The Land of Pleasant Living
One day in Miss Haver’s fourth grade class, I decided I was going to live in the State of Maryland when I grew up. We were studying the fifty states and their capitals and I had become enamored with Maryland’s flag. It was the coolest flag I’d ever seen.
At the time, I lived in New Philadelphia, Ohio, population 14,000. It was a nice enough town, with a football team that was referred to as the ‘Fighting Quakers.’ No one seemed to catch the irony. But growing up I felt as if I had been squeezed into shoes that were too small. So, on that fateful day in fourth grade, I hatched a plan to bust out of there the first chance I got.
I didn’t make it to Maryland until I was twenty-four. I started out in the suburbs of Washington D.C. where I learned to drive like a beltway bandit and developed a loathing for tourists. But once my children were born, it was time to find a quieter place in which to settle.
When I moved to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I fell in love with the unique atmosphere and culture of the place. I loved it so much, I chose it as my setting for my Rosalie Hart mystery series. In the first of the series, Murder at Barclay Meadow, Rosalie arrives on the Eastern Shore after learning of her husband’s affairs. She settles into an old farm house bequeathed to her by a beloved aunt and that’s where her adventures begin.
The only way to get to the Eastern Shore from the west is to traverse the terrifying and sometimes paralyzing, Chesapeake Bay Bridge. At 4.3 miles long and a maximum clearance of 186 feet, driving over it is an experience that can trigger shallow breathing and light headedness in even the hardiest of drivers.
Once you touch down on the Eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay you have entered ‘the land of pleasant living.’ The terrain is pancake flat and prone to flooding due to the matrix of rivers and inlets carving out the shoreline.
During his tenure as Maryland’s governor, William Donald Schaefer made it his mission to build a major highway through the Eastern Shore all the way to the Atlantic. He termed it, ‘reach the beach.’ Unfortunately, he was overheard referring to that region of his state as ‘the **** (rhymes with spit) house side of Maryland.’ To this day, you can still find pickup trucks sporting bumper stickers expressing pride for being from such a place.
But the Eastern Shore isn’t to be passed over. It is rich with culture, history, and its own unique flavor of quirkiness. Acres of smart growth legislation have kept most of the towns small, the farms big, and the big box stores quarantined to strips along the highway.
I lived in Kent County, located about 20 miles north of Route 50, the highway that slices through the middle of the ‘shore’ for eight wonderful years. The county seat has a population of 4,000. It has remained that size for hundreds of years.
In Kent County, it’s not unusual to find watermen in their rubber waders at the mini stop stocking up on a case or two of beer at four in the morning before they go out on the water to hunt for blue crab, giant rockfish, or bushels of oysters. One town in particular has a shoes optional policy. It isn’t written in law, it’s just one of those things that everyone knows.
The land is rich, the people kind and friendly, doors are never locked, and street signs are superfluous. I nestled in when I arrived and soaked it up. But the residents of Kent County are proud people and are often suspicious of newcomers like me (and Rosalie Hart!). Rightly so because most don’t stay. New arrivals often try to modernize and ‘improve’ the small towns. But inevitably they slow their pace, speak with the slightest hint of a twang, and forget where they put their house keys.
I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that I found myself back in a small town. Although small enough, Kent County felt different from the home of the fighting Quakers. On the Eastern Shore the land is lush and the culture flavorful. People are tanned and weathered from life on the water, both for work and pleasure. One feels connected with the soil. Relationships tight. Families close by. Moods become tidal. Both feet are planted solidly on the ground.
Not long ago I was visiting there and happened to drive by a house I had always admired. I pulled off the road when I noticed a ‘for sale’ sign swaying in a light breeze. That sign is gone now. The house is mine. Back on the shore my blood pressure is lower, my heart rate a little less frenetic. When I look out my window at the Chester River I can’t help but smile. I’m back, and these shoes fit just right.