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American Impressions, Chapter 22: Maryland
Undiscovered Country

By the end of 1999, Americans will have taken 1 billion leisure trips somewhere in the country and spent a record $459 billion along the way. Even without the $87 billion contributed by foreign tourists, the business of wanderlust is the nation’s single largest service industry. You’d think we were in the grips of another Age of Discovery, with millions of Magellans turning the 50 states into their backyard ocean. But exploration is the oldest American tradition, begun the day those pilgrims got in their Mayflower and sailed West, probably yelling the era’s equivalent of “Road Trip!” as they cleared Southampton’s piers.

”Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection?” John Steinbeck wondered when he took to the road with his dog, Charley, some 40 years ago.

Reading old tour guides—particularly the American Guide Series produced through the Works Progress Administration between 1935 and 1942 -- one gets the impression that Americans not only are restless, but also are infinitely curious about every imaginable facet of their country’s character. Guides, after all, not only point us in the directions we ought to go, but reflect the reasons why we travel, the objectives we seek, the type of curiosity we want to satisfy.

In my journey across the country I’ve followed my own curiosities in every state, crossing paths with thousands of travelers without ever wondering what made them decide to look around beyond their usual orbits. So as I approached Maryland, I did what I hadn’t done in 21 previous states. I picked up several new travel guides to go along with my old WPA volume on the Old Line State and set out to answer Steinbeck’s question more precisely.

Maryland is a good, average state for this little experiment. It is not a typical travel destination; it doesn’t have a Grand Canyon or a Mall of America to skew the traveler’s perspective. Nor is it a blank on the tourist map. The Civil War drew first blood in Baltimore and the breadth of the state from shore to mountains in a snaky, 350-mile course through urban, suburban and rural extremes make it one of the most microcosmic reflections of life in the Union. It takes a little foraging to get a measure of the state. And like anywhere else, short of the help of local friends, guides are indispensable.

But this much immediately became clear: Compared with their WPA forerunners, those classics of travel literature, guides today are a few rungs above the Yellow Pages—insipid, interchangeable, dumbed down, and as politically correct as Census Bureau forms. They don’t encourage exploration so much as confirmation of what travelers expect is already there—sights, food and malls, preferably in that order. Cushy bits of history as colorful as quilts pad every chapter. The present, being more complex or controversial to explain, doesn’t exist.

So in Maryland such things as the ferment of black culture beyond Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or the terminal coma of Cumberland’s once-brimming industries are not for visitors to be curious about.

It’s probably too complicated, anyway. The been-there-done-that school of tourism today means travel is an extension of familiar settings with slightly different backdrops to satisfy the camcorder’s validation. The Maryland guides, which cannot be too different from any other state guide (being published by the same outfits, like franchised books) steer the visitor as much toward predictable directions as away from unpredictable ones, thus pointing out the paradox of modern American road trips: We are traveling more than ever, but our horizons are more sedentary than ever.

”During the 1970s, Baltimore was widely considered nothing more than an industrial center to be bypassed via the highway,” goes the “Travel Smart” guide to Maryland (“Takes the guesswork out of your travel,” the cover says.) “By the 1980s, the city had undergone a major transformation, and today it attracts more than 5 million visitors yearly to the most potent symbol of its revival, the bustling Inner Harbor. Nearby, Orioles Stadium at Camden Yards, one of Major League Baseball’s finest facilities, enjoys sell-out crowds in the summer months.”

In a matter of five lines I’d been directed to the one area of the city that, while “symbolizing” Baltimore’s revitalization, is the least Baltimorelike—and the most generic—neighborhood in the city. It’s a 95-acre ghetto of glitz cordoned off from the rest of the city’s more authentic self by a zone of bars, restaurants, museums and cops that are now Everycity’s staple claim to trendiness. This wasn’t the Baltimore I was looking for, having seen or avoided its exact replica in Cleveland, Chicago, Orlando and Tampa.

The guide’s version of “A perfect day in Baltimore” lists the homes of such hometown luminaries as H.L. Mencken, Babe Ruth and Edgar Allen Poe, but all one guide says about Mencken was that he was “the sage of Baltimore” (Mencken would have sneered at the label) and that his house features “many of the writer’s possessions and furnishings, including a grand piano.” Mention of Poe’s address is even more vague except for the kicker: “Just be wary of the neighborhood.” The line is insulting for this reason: It is as close as the guide’s Baltimore chapter comes to demarcating “appropriate” Baltimore from Black Baltimore, which, incidentally, is the majority of Baltimore, and it does so in a euphemism as oblique as it is recognizable by most readers. “A perfect day in Baltimore,” in other words, skirts the essence of the city.

