ESCAPES: The Living Fields; Cambodia's Most Famous War Reporter Retreats to Dorchester County, Md.
"If I were writing about this area," the war correspondent says with one arm draped over the steering wheel of his pickup, "that would be my lead right there."
The war correspondent is squinting down the sunny main street of Cambridge, Md.--a rank of blank storefronts and shabby 1960s siding. Specifically, he's pointing at a digital clock that glows feebly on the side of a two-story corner law office. "That clock has been six hours slow since I got here. It's the perfect emblem for this place."
This place is Dorchester County, Md., a working Chesapeake borough less than two hours from Washington where it sometimes seems the digital age has progressed no further than a half-bright digital clock overlooking a sleepy downtown. The war reporter--who has a hard time looking at any scene without mentally crafting a paragraph about it--is Nate Thayer, a hard-eyed, trouble-hunting journalist who has infiltrated some of the bloodiest jungle strongholds in Southeast Asia. To the surprise of his family, colleagues and readers, the 40- year-old Thayer recently retreated to placid Dorchester after more than 15 years of chasing danger around the world. Last spring, he bought a capacious old farmhouse and 70 acres on Church Creek, less than a mile as the heron flies from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. He's quietly writing a book and tending the fields with his longtime sweetheart, Carol Bean, and Scoop, a scrappy mutt they rescued from the slums of Bangkok. After a long adrenaline ride through hot spots and hellholes, Thayer says he came to Dorchester for a little peace. Reluctantly.
"I was the world's most unmotivated buyer," he laughs, walking across the street to his frequent breakfast spot at the counter of Doris Mae's Restaurant. "I looked at waterfront property all over the world, Thailand, France. When I finally came over here, everyone said, 'Don't even look in Dorchester, there's nothing there,' which immediately intrigued me. The overwhelming sentiment here is not to change things. That's why I like it."
A white-haired woman at the griddle looks up as Thayer enters. He's an imposing figure in any setting, but particularly in a small- town egg joint with Navy recruitment posters on the wall. He's tall, lithe and swimmer-strong (from daily laps at the Cambridge YMCA). With a shaved head, a natural scowl and an ever-present pinch of black snuff under his front lip, Thayer looks downright piratical. It's a broke-nose mien that serves him well in the dyspeptic bars where he does much of his reporting, but one that belies his blue- blood lineage (his father was an ambassador to Singapore) and his own intellectual bent as a rapacious reader who recently did a turn as a think-tank scholar with Johns Hopkins University.
The waitress greets Thayer in a motherly way and asks if he wants his eggs poached, an item not on the menu. He says yes, asks her the news and looks around at the orderly calmness that pervades this community. "Having lived so long in the absence of rules," he says, "I've come to appreciate a properly organized society."
Thayer began his career as a flouter of rules, a hard-drinking 28- year-old with a taste for conflict and serious weapons. As a Bangkok- based freelance reporter, he quickly gained a reputation for going where others couldn't--or wouldn't--go. He learned the local dialects, lived and walked in the jungle with the bad guys and endured the sundry malignancies of modern Indochina: multiple bouts of cerebral malaria, kidnappings, a land mine explosion that shattered his leg and ruined his hearing. But the stories kept coming. In 1992, along the old Ho Chi Minh trail, Thayer discovered a forgotten band of mountain rebels who had to be convinced the Vietnam War was over and their American sponsors long gone. He has exposed heroin kingpins, corrupt politicians and murderous generals. "I want to go to my grave making people with guns, power and money nervous," he says with a frank grin. "I love it."
But more than any other, Thayer has been in pursuit of one villain for the whole of his career: Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge dictator who oversaw the greatest mass murder since Hitler. To work his way into Khmer Rouge territory, Thayer allowed himself to be captured numerous times, each occasion making friendly with another local Communist field commander. He tramped, on one trip, through more than 400 miles of jungle with Khmer Rouge units. He shared their mess and was treated in their field hospital after the truck he was riding in tripped a land mine and he woke up with his head in the engine compartment and a companion's severed leg across his chest. Finally, in 1998, Thayer's single-minded pursuit led him to what many consider the scoop of the decade, the first on-the-record interview with Pol Pot since he was driven from Phnom Penh in 1979. When they met in a sweltering jungle hut, the man responsible for killing an estimated 2 million people fixed his gaze on Thayer and said slowly, "I've known your name for a long, long time."
