Assateague Island

Going some place I have never been is a pleasure.   Looking at maps, searching for information about an area, it’s all more than planning; it is part of the discovery process.  The drive or flight is compared to whatever I have learned before the trip including matching and developing a sense of distances, encountering unexpected obstacles, and putting the topography into my mental map.  I adore travelling.  I do not regret any of the travels I took in my life, but do regret not having done more.

We have been searching for a trip we could make as a family every year.  A place within a certain one-day drivable radius from our home that would not cost us a fortune.   A place we could take the pop-up camper, and enjoy a week or two.

We have been to the Outer Banks, but for us it is only livable during the off-season, between November and March.  Yet, we liked the beach (not so much for the sun exposure, but for the ocean in all the natural awe it offers).  I had never been to the barrier islands of Assateague (in Maryland and Virginia) and Chincoteague, and it looked like an interesting area to explore.  We got incredibly lucky, and a five-day camp site opened up at the Maryland State Park in Assateague (check the internet site every morning and you might get lucky with a cancellation too; otherwise they are booked up to a year in advance for summer slots.  Oh, and try to make Sunday through Friday reservations, as traffic into the area is bumper to bumper on Fri-Sat, and bumper to bumper OUT on Sunday; the opposite directions are very open!).

Our site was paved, and backed up into a sand dune.  It was also about 150 ft. from the main dune that separates the rustic campgrounds from the beach.  The sound of the waves and wind were constant, and wonderful to hear at night.  The bathhouse (each small loop of sites has one) was clean, if somewhat worn from years of use, and has hot and cold running water for the showers and sinks.  Our particular campsite loop held mostly pop-up campers (and families at that), and thankfully NONE of the noisy, obstructive, gigantic RV’s so common to campgrounds.  The absence of the behemoths may have been due to the fact that most of the smaller loops do not have water and electric hook-ups, which was fine for all of us with propane stoves and water tanks in our popups.  The pop-up and tent crowd also know to bring large round water coolers, and food coolers, and cook out on the fire rings when one can.  It is worth it to have quiet, and low profile neighbors!

The barrier islands are wonderful, even the famed ponies (I am not a horse person, never was.  They are animals no more fascinating to me than the rabbits, unless they start adapting to eat seaweed like the sheep on North Ronaldsay island, Scotland) only annoyed our camp site once.  For people, especially women of a certain type, who have romantic ideas about the wild horses it is heaven.  I leave them to their cameras and fantasies, as there are many other things worth paying attention to on the island.

We were tempted only once to drive up to Ocean City to the north, by curiosity more than anything else.  We drove the main drag and noted that it reminded us exactly of Virginia Beach (with the requisite homeless population, drug addicts, prostitutes, con-artists, and tacky signage, over-built landscapes, and noise levels assaulting the senses).  We quickly turned around, and drove back the parallel road and over the bridge, laughing “Run away!  Run away!” as we drove highway 50.  But before getting out, we were lured into a large restaurant (Pirate Petes/Hoopers Crab House/Sneaky Petes was printed on the cups and we were never sure which one we were in) that hung into the bay.  Husband said, when the overly tanned waitress with blue eye shadow started huckstering about the small plastic cups for $5 (refills, if one did not buy the cups, ran about $3) we ought to have gotten up and left.  The requisite steamed crabs covered in old bay, with steamed corn on the cob for two ran $60 (the kids fish and chips, crab cake sandwich and fries fed them for about $12 each), when down on 611 we could get them for a dollar each at a crab shack.  We choked on crab shell bits AND the price, considered ourselves thoroughly made chumps, and tossed Ocean City in the Never Again bin with Las Vegas, Dallas, Virginia Beach, and various points in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida.  It was exactly as we had feared and expected, adding to the weird Stephen King sense when seeing the looming landscape in the hazy, far distance from our beach.  It could be one of his deserted, post-apocalyptic urban centers, which only adds to our sense of not wanting to visit again. 

