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So Close, Yet So Far

By Eugene L. Meyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 1998; Page C09

  Escapes


I am a mere 22 miles from downtown, 40 minutes or less from the White House scandal, from traffic gridlock, from the Capital of the Free World. I'm also 10 miles beyond the Beltway, and five minutes from my office, in Upper Marlboro, seat of Prince George's, a so-called urban-suburban county of 780,000.

But here, on the banks of the pristine Patuxent River, all is serene. From this spot, on Hunt Club Road, I've watched a turtle pop its head out of the water, then slither back below. I've seen Canada geese soar overhead. I've observed pilings from rotted wharves poking above the surface, protrusions from the past into the present.

Just north of where I am, tens of thousands of cars pass daily over what is still called Hill's Bridge, though it was recently replaced with a new structure to carry increasingly more Route 4 traffic from Southern Maryland into the urban orbit.

But from where I sit, there's no traffic, no noise. Just silence and solitude.

I've been escaping here, and along the back roads that meander through southeastern Prince George's County, for two decades. It's an occupational perk that, for a lunch break or -- if I can drum up a good excuse -- for an afternoon, I can jump into my car and drive into this twilight zone that time and traffic and trend-setters forgot, or, fortunately, have never found.

This is the land south of Route 4 and east of 301 on over to the Patuxent where metropolitan Washington melts into Southern Maryland. Route 4 is the unmarked boundary between southern Prince George's and the rest of the county. The rest is developing, developed, urban, suburban, strip malls, fast food. South county is farms, barns, country stores, weathered frame houses, old river landings, dirt roads that dead-end in forests and fields of corn and tobacco.

Twenty years ago, the drive from the Beltway to Marlboro over Route 202 was almost escape enough: a two-lane road with dirt shoulders and no development the entire 10 miles. Now it's a four-lane divided highway half the way, with subdivisions sprouting or risen on either side and the University of Maryland's experimental farm the anomaly rather than the norm.

Not so in the rolling countryside south and east of Marlboro, where large-lot zoning and no sewer and water have mostly kept building at bay. Except, that is, for a cellular telephone tower, an incongruous monument to modernity that rises for 150 feet next to Croom's Country Corner Market. It sits on Croom Road, what passes for a main drag through these parts. Lightly traveled byways lead from it, and also from Aquasco Road, which Croom Road intersects. These back roads lead nowhere a tourist would knowingly go.

But I, for professional reasons, of course, knowingly go there whenever I can. I usually start on Croom Station Road, right off 301, crossing over Charles Branch and the train tracks that lead to Pope's Creek and the Morgantown Pepco plant on the Potomac. I turn left onto Croom Road. Turn left again onto Mount Calvert Road, past the old Nike missile base that's now Croom Vocational High School, and the Nike housing that's now privately owned, to the road's namesake, an 18th-century manor house on a point -- the site of the first county seat -- where the Western Branch meets the Patuxent. I gaze across the marshy branch at Billingsley, another Colonial plantation house that not long ago belonged to a Judge Meloy and is now in the public domain but barely accessible to the public.

Once, ships navigated this far upriver and beyond. During the War of 1812, the entire Chesapeake flotilla of the U.S. Navy was set ablaze here to keep it from British hands. Now, they dig for relics on the land and search with high-tech probes for the scuttled fleet buried under the muck of the river. From this point, I ponder the past and return to the present, to Croom Road.

From the main drag, I drive down Croom Airport Road, named for a former black-owned airstrip that is now simply a field, to Jug Bay Natural Area, with its tower overlooking the river where it widens as it ox-bows its way down to the Chesapeake Bay. Here, there's also an old frame house, a former hunting club, one of several that once catered to the late summer railbird shooters on the Patuxent. Babe Ruth, it is said, was among these hunters, when work in the form of a baseball game with the Washington Senators brought him to town. The sport of kings, they called it.

I drive down Nottingham Road to the end, site of a formerly thriving tobacco port with its own hotel, now just a few buildings huddled down by the river that justify Nottingham's continued presence on the map. I

drive down Aquasco Farm Road, and back into the unpaved and rutted recesses of county parkland, where tenant farmers still raise crops and an old water pump recalls a house I once knew but is now gone.

Much of the Patuxent shoreline is owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which makes it quasi-accessible, though the signs are not welcoming. The agency acquired the land to preserve it from development and, it seems, from human traffic as well. But undaunted, I push on.

Serendipity leads me to the graveyard behind St. Mary's Episcopal Church, right on Aquasco Road. There I pause at two iron crosses. On them are the letters "C S A" and the Stars and Bars. These are Confederate markers, testament to the rural South that lurks so close to the capital of the Union, and so far. This district once had the most slaves in a county that had more slaves than any other in the state. In 1860, in fact, the population of Prince George's was majority-black, and mostly enslaved.

I drive on, past the Little Store and the Aquasco IGA-gas pump-and-post office, past drafty tobacco barns and furrowed fields, and turn left onto Eagle Harbor Road.

No more than 25 miles from where I began, the road ends at the river, again, and at the smallest incorporated municipality in Maryland: Eagle Harbor, population 45, was established in 1928 as a refuge for blacks who were generally barred by law and convention from resort communities in the state. There is a landing here, at Trueman Point, named for a Southern Maryland family, some of whom migrated west when the country was young and eventually begat a president. Adjoining Eagle Harbor is Cedar Haven, an unincorporated community created about the same time for the same reason, but by a white man prominent in District affairs. There are no markers here that say any of these things. But they are true. Just look them up. Or take my word.

My meanderings in these parts are not over. There remain to be explored: White's Landing Road, Magruders Ferry Road, Milltown Landing Road and St. Mary's Church Road, which becomes At Last Farm Road down to the river.

Someday, soon I hope, I'll add these country lanes to my mileage sheets. From where I sit and work, all I need is a little time. A long lunch break will do.


Ways & Means

Getting There: From the Beltway, go east on Route 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue extended), take the Route 301 south exit, turn left onto Croom Station Road and left onto Croom Road (Route 382), and then meander. A good alternate route back is to keep going south on Aquasco Road (Route 381) to Route 231, turn left, cross the Patuxent, and return on Route 4 through Calvert and Anne Arundel counties across Hill's Bridge to the Beltway.

What to Do There: If you must do something, there are a few honest-to-goodness tourist attractions, among them the antique farm tool museum at Jug Bay Natural Area (16000 Croom Airport Rd., 301-627-6074, museum open 1 to 4 Sundays, April through October, or by appointment), and, from Croom Airport Road, the four-mile Chesapeake Bay Critical Area drive (open 10 to 3 Sundays for cars year-round; 10 to 3 Saturdays for hikers and bikers only through September). Nearby Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary (11704 Fenno Rd., 301-888-1410) is now a state-owned tract where the late Edgar Merkle fed a few Canada geese and thousands followed, and still do, landing en masse in the fall. There's a nature center, scheduled programs and a daily charge of $2 per vehicle. Croom also has an 18th-century Episcopal church, a cell phone tower way taller than the church steeple, and its very own site on the World Wide Web at http://www.tc-solutions.com/croom.

Where to Eat: You can grab a sandwich or sub at such rural outposts as Moore's Country Store, Croom Country Market, Buffalo Bill's Market, the Little Store or Aquasco IGA. Or you can do as I do, drive across the Charles County line to Benedict, for seasonal soft shells, oyster stew and white potato pie at Chappelear's Place (301-274-9828) right on the water. Reservations are not required.

Where to Stay: There are no motels or bed-and-breakfast inns in these parts. No matter. After one of my southeastern Prince George's rambles, I generally head home. Or back to work.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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