EXTREME Md.

Armed with technology and a sense of adventure, we blazed a trail to locate the state's farthest geographic reaches, not to mention its exact center. What we found may surprise you.

November 04, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN OUTDOORS WRITER

Maryland is funny looking. Dangly parts on either end, a seemingly straight-edge top and a bottom that might have been drawn by a seismograph.

The middle is filled with water -- the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country.

It took Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon four years to survey their way across the state in the mid-1700s. Today, a bicyclist would need about a week. But a walker could get from West Virginia to Pennsylvania via the town of Hancock in about 20 minutes. Just start at the Potomac River, walk up Main Street, turn left onto Pennsylvania Avenue until you reach the border. No other state is as narrow as Maryland.

For such a small state (42nd out of 50) Maryland harbors a lot of geographical secrets. Many people think Point Lookout is the southernmost place in the state. Look again.

If you suspect the Mason-Dixon line might not be on the straight and narrow, you ain't just whistling "Dixie."

The highest point is a whisker away from being in another state. The lowest point isn't where you'd think it is. And the center? You probably can't get there unless you wear an Air Force uniform.

"Nothing is a simple answer," says Jim Reger, a geologist with the Maryland Geological Survey, the agency whose mission is to keep track of the state's earth science data.

When it comes to geographical questions about the state, Reger is the answer man. One day, for example, the Department of Natural Resources called to ask for the average elevations of Allegany and Carroll counties.

Figuring it was a matter of some importance, Reger dug out the information and called back. After relaying the numbers, he inquired about the project.

"Oh," said the voice at the other end of the phone, "we just had a bet in the office."

Even the answer man was intrigued by The Sun's quest to locate the extremes of Maryland -- the highest, lowest, most northern, southern, eastern and western points of the state, along with the spot that's exactly in the middle.

Reger's research and knowledge made our journey easier, and along the way, we learned that there is a lot to learn about Maryland.

Centrality

Uncle Sam makes it nearly impossible to stand at the center of Maryland.

First, consider that the federal government won't even acknowledge that each state has a geographic center. A sternly worded bulletin from the U.S. Department of the Interior warns that "no marked or monumented point has been established by any Government agency as the geographic center of either the 50 states, the conterminous United States, or the North American Continent." Any attempt to establish such a point, it harumphs "should be considered as approximations only."

Luckily, Jim Reger is not cowed by a mere federal bulletin. Using Global Positioning System satellite technology (see box on Page 5R), the geologist locates Maryland's center at 76 degrees 40 minutes west longitude and 38 degrees 58 minutes north latitude, or about 4 1/2 miles northwest of Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County.

"Most people probably think it's closer to Baltimore," he says.

To visualize the center of Maryland, think of first-grade arts and crafts: "If you outlined Maryland on a stiff piece of cardboard and cut it out," Reger says, "the center would be the point at which the state would balance on the point of a pencil."

To get the balancing point perfect, a geologist would have to take into account the thickness of the earth's crust, "but nobody wants to get into that," Reger says.

But it will take more than Reger's calculations to get you past Uncle Sam's second line of defense. Follow Reger's coordinates down a country lane just north of the intersection of Routes 50 and 424 and you'll find yourself at the heavily guarded home of the U.S. Air Force 789th Communications Squadron.

Antennas and other strange-looking communications gear point skyward from the 900-acre fenced facility, directed by the command center at Andrews Air Force Base about 11 miles away.

According to an Andrews Web site, the squadron is part of the worldwide Special Air Missions, which "provides command, control, communications, and computer systems support to customers in the National Capital Region and worldwide, including the President, foreign dignitaries, and high-ranking military and civilian officials."

In other words, when the president picks up the phone on Air Force One to speak to Tony Blair in London or to send a dozen roses to the first lady, he's using Davidsonville as his operator. If the president ordered the use of nuclear weapons, according to the Web site, the Davidsonville facility would send out his command.

Understandably, the center of Maryland is off limits, and the Air Force frowns upon picnicking near its transmitters. But you can get fairly close by going to the Bell Branch Athletic Complex on Route 424. The center is due south of the parking lot, about a quarter-mile through the woods.

How low can you go?

What's down there?

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