Luckily, the Assateague State Park is as far away culturally as can be from Ocean City.  The park rangers are wonderful, and the small visitors center that serves both the National and State parks was very interactive.  The kids earned their Junior Ranger badges from the center, and had a lot of fun doing it.  The National Park is adjacent to the State Park, but completely different.  The bathhouses have only cold water, and pit toilets pervade.  Many day travelers use the National Park, and it was crowded with people and dogs.  We were grateful that there were no dogs at the State Park when we were there, and pets seem to be discouraged.  The National Park is also popular with the “deep” campers, the backpack and tent crowd who hike into sites where no autos can go.  Maybe twenty years ago we would have done that (pre-kids perhaps), but the pop-up serves us well for now.

Flying kites, collecting shells, swimming in the Atlantic, having picnics, taking walks, riding bikes (the paved trail is great), and so forth are all wonderful things when one has small children.  The nature center was next to our loop, and had activities all day for campers, and at night some movies were shown with a marshmallow roast.  The camp store is adequate, and the ranger station always had a supply of ice and firewood for sale.

The small village of Berlin is about fifteen minutes from the park, and offers a wonderful place to do laundry, get groceries, and grab a meal.  It is a town that has taken good care of the historic homes, streets, and beautiful city parks.  The Wednesday and Friday farmers market offers fresh clams, oysters, crabs, and various seafood, vegetables, and fabulous peaches to take back and make meals off of at a campsite.  The Baked Dessert bakery and café ( had the most amazing, fresh, hot crusty bread that we went back several times to purchase said loaves and some local sausages and cheese too (do not ask me about the cupcake bread pudding, peach tarts, or other desserts.  Just don’t do it.  I will cry).  The proprietresses are equally warm; as were all the villagers we met at the various shops, galleries, stands, restaurants, and parks.  It makes Assateague even better having Berlin to escape to from time to time.  Oh, and while we could not be there for the bathtub races, it seemed like something we ought to try to get to next year! 

Not much can be said of our foray to the southernmost part of the peninsula barrier islands, or Chincoteague.  Wallops Island NASA center, on the way to Chincoteague, has a good little museum but the underfunding of NASA is woefully evident and made us depressed. The National Seashore has a wonderful old lighthouse, remarkable for being open to the public (most along the east coast are closed to visitors).  The beach is crowded, and the swamp leading to it of interest biologically, but for little else.  The town of Chincoteague was all tourist trap, and the camp grounds abysmal combinations of homeless shelters (the sheer number of permanent residents in RV’s is overwhelming.  I think stats on this population, which are often older persons, needs to be examined in the wake of the economic collapse of the oughts) and country-pop loving, smoking, and drinking vacationers.  We moved campgrounds twice (I particularly warn anyone against Toms Cove campground for their horrifying bathrooms, policies, tiny sites, more than half “permanent residents”, and other issues), and were told by one woman we spoke with that the campgrounds attracted, as she delicately put it, “a certain type of person”.  Point taken, Madame.

We cut our visit to Chincoteague to twelve hours total, and headed down the peninsula to the undulating bridge/tunnel engineering wonder that gets people from the tip of the DelMarVa (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia) across the bay to Norfolk, VA.

Our last minute addition of Busch Gardens, Williamsburg to make up for the shortened trip was literally a wash- thunderstorms kept shutting down the park and after four hours and only three rides, BG refunded our money.  We drove home between flash floods and thunderstorms, wishing we had stayed a few extra days in Assateague.

Still, as a foray into the unknown it was a good trip, and gave us a place to escape to in the future.  Now I’ll have to start plotting a back roads course for the next visit.  Maybe I’ll finally find out how Assawoman got it’s name, too. 

The lure of a distant horn

As far back as I can remember I have enjoyed the sound of train horns at night.  On the farm as a child, the tracks ran on the far edge of our field, and the howl of the coyotes would often presage the rich sound of a train horn. Everywhere I have lived, I have heard these horns and found strange comfort in the sound.  As I sit in the calm and cold of my living room, I hear the horn from a train less than a mile away. 

