It begins as South Hanover Street, a gritty stretch through south Baltimore, and winds its way through strip malls and shopping plazas, tiny towns and rolling farms. It ends after 72 miles, at scenic Solomons Island on the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland Route 2 — called Ritchie Highway above Annapolis, Solomons Island Road below it — is one of the busiest north-south arteries in eastern Maryland, and no part of it says more about the quirky character of the Old Line State than the 39 miles that run through Anne Arundel County.
Many who live and work along Route 2 say new box stores and burger joints have soiled its character. Everyone gripes about the traffic. But a drive from urban Brooklyn in the north to pastoral Friendship in the south is a motorized meet-and-greet with proud, funny people who appreciate the past, have an eye on the future and live by a potent sense of what matters in life.
It took two days to drive the stretch from north to south, with stops along the way — at funny signs, at oddball buildings, at places that radiated history. The folks had a lot to say.
Carol's Western Wear
7347 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie
It's hard to resist a 10-foot-high cowboy boot beside a busy road, especially where used-car lots are the norm. A sign with Wild West lettering begs a question: What do 10-gallon hats and Glen Burnie have in common?
"Who's my customer? Anybody that will watch a John Wayne movie," says Bob Chance, 74, who founded Carol's Western Wear in 1968 and opened a second store in Laurel 23 years later.
Carol's (named for Chance's first wife) blends history, quality and humor in a Maryland way. Chance's dad bought the building after the Depression and used it to house an upholstery shop — and his wife and kids.
Chance grew fond of Western wear while in Wyoming with the Air National Guard. He later took up square dancing in Glen Burnie, only to learn he had to drive to Timonium or Washington for supplies. He decided to sell them himself.
Forty-two years later, Chance carries boots by 26 manufacturers, ranging from $90 to $1,000, in sizes 3A to 18 EEEE, in material from stingray to ostrich. But he sees basics as king. "It's about the fit," he says.
With its belt buckles, bolo ties and marshal badges, the place gives off charm as a horse kicks up dust. "What other kind of clothing says, 'I'm American?'" Chance asks. "There's a little cowboy in all of us."
7918 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie
The 7-foot fiberglass hot dog out front — clad in pearls, condiments and a bun — appears for all the world to be doing a touchdown dance.
It's two o'clock one afternoon, customers are lined up outside the door, and it's clear that after 59 years, Ann's Dari-Crème — a shrine to foot-long dogs, soft-serve ice cream and old-time values — still has a lot to celebrate.
"It's the best value you can get for lunch or carry-out, the best foot-long you can find, and the best service you could hope for — every time," says Michael Derrickson of Kent Island as he munches a plump, chili-slathered dog, one of the 650 or so the place will sell that day.
Derrickson, a Glen Burnie native, is like many customers: He started going there in 1961, as a kid, and still plans his errands around regular visits. A favorite perk: The "girls" at the counter still take orders without writing a word.
"We do things a certain way," says manager Patricia "Pat" Schreiber, who has worked there for 44 years, since the tenure of the original owners, Ann and Ray Hines. "We're a family."
That sense emanates from "Mr. P.," owner George Pinskey, who bought the business in 1976, raises prices only every two years and takes an interest in the lives of his 18 employees, Schreiber says.
That sustained the business through a dicey time, when the $50 million Marley Station Mall went up behind it in 1986. "It didn't hurt us," Schreiber says.
It still hasn't. "An everything dog and a cherry-chocolate shake," barks a customer before stepping aside. More orders come thick and fast. The lunch rush lasts until 3.
Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company
161 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park
All's quiet at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company, a two-story, 1950s-era building at Route 2 and Earleigh Heights Road.
Turns out they're too busy. "Everyone was out on call," says Charles Disney, the president, later in the day.
That's par for the course for an outfit that was formed in a local living room in 1918 and is one of the county's oldest active fire companies at the tender age of 92.