Some people like life in the fast lane.
But in a stretch of U.S. Rte. 301 in Prince George's County, there are people who have chosen to live in the median, where the world whizzes by on both sides.
Once the main highway between Baltimore and Richmond, Rte. 301 was built as the Crain Highway in the 1920s to accommodate the growing number of automobiles that were traveling the countryside.
At the time, it was the first new road built in a new location since Colonial days, according to a 1958 state roads commission history.
The Potomac River bridge carrying the highway to Virginia was completed in 1940. Around 1960, the north- and southbound lanes along parts of the highway in Maryland were separated -- "dualized" in the highway builders' lexicon of the time.
Between the old lanes and the new remained islands, in places several hundred feet wide. Property formerly off the highway was now in the middle of it.
In two segments totaling four miles in Prince George's County, from just above Upper Marlboro to Bowie, life in the median encompasses:
A pig farm and auto junkyard, an old motel converted into King's Antique Village, a saddle shop, a ranch house with two horses grazing and a Gulf service station. It also has a burned-out former Mercedes-Benz/VW dealership, with a charred and twisted Volkswagen Beetle skeleton that sits atop a lift like a piece of abstract art, a home supplies store and the $22-a-night White House Motel.
For some residents, life in the median strip is the stuff of dreams.
White House Motel owners Thi-Phuong and Wai John Chuang like it so much that they plan to build a house next to their business. She came from Vietnam in 1971, her husband, from China in 1962. The couple, who met at the University of Maryland, purchased the eight-unit motel three years ago.
Until they can afford to build their dream house, they live in the motel office with their children, 9-year-old Khang-Ninh ("I like to be called Connie," she said) and Gia-Ninh, 6. "It's very noisy," Mrs. Chuang noted. "When a truck passes by, we can hardly hear the TV."
Chuang came to this country to study. She got a master's degree from Howard University and began work on a doctoral thesis, "Psycho-Analysis of Political Behavior."
But, "Some of these political behaviors just upset me, so I give up," she said. "Now I'm at peace with myself because I can stay home and take care of my kids."
King's Antiques anchors the southern end of the median, three miles north of Upper Marlboro. It hasn't been a motel for at least seven or eight years, said Mike Gerrity, who lives in an adjoining house with a friend and her daughter.
"I'm making my money here right now," said Gerrity, who with partner George Stern builds antique-style furniture and refinishes old pieces in a basement shop. Gerrity and his girlfriend want to move to the country. But until then, "This is kind of our semi-in-the-country place," he said.
It's also an increasingly well-traveled place.
The opening of the Capital Beltway in the 1960s and I-95 in the 1970s diverted some of the traffic that traveled from Baltimore across the Potomac River Bridge to Virginia. But in the meantime, the Washington suburbs have spread outward. And two major highways, Central Avenue and U.S. 50, cross Highway 301 and its median, increasing the traffic flow.
John Greene, manager of the new 20,250-square-foot Lowe's home supply store, on five acres in the Bowie stretch of the median, says that this part of Prince George's is growing so fast, the two-month-old store may need to expand.
"We're finding that the property really is not large enough for the area," he said.
But the highway median location is ideal for Dominion Saddlery, manager Judy Farnsworth said.
"We're in between two racetracks, Marlboro Prince George's County Equestrian Center and Bowie," she said. "There is obvious easy access. We get a lot of people who go by for a month or two, then just stop by to see what we have. They're not always horse people, either."
Bennie Jones, who keeps 60 hogs on what's left of his father's 50-acre farm in the median around Mitchellville, recalled a time when "it wasn't two highways here. The southbound lane is the new one." Jones, 64, said that when he was young, the highway was one lane in each direction, which was adequate for traffic back then.
"When I was a kid, we were about the only one in here, because it was all farmland," said Jones, whose house trailer is surrounded by junked cars he keeps for parts.
"I get a little money out of these hogs and a little money out of that junk," said Jones. "Eventually, I'm gonna have to move the hogs out; there's too many people around here now."
His granddaughter, Bianca Sharps, 9, agreed: "It's hard to sleep because the cars come down and make a lot of noise."
Among the people of the median are tenants of the Jones clan. They include Pauline Harris, 30, and Wayne Windsor, her 5-year-old nephew, who had stopped to look at the grazing horses on their way back from the store to the mobile home she shares with her sister Rita Windsor, 26, Windsor's husband, an auto mechanic, and six children.
They pay $75 a month in rent. Behind them is a field where they grow tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn and other vegetables. The field stretches over to the southbound side.
Their four school-aged children must walk down the dangerous shoulder on the northbound side to the next driveway to be picked up by the bus.
The bus drivers say it's "too dangerous to stop here, coming off the hill," Harris said.
"Hopefully, we won't be living here much longer," said Rita Windsor, apologizing for the state of their home and its surroundings. "I hope to get out of this place."
The women make a living planting, harvesting and stripping tobacco for a farmer in nearby Well's Corner. But their greatest ambition right now, they said, is to become full-fledged tenant farmers living on a full-fledged farm that is not in the median of U.S. 301.