Five months later, Pol Pot--old and broken--was dead.
Somehow, it's even more jarring to hear Thayer's matter-of-fact telling of his extraordinary history as he moves through his now decidely ordinary life in Dorchester County. After breakfast, he rumbles down brick-paved High Street, past the boat basin crowded with both yachts and work boats. The big, shady Victorian sea captains' houses along here are slowly being bought and restored. It's an antique waterside neighborhood that seems like it could be, maybe, on the verge of better times.
"I think it's going to take off," Thayer says, pulling up to a large, well-groomed red house with a noble front porch. It's Cambridge House, a bed-and-breakfast that Thayer wants to visit. He entertains a steady stream of globe-trotting reporters, photographers and diplomats at his new place, and he considers it a host's duty to be able to recommend local inns and restaurants. Inside, innkeeper Stuart Schefers cautiously shares Thayer's optimism about the county.
"Slowly it's coming back," says Schefers. In addition to Cambridge House--already popular with bicyclists, birders and hunters-- Schefers is a partner in the Chesapeake Grill, one of a number of ambitious new restaurants in the area. "It's been neglected, but it is one of the few areas around the bay that hasn't been ruined by overdevelopment."
Driving the growing feeling that Dorchester may finally cash in on the tourism that has plumped up St. Michaels Island just across the Choptank River is a Hyatt resort being built hard on the edge of town. The $150 million, 450-acre development is slated to open in Christmas 2001, instantly becoming the biggest employer in the county. After decades of placidly watching tourist dollars zoom through town at 60 mph on their way to Ocean City, Dorchester may be in for a boom of its own.
A few minutes later, Thayer is driving down the wattle of shoreline below Cambridge, an intricate terrain laced with the many creeks and marshes that feed the Chesapeake. There are few buildings, just some modest homes, a sun-baked one-room schoolhouse where young Harriet Tubman once learned her letters and, tucked in a shoreside forest, an ancient Anglican church and cemetery. The corn fields are in stubble now; the sorghum is up and the waterfowl are on the wing. It's duck-hunting country and through the autumn, Thayer--who has heard some gunfire in his time--listens to the reports echoing across this wet, flat land.
"It's so dominated by water," he says, gazing at the low white crab boats working up the creek. Thayer is a slow, deliberate talker, and he drives the same way. Old farmers in tractor caps pass him in pickups even shabbier than his. "It's steeped in classic rural traditions, agriculture, fishing. That's what drives life here."
That will remain, Thayer believes, even if more people discover what he has, in part, because the vast 25,000-acre Blackwater refuge keeps adding more land. But there's also a doggedness to the local culture that will survive the lure of quick-buck development. (And already, more Volvos lugging bikes and kayaks are to be seen on the local roads, pulling into B&Bs and restaurants that cater to city visitors who come for the Eastern Shore the way it used to be.)
"You find that they are determined to maintain a farmer's way of life, even though they could make a killing by selling out to developers," says the war correspondent. As he rolls by, window open, a blazing white egret lifts out of the reeds with heavy, angelic flaps. "They know better than I do what a good place this is."
Getting There: Dorchester County (war-free since 1865) is on the Eastern Shore, about 90 miles from Washington. From the Beltway, take Route 50 east all the way to Cambridge. James Michener set part of "Chesapeake" here, and it's the birthplace of Harriet Tubman (Home Towne Tours offers tours of Tubman sites, 410-228-0401).
Lodging: Cambridge House (112 High St., 410-221-7700, www.cambridgehousebandb.com) is a stout, begabled old captain's mansion at the town waterfront. Rooms are $120, with a five-course dinner available with weekend packages ($329). Twenty-eight miles south of Cambridge, Wingate Manor (2335 Wingate-Bishop's Head Rd., 888-397-8717, $80 to $120) is a comfortable, roomy old pile hard on the Honga River. Bikes available gratis, boats for rent.
Eating: Rolston's Chesapeake Grill (321 High St.) makes it no longer necessary to cross the Choptank for upscale steak and seafood (entrees start at $20, with a less expensive bar and bistro up front). Hysers (824 Locust St.), an honest lunch counter, mixes a serious ice cream soda.
Antiquing: Dorchester remains bargain country, with almost a dozen antiques shops around Cambridge proper, the largest being the Packing House Antique Mall (411 Dorchester Ave., 410-221-8544).
Info: Dorchester County Tourism, 800-522-8687, www.tourdorchester.org.