's, like Walls, is busy.

Between snatches of lore about the seafood business, Diane Brown Sherrif boiled shrimp, waited on customers and took phone orders for steamed crabs.

Her cousin Ray, meanwhile, manned the crab-steaming room, a sweltering little chamber furnished with seven cauldrons, each of which can hold at least five bushels of crabs. I watched with awe as Ray's helpers dumped basketloads of the thrashing beasts into the enormous kettles, then hosed them down and tossed on liberal handfuls of seasoning before closing the lids and turning on the machine. Although the temperature outside was already in the 90s, and Ted's spices promised to make things hotter still, customers kept coming.

By the time I left, I was famished. Further up the road I found Johnny Boy's barbecue place. In a stupor, I wolfed a sliced-pork sandwich and drank two cans of soda, all the while trying to eavesdrop on a group of men who, in strong New Jersey accents, were talking about friends who were in either prison or graduate school.

My return to the highway convinced me I had had it. The afternoon was far from over, but I knew I'd drop if I kept walking. Numbly, I marched back to the car, turned on the air conditioner and made my way over to the Old Washington Road, Waldorf's main drag in the days before 301. I didn't get far. Penny's stopped me.

Although I'd already eaten--and eaten barbecue at that--I couldn't resist Penny's. It is a genuine rib shack, built of cinderblocks, plywood and shingles, all of which must be held together by the swirling, aromatic wood smoke that engulfs the place. I peered through the window where you place your order.

It was dark and smokey in there, and cooled only by two madly spinning wall fans. The workers gabbed and laughed like family. In the deepest shadows I saw the grill, big as a giant bed. Beneath it, all was fire. On top, dozens of racks of rib sat cooking, the meat slowly absorbing the flavors of the wood smoke.

I ended my tour of Waldorf with a rib sandwich--not designed to be eaten as a sandwich at all for the ribs are just that: ribs. The bread is essential, however, for absorbing the thick, tangy sauce that Penny's slathers onto its fare. It would be a shame to waste that sauce.