Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where I Lived (and Left): Culvert Cowntee

"God Bless Y'all, Real Good"
- Louis L. Goldstein

Yep. Should one choose to exit Calvert County at its southern-most tip, crossing into St. Mary's via the Solomon's Island Bridge, a casual look to the left will reveal this brick-laden farewell in all of its grammatically deficient splendor. Unbeknownst to him, former Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein managed to capture the quintessence of Southern Maryland in only five words - and he presented it perfectly. Welcome to bumfuck.

Calvert (also referred to as "CC," "Southern Maryland, and, "Uh, it's near D.C./Annapolis. Sort of.") is a peninsula bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River. From top to bottom, it is approximately 45-50 miles long, and borders counties Anne Arundel, Charles, and St. Mary's. There are about 5 main drivable exits - the most notable being Route 2-4 as the primary pipeline in and out (non-drivable exits include helicopter, water travel, and death).

Calvert County is split into three main areas - Northern (North Beach, Chesapeake Beach, Owings, Huntingtown, and Dunkirk), Central (Prince Frederick, Dares Beach, Port Republic, and Barstow), and Southern (Brooms Island, St. Leonard, Lusby, Cove Point, and Solomons Island) - each with a corresponding high school. You could say that Northern is "where the money is" - noteable that their region now has (count 'em) two* public high schools named "Northern High" and "Huntingtown High." Prince Frederick is the central "town center" - a collection of strip malls and living communities - home of Calvert's oldest high school, Calvert High. Southern Calvert boast proudly of the nationally famous "Tiki Bar," claims the closest Nuclear Plant to Washington D.C. as its own, and is home to this author's alma mater, Patuxent High. If you ever visit Southern Calvert, I advise driving straight to Solomons Island. It's this author's personal favorite.

The most interesting thing about Calvert is its pattern of urban development. For all intents and purposes, Calvert County is predominately rural, but maintains its own sub-urban flair. Driving from end to end, you'll be bombarded with isolated residential communities and market centers contrasting with long stretches of country roads, farmlands, old family plots, and watershed protectorates. Formerly cheap land, an exploding population, and steady immigration combined with the residents' desire to maintain the county's rural aesthetic, watershed laws, and building restrictions coalesce to form Calvert's impression as contradiction manifested. Hence, another Gentleman's coining of the term "ghetto country" might not be such a misnomer - representing Calvert as an odd combination of backwater boonies and urban sprawl.

Interestingly enough, despite said booming population there hasn't been a sufficient concentration of people over one particular spot to form an entire "town" (exceptions: North Beach and Chesapeake Beach are technically considered towns). Instead, what you have are select districts (some mentioned above) of residential areas that are assigned to different post offices around the county - some labeled as "town centers." As opposed to having the same municipal standing as full towns, these "town centers" are simply zoned for residential and commercial use. Their infrastructure is designed to ultimately curb urban sprawl and preserve agricultural and rural areas. In essence, this equates to there being, "not a whole lot to do," in the conventional sense. For those over 21, this means a lot of seedy bars spread out across long distances, bars in restaurants, and bars in hotels. To contrast, it also means a lot of local owned establishments once you get away from "town centers" - which are more likely to run the gambit of chains. The town center thing actually worked and kept away a lot of the amenities you might find with place of higher population density.

To demonstrate my point I'll tell a story:
One point during college, I drove down to St. Mary's to a friends party, passing through Calvert on the way, where I was accompanied by another Gentleman and a former roommate from the area. Said Gentleman started flipping around on the radio looking for a local station, when I looked at him confusedly. "Well, we get DC 101 or 98 Rock," I said, returning to driving not knowing what else to tell him. I would have mentioned HFS, but this was 2007 and HFS had long since dissolved. Clearly, that wasn't what he was talking about and he continued to ask for a local station where we played songs from bands around the area. He explained that most places have this sort of thing and he wanted to know what the station number was. Still confused, I tried to explain further that the closest thing we had to that was a whole-in-the-wall station that praised God every time the DJ spoke and played old-timey, twangy country. The Gentleman wasn't buying it and further tried to explain what he was looking for when our backseat companion chimed in with, "Uh, well, there's the Rocket." "What's the Rocket?" I asked, baffled. "It's like a modern rock station, I guess? It's new. Local," he said. I was dumfounded. Apparently, I had been away for awhile - in 2006 said old-timey station had switched over and changed its branding to "97.7 The Rocket," playing contemporary rock, possibly from local bands. I had a slight moment of shock, but I don't think it was apparent. It ended up being an OK station. Not great, but certainly not horrible. Also, I was still in shock.
"So, what do you do for fun in a place like this?"
Well there's not a whole lot to do, as I mentioned before. However, if you like solitude, relaxation, or the outdoors, it's a great place to visit. Local activities include your usual gambit of sports (soccer, football, basketball, baseball/softball, etc.), crabbing and fishing, boating and sailing, kayaking and canoeing, running and hiking, beaches and bonfires, and horseback riding. We have nature preserves Cypress Swamp and Flag Ponds, as well as the Marine Museum, which serves as our own, public mini-aquarium. There's Anne Marie Gardens, if you like outdoor art. You used to be able to visit the Nuclear plant (before 9-11). Of course, there's the Tiki Bar, which opens on Solomons Island every spring and shuts down before winter hits. Local bands (of which there might have been 3**. Maybe.) might play at bars, the Clubhouse in Lusby, or the St. Leonard Volunteer Firehouse. Outside of that, get ready to spend a lot of time in friends' houses and basements. For many, this leads to a lot of a) illicit drug use (It was rumored that the Ranch Club, a residential district, had either a heroin addict or dealer on every street and that, in this particular region, heroin was cheaper than pot) or b) deviant sex (boredom is the mother of invention). If you did neither, you were left to make your own fun - just hanging out and having a good time with your pals. Sometimes, we went across the bridge to the Ihop in St. Mary's because it stayed open late. A selection of my friends began making movies for fun - which usually wasn't a bad idea. Note, however, that going and "doing something" takes time - most places worth traveling to are between 15 min-30 min away. Traveling to Baltimore, D.C., or Waldorf meant gathering a day trip involving an actual reason to go.
And that's Calvert County for you. The essence captured. I actually had a pretty decent time when I lived there. But, I admit, I only go back under very limited circumstances.

* - the running joke: since Patuxent High was in the "poorer" part of the county, yet was relatively new, ran great programs, and had the heads of the Advanced Placement commission as teachers, the "money got mad" and pushed for a new school in their district to entice PHS staff up towards the north.
- Another running joke: There's a Patuxent Elementary School and a Patuxent High School. Patuxent Middle School, however, does not exist - because the administration doesn't want to have to deal with a school with the initials "PMS."
** - On Local Bands: I only remember two of them - There was Hydra FX, who everyone liked because they actually were pretty decent and everyone knew them, and the Flinging Ferrets, who everyone hated because they sucked, were annoying, and, also, everyone knew them.


Jstone said...

what, no suggestion for Patuxent Jr. High? Solves a lot of problems.

B.Graham said...


good post. very accurate. i laughed out loud often, signifying that i could relate.

Maggie Brevig said...

Nice post! I wrote a community analysis of Calvert for a class senior year. It's 23 pages long if anyone wants to take a look?

Anywho, I'm pretty sure before it became "The Rocket," 97.7 played oldies, the way 100.3 still does. I know because that's pretty much what we listened to in the car after 104.1 changed hands...

B.Graham said...

*don't forget the Truth About Charlie, a great, albeit short-lived local band with that one brilliant single "Game On" that still gets stuck in my head to this day..