The WPA guide is more honest. “ Baltimore may be an ugly city; nevertheless it is charmingly picturesque in its ugliness,” its 20-page, encyclopedic narrative on the city begins, continuing in the same vein. “The city suffers, though not in silence, the periodic ‘trade winds’ laden with the odors of industry from the factory suburbs down river,” it is a place where “the professional booster thrives amid the jibes of the intelligentsia,” where “rioting was the rule” for much of its history, where streets “change their character from business to slum to faded grandeur within a few blocks,” where the big harbor’s incessant transients “settle their arguments with fists, or with a leather glove holding ball bearings or other metallic bits,” where “Negroes are scattered all over the city, but Pennsylvania Avenue is the Main Street of a large ‘black belt’ in the northwest section” where “young men in gaudy clothes shoot by on their way to the swing spots.”

The language can be condescending, reeking of hierarchies and class distinctions, but it also is engaged, enthusiastic, deliriously honest, and most of all enticing. It’s a measure of the old WPA guide’s value that much of the flavor it describes can still be seen here and there, although the ball bearing battlers of the Inner Harbor have been wiped out by that most decimating of modern euphemisms—redevelopment.

”There’s kind of a unique strangeness about Baltimore,” says my friend Ellis Marsalis, who lives in Baltimore (and with whom I walked parts of Broadway in New York). “I like the fact that everybody from Baltimore enjoys their strangeness. And the Inner Harbor lacks that. It’s been pasteurized. All the impurities have been removed. It’s become like everywhere else. The thing about the rest of Baltimore is that all the impurities are still in the cup; they’re still in the neighborhoods.”

Civil War battlefields present travel guides with a dilemma. Battlefields are popular stops along travelers’ routes. They’re also reminders of America at its worst, remnants of a miserable quake along the country’s deepest fault-line. Last century’s war and this century’s racial divides (“Just be wary of the neighborhood”) are part of the same thread, America’s one persistent social failure. Modern guides peddle feel-good times and “perfect days” only. Explaining the death and wounding of 23,000 Americans in a single day of battle, as was the case at Antietam near Sharpsburg, in west-central Maryland, can be tricky.

But the dilemma is easily resolved by an approach to history that is as admirable as it is double-edged: History is not dwelt on as an incubator of hatreds and revenge (as is the case, say, with vague, 700-year-old gripes in the Balkans), but dealt with as a series of disconnected episodes that have little bearing on what came before or after. Antietam, in travel guides, is a stop between a mall and a restaurant, not a pilgrimage to some wrath-whipping ground zero. The “Travel Smart” guide even rates it as it would a zoo or an old tavern (it gets three stars; Poe’s house gets none).

The downside is that troop movements are studied by the visitor, monuments and cannons are photographed, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s failed attempt to take the war into the North and Lincoln’s decision to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation as a result are pondered, but all in their place, segregated from any connection with the present. A visit to a place like Antietam reveals how we have learned to face the past much more courageously than the way we face the present. That said, Antietam is a jewel of historic preservation—not because its 800 acres of pastures are no more disturbed today than by grazing cows, but because its surroundings have been left virtually free of the visual clutter of fast-food joints, hotels and amusement pens that surround places such as Gettysburg. Antietam, where guides are superfluous, commands reflection.

A day later I’m on top of Will’s Mountain overlooking Cumberland, at the western, Appalachian edge of the state. Haystack Mountain is across the valley. Anne Dansie, a friend and Marylander who grew up in Cumberland in the 1950s, living in Hagerstown, Baltimore and Bethesda since, is filling me in on the social topography of the region—how the valley below us was once the gateway to the west, rumbling, when vicious floods didn’t interfere, with the rail traffic of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, with the road traffic of the nation’s first federal highway, even with the boat traffic on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which dribbled to an end right there. Cumberland was once Maryland’s second city, as productive a manufacturing furnace as any Midwestern town. Not even among the state’s top-10 anymore, it’s almost all gutted factories and memories now, its nerve center nothing more than Gabe’s (officially, Gabriel Brothers), the discount clothing store where designer brands go for a fraction of their cost because of tailoring defects, and where locals regularly hunt for that bargain, family in tow, as if Gabe’s were the valley’s greatest amusement park.

”You have to look in one of your guides and see if they mention coming up here,” Anne Dansie says from a perch on a rock high above the valley. “To me, this is the way to see Cumberland.”

None does, and only the “New Guide to the Old Line State,” a hefty Johns Hopkins University publication, comes close to describing Cumberland as Anne has known it, and as it appears below us. Yet the guide’s style is still detached and antiseptic, the most common affliction of modern travel guides. Their writers describe places as if in the wake of a neutron bomb. Buildings, streets and scenery are intact. Human activity, human faces, are nonexistent. Wiped-out.

