In the winter of 1985, the wind chill in Garrett County, Maryland hit negative 120 degrees. When it did, I was just over the county line, east of Garrett, in college at Frostburg State. Though the wind chill on our campus wasn’t quite a cold as the higher elevated Garrett, I do remember the threat of a triple digit negative number. It was the one and only time in my four Frostburg years that classes were canceled.
Garrett County is Maryland’s western-most and highest-elevated county. It’s bordered to the north by the Mason-Dixon Line, to the south by the Potomac River, and to the west by West Virginia. It’s the only Maryland county who’s snowmelt drains into the Mississippi instead of the Chesapeake; an attribute of its extreme elevation. A drive to Garrett County from the east is a long, continuous, unremitting uphill climb.
The unique location of Garrett County positions it in a sweet spot for snow accumulations; averaging ten feet per year. The current record though, from 2010, is twenty two feet. It’s at the crossroads of multiple weather patterns. Lake Effect Snows from Lake Erie and Nor’easters are regular contributors to the totals. The main contributor, however, is Upslope Snows which happen when prevailing winds are forced skyward upon colliding with Garrett’s high plateau and ridges. As the air ascends, it leaves moisture behind. Or as my brother once referred to it, Garrett rakes the clouds.
Sounds hellish. So why would a non-skier and hater of winter like me actually choose to visit Garrett County in February? One word: love.
My wife’s birthday is in February. Traditionally, we like to get away. Last year it was Florida. The year before, Arizona. But this year, she wanted to embrace to cold. I love her adventurous spirit, and it sounded reasonable when we booked it last fall. Sounded practical too. Why fly to Saskatchewan or Siberia when Garrett County was a mere two hour, steep drive from my home?
Embracing the cold was precisely what we got. A freshly fallen two feet of snow buried the cabin we rented in the hills above Deep Creek Lake. I had to engage my vehicle’s 4WD to ascend the slick, vertical access road. Then we had to trudge slowly through thigh-deep snow to reach the cabin door. And from the time we arrived until we left two days later, the snow never stopped.
Frankly, one of the reasons embracing the cold enticed us was knowing a roaring fire would be the antidote. It had been two years since I last sat by a fire. The Arizona birthday included a fire pit warm up. After a day on the rim trail, the Grand Canyon Lodge had a nice big fireplace waiting for us. But the fire in Garrett was much nicer. First of all, I created it. And second, we burned it as hot and as long as we wanted. With snow approaching three feet deep outside and no signs of letting up, that fire was more welcomed than any other I can recall. I loved every smoky minute of it.
Though I was not as confident as my wife about embracing the cold, I’m definitely happy with how it turned out. It was an outstanding adventure and made for one of the most memorable birthday getaways so far. The hellish conditions of Garrett County, and that awesome fireplace to counteract them, made for an exceptional trip.