Just off a country road that twists through the trees and pastures of Western Maryland is a dusty little no-name town. Its newest building is a plank board saloon whose upper floor gives off a scarlet glow. Step beyond the swinging doors, and it's but a short walk across the street to jail.
And that's more or less the point.
At Antietam Recreation, the replica of a Wild West town serves as the backdrop for an earnest musical drama -- part revival meeting, part stuntman extravaganza -- that draws families searching for fun and religious inspiration.
The star is trick roper Andy Rotz, 20, a home-schooled youth who decided about the time he was 3 that all he wanted to be was a cowboy. So much so that, as a lad, he would go to the grocery store dressed as a cowpoke.
"It's a little weird for Hagerstown," Rotz conceded as he stood in the street of the make-believe cowtown in full cowboy getup before a recent show. "Here in Maryland, there's not a lot of cowboys. You walk around with your cowboy stuff, and you stick out a little bit. When I was younger, I went everywhere dressed like this. You'd get a 'Yee haw!' here and there, a 'Howdy, pardner,' and stuff like that."
Showbiz cowboys got him dreaming about becoming one. As a boy, Rotz spent hours in his basement twirling lassos and toy six-shooters in front of a television, stealing moves from such silver-screen gunslingers as Roy Rogers, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. He practiced fancy-looking fast draws, flipping a pair of guns behind his back and over his shoulders and catching them in a spin. He cracked bullwhips. He learned to ride horseback. When a neighbor wanted to get rid of an ornery horse, Andy persuaded his parents to buy it and then taught it tricks.
"They just connected," said Mary Rotz, Andy Rotz's mother.
And so, without ever rustling a dogie or wielding a red-hot branding iron, Andy Rotz has become a cowboy of sorts -- a noted one, too. On March 11, 2003, at the national convention of the Wild West Arts Club in the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, he set a Guinness world record for 11,123 "Texas skips," a maneuver that entails whipping a vertical loop from side to side while jumping through its center.
It was a feat that required him to keep the rope spinning for 3 hours and 10 minutes while doing about a skip per second, and it put him in the record books with the likes of Will Rogers. Rodeo scouts came around.
"Lots of people came and said, 'Look, we really need a good roper,' " Mary Rotz recalled. So his family thought, why not find a way to keep him home?
In 1977, his parents had purchased 32 acres, including a lake, on Garis Shop Road to create a summer camp for children. Out of the shows they staged for campers, the family eventually developed a Wild West drama. Andy Rotz, of course, took center stage.
The shows, performed by Rotz's large family and its friends, are spun from such historic events and people as the Texas Rangers and the Pony Express and infused with inspirational messages -- sort of a community theater musical with Bible teachings and frequent interludes of shoot-em-up stunts.
"We're constantly battling between the violence and the Christian theme," Mary Rotz said, adding that they try not to scare little ones. "We don't do hangings anymore."
On a recent night, as the day's sun vanished into a cloudless sky, about 225 people, many in "Kids For Christ" T-shirts, packed the wooden bleachers to watch.
Andy Rotz plays a no-account former sheriff whose best friend is the bottle. Then a circuit-riding preacher -- played by Timothy Rotz, his younger brother -- ministers to him. Moved by the preacher's death at the hands of thugs, a sober Andy goes on a tear, busting up bad guys, quoting Scripture and cleaning up the town.
During the show, Andy Rotz shows his stuff. He gallops into town standing on his horse. He shreds a newspaper in the hands of an audience volunteer with several lashes of a bullwhip. He throws a tomahawk. He wrestles a bad guy into a dramatic fall from a two-story roof. Of course, he performs the Texas skip. He even does a few of them while riding his mount, "Silver," which happens to be a unicycle. After the finale, in which cast members sing "The Impossible Dream," they take a bow to the crowd's applause.