Cumberland is poor, a resigned recipient of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s financial aid. Aside from the mansions of Washington Street, its hillside neighborhoods live in slow motion, declining with illness and age as if in sympathy with the recessed vigor below. Travel guides don’t like the complications of poverty, which is probably why they avoid descriptions of human activity altogether. It’s a radical shift from older guides. Maryland’s WPA book was written by 76 local writers and researchers during the Depression (They were paid $78 to $88 per month). Poverty was family, and social differences were not muted (“Though downtown Cumberland has the appearance of an industrial city, there are unusual numbers of country people on the streets . . . and many of the cars parked along the streets are filmed with the dust and mud of country roads,” the guide notes, revealing in a few words the town’s atmosphere in a way modern guides never dare).

But can the recent past of the city, which so contributed to the nation’s health and wealth, be so easily dismissed by most travel guides to the point of nonexistence? Is local heritage so easily reduced to a “scenic” locomotive train ride through the woods and a walk along the boutiques of downtown’s pedestrian mall? Walking through an old factory, like nearby Hagerstown’s old Moller Organ plant—which built 12,000 organs before closing in 1992, after 117 years—is at least as telling of local character as visiting a museum or a blueblood’s castle, and certainly more so than an excursion through a mall. (A small group of people who once worked for Moller still build organ parts in a section of the old factory and welcome visitors). Cumberland is filled with such factories, each a notch on the country’s industrial genealogy, but interest is elsewhere.

”Could it be that Americans are a restless people?” The restlessness of travelers Steinbeck alluded to is not as searching as it may have once been. We’re becoming settled even in our traveling ways, the passivity of sights and familiarity of shopping leaving us, like the modern guides’ style, ultimately unengaged. The promotional literature of the Travel Industry Association of America unwittingly points to a reason why. In 1997, the association boasts, spending by travelers “averaged $1.38 billion a day, $57.4 million an hour, $955,800 a minute and $15,900 a second.” Those modern guides thick with directions to malls and eateries and fancy B&B’s explain those numbers (which do wonders for the economy) and travel’s primary objective. Shopping outstrips the next-most favorite tourist activity (the outdoors) almost two-to-one.

But I return to the old WPA guide, thickest and densest of them all, where not a single line mentions a restaurant or a shop or even hotels. The guide is dated, but it remains more immersed into the sense of the places it describes than any of its counterparts today. A WPA guide was written for every state. “The complete set,” Steinbeck wrote, “comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it.” Taken together or individually, the guides make one wish for a time when travel’s reward was less a matter of being accommodated, and more a matter of accommodating what the country had to offer. They reflect an exuberance in America—in Depression America! -- modern guides are too busy overlooking for its points of sale.


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MARYLAND IN BRIEF



Total area: 12,297 sq. miles (rank: 42).

Population (1997): 5,094,289 (rank: 19).

State capital: Annapolis.

Economy: Government, manufacturing, information technology, biotechnology, services.

Nicknames & Motto: Old Line State; Free State; Manly deeds, womanly words.

Entered union: Seventh of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution (April 28, 1788).

Notable fact: Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s first vice president, began his rapid rise in government as a member of the Baltimore zoning board. “Supposedly,” write Neal Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom in “The Book of America” (Norton, 1983), “he complained to friends that his rise in politics was so rapid—from zoning board to Baltimore County executive to governor and vice president—that he never had time to make the money to afford the lifestyle to which he thought he was entitled. Some of those friends were contractors, architects and engineers, who did much of their business with Baltimore County and the state of Maryland. Some began giving (Agnew) kickbacks . . . in exchange for his ‘help’ in winning contract awards. Even as he was making speeches sternly denouncing supposedly lawless peace demonstrators, Spiro Agnew was on the take.”

Maryland in quotes: “To pick out one adjective or even a group of adjectives and say, ‘This is Maryland,’ is, of course, impossible. Natives rarely try to define the state’s individuality; ‘outsiders’ try too hard, and, to existing knowledge, have not yet succeeded. English? Yes; for its conservatism, stolidity. Southern? Yes; in its frequent lassitude, its willingness to sacrifice prospects of progress to known, safe comforts. Northern? Yes; in its occasional outbursts of efficiency and industry. Maryland is all of these, and more.”—From “Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State,” American Guide Series, 1940.

RESOURCES

Books: The American Guide Series, begun during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration to put America’s writers to work (it employed 7,535 writers at peak production) was halted in 1942, as resources were diverged to the American war effort. By then, every state had its guide, although some, like North Dakota and South Dakota, only printed a few hundred copies. The books, including Maryland’s, are prized by collectors but still found on the shelves of used bookstores or through rare-book searches. All modern Maryland guides, including the four cited in this week’s column, are available in bookstores and range in price from $15 to $25.

Web sites:

* Petra Schindler Carter, who has just completed a doctorate on the American Guide Series, maintains an informative page on the subject at www-personal.umich.edu/~pscarter/fwp.html

* Excerpts from the WPA Guide to Florida: www.jbit.com/bow/bow_wpa1.htm

* Maryland tourism: www.mdisfun.org

 

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