Here in mountainous Garrett County in far Western Maryland -- the coldest, highest, biggest and emptiest county in the state -- a winter wonderland has been transformed into something of a last harsh frontier of human existence.
This winter, by all accounts, has been among the worst in memory.
Much like parts of the Midwest and the South that have been battered by storms this winter, Garrett County had been deluged. Seven feet of snow have fallen since the first of the year, drifts are as high as a two-story building and the windchill factor hovered around minus 100 one week last month. Even as Washington has enjoyed sunny days this week with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees, the snow has continued to blanket this county 200 miles to the west.
When the wind whips the snow across the glades and hills, terrifying whiteouts obstruct all vision. Roads narrow to one lane and then to none as the snow drifts like shifting sands in a desert storm.
Roadside snowbanks loom over passing cars like blinding white canyons, obscuring stunning mountain views and burying signs warning of cattle crossings and curves ahead.
County and state crews have worked valiantly to keep the county's 700 miles of roads open. "I've been working 14 hours a day most of the time, seven days a week, as much as you can stand," reported Joy Sweitzer, a 37-year county employe maneuvering a John Deere grader with plows in the drift-prone Pleasant Valley south of this county seat. "It's about all the snow we can handle."
Despite the abundance of blowers and plows to clear the way, the snow keeps gusting and falling -- 11 of the last 14 days alone -- and cabin fever afflicts even the hardiest.
"I'm alive, but I don't know if I can stand much more of this," said Katie Kierstead, a public school physical therapist, who declares this winter "the worst since I came here in 1977."
Tom Kierstead, her husband and the owner of Curt's Corner gas station and general store, said, "Nothing's been happening. Just snowing and plowing, and snowing and plowing."
Farmers do what they can, indoors. "It's hard getting around in this stuff with tractors," said Mike Brenneman, a 20-year-old farmhand on Bayard Beitzel's veal calf farm. "We oughta be hauling manure, but we can't get the tractors to pull the spreader."
Instead, he and coworker Dean Yoder, also 20, have been working inside, "medicating the calves." This winter, they've had five with pneumonia and have lost two.
But to Gary Buckel at least, there's a silver lining -- if not exactly a warm ray of sunshine -- in it all.
"We've been lucky it's stayed cold enough not to get a lot of sleet," said Buckel, third-generation owner of a general store serving the tiny hamlet of Bittinger, "so there's not as much ice as there has been during past winters."
Here in Maryland's "icebox," even the good news seems to have a down side: A warm day a week ago turned some of the accumulated snow to slush, and then that froze overnight, making Sunday driving treacherous.
"On U.S. 48 last night, three tractor-trailers were spinning on that hill and not going anywhere," said Susan Wiley, general manager of the Grantsville Holiday Inn.
For 18 days last month, three truckers were stranded at the motel because of dangerous road conditions, according to Holiday Inn employes. Mostly, the guests played pool and pinball during the day and drank in the cocktail lounge at night, motel staff said.
Further interrupting the normal rhythms of Garrett County winters, there have been 12 days of school closings since Dec. 7 and numerous late openings. School Superintendent Jerome Ryscavage routinely has left his home at five each morning to drive the roads so he can make a command decision about the openings. He's tired all the time, said his wife, adding, "He comes home, stokes the fire, goes to bed and gets up."
In some ways Ryscavage's is a thankless job. Wednesday morning, he decided to open schools two hours late, then the winds picked up, creating whiteout conditions on many roads. "Everybody hates him because the wind picked up, but it didn't start 'til 7:30," Mary Ryscavage said.
Cindy Stacy, a free-lance journalist who owns a Christmas tree farm with her husband atop 2,654-foot Fort Hill, started out Wednesday to take her two children to school but was forced to give up. "I kept getting whiteouts on the road," she said. "I finally hung it up."
Because of drifting snow, Stacy's husband Marshall had to "blow out" his 1,000-foot lane with a snowblower Thursday so that visitors could reach the couple's hilltop home. But at least daytime temperatures, in the teens and 20s most of the week, were mild compared with the third week in January.
That was the same time that inaugural festivies were curtailed in Washington because of the cold weather. But here, temperatures dropped to 27 below, or as low as minus 98 with the windchill factor, by Marshall Stacy's calculations.
"If you take your mitten off and count to 10, it's extremely hard to move your finger," Stacy said.
After the worst of January, motel manager Wiley said, "Last weekend, the windchill was minus 50, and it really didn't seem that cold out." But by Tuesday, she said, "They announced on the radio if you were staying in Garrett County and had to leave, get out, because the roads were clear and after tonight they wouldn't be."
Despite it all, life goes on here "on the mountaintop," as residents sometimes refer to their county. The latest local controversy swirls around a state police crackdown on snowmobilers illegally using the highways, with letters of protest filling columns of the weekly Oakland Republican. Also in the news lately has been a rash of ski thefts at the Wisp Ski Resort.
But the weather has had only a "minor impact" on the criminal justice system, according to Circuit Judge Fred A. Thayer, who drives a four-wheel-drive Blazer the 12 miles from his home to the courthouse. "The state's attorney had to blow his drive out, so we're half an hour late getting started," Thayer said Thursday. "We just take it as it comes. I guess philosophy helps us."
Up in Grantsville, meanwhile, Water Commissioner Gerald Beachy remains stoic about the town's water problems. Last year, he said, pipes froze because people didn't run their taps. This winter, they are following his directions to "run water the thickness of a pencil tip" and the water supply is down.
Beachy, who also is the town pharmacist, reported that business is generally down but that he's selling more magazines and newspapers. Salesmen at the Grantsville Auto Supply reported a brisk trade in batteries, dry gas, antifreeze and starter fluid. Problems with frozen water in gas lines and oil thickened by the cold "help our business," said salesman Greg Lawson.
It's just different here, said Penn Alps potter Lynn Lais, and it changes as soon as you climb big Savage Mountain and enter Garrett County. Explained Lais, "You go through that cut in the mountain there, and it's just like opening the door and closing it."