I am told by my father that he took my great-grandfather to a central office in Kansas City where he had been ordered to turn in his gun and his badge from his days as a payroll guard on the trains.   The trains he worked ran the mining and lumber routes winding through southern Missouri, Northern Arkansas, Eastern OK and Kansas.  I was reminded of the old western films, where pay trains got held up, and men hopped off with hands in the air while the bad guys robbed them.  Most of this was a fiction, but guards on trains were not.  Great granddad cried as he slumped in the office chair, laying the items of his former self on the desk.  My father was embarrassed, and wished he could just jump up and grab the gun and badge, pull his grandfather along and leave.  It was one of the few times he says he ever saw the elder man broken.  Great granddad loved trains, and so did his son, my grandfather.  My grandfather had elaborate miniatures set up in his basement, and worked as a rail postal clerk, his dream job.  He died as an accident in the great train yards of Kansas City’s Union Station, during the height train travel and shipping.  I have often thought about all the blood, energy, and money that went into building the railroads of this country, how quickly they fell into disrepair, and how the rails are a viable means to again transport people and goods, in the face of a looming oil crisis. 

I can’t say I am obsessed with trains, but I am with the sound of the horns at night, and with travel.  I have what I like to call “itchy feet” (no relation to fungus).  It is a fascination with travel, the idea of travel, and the ever-pressing need to get out and go places.  I currently reside in a valley that is approx. 30 miles wideby 175 miles long.  It is hemmed in on one side by rows of mountains with 4,000 ft peaks, which take close to 7 hours to get through going west on narrow black top roads.  On the other, a single, long line of “mountains” barricades the valley, with peaks of about 3,000 ft. on average.  From there, the land quickly slides down into marshes, then to the Atlantic Ocean.  I have felt claustrophobic ever since I moved here.  The first year I back-roaded obsessively, coming to know the strange knots of roads that seemed to twist and turn without logic, always circling back into the valley.  I built knowledge of this geographic prison that rarely requires a map. Then, I got bored.  I traveled up into Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia.  It still seems like a very small region to me.

When we came here to find a place to live, we stayed in a KOA.  A nice woman and her family were in the pool with us and we asked if there was a grocery near by. “Oh yes!”  She replied, “The food line is just down the road” and proceeded to describe where the food line was.  I usually do not have trouble understanding people with accents, but I shot Husband a seriously perplexed look.  “Food line?”  I said.  “Yes-  foodline.  FOOD LINE!”  She smiled and said it louder as if I were either deaf or stupid.  Husband finally got it, “Oh! Food Lion!”  Grinning with relief and triumph that he had understood and I had not.  The woman just smiled and nodded (I thought to myself that Food Lion was one of the dumbest names for a grocery I had ever heard.  So too Price Chopper with the axe logo, and several other names, but that’s another essay about the identifying vagaries of regional stores.).  Later she asked where we were from, and said with pride that they always vacationed at the KOA’s around town, and that she had never been out of the COUNTY in her life. Yes, the county- not country. I clarified, believe me.  She was a nice woman, but honestly I can’t imagine never leaving the county.  Not by choice anyway.  Husband says my sense of direction is partly to blame for my itchy feet, as I don’t really fear any aspects of travel.  I take great joy in the packing-as-Tetris game, as well as the planning of a trip in such a way to leave room for random experience.  And yes, I have an excellent sense of direction.  Growing up my father used to backroad often, and say to me, “We are lost.  How do we get home?”.  We were never lost of course, but it was a good way to train a child to have a sense of direction and the skills needed to get around.

About 12 years ago on my first trip through the upper East Coast, I got off the highway at one point and wandered around a medium sized city and found a terrific restaurant in an out of the way place.  I was by myself for the entire trip, which took me up to Montreal, and through many cities.  Husband and I happened to be on a stretch of that same route a few years back, at a mealtime.  Without telling him, I pulled off as I had years ago and found a restaurant I had been to on the original trip.  No mistakes, but drove right to it through multiple back roads and turns.  Even I was surprised.  Dad has the same disease, and has made a competition out of trying to find a road I have not been on, then getting me to drive it with him.  He has yet to find a road I am not familiar with and it irks him to no end.  Worse, a couple of times I had not actually been on the road, but figured out where it was and what it connected to with enough accuracy that he was fooled.  No small feat in the always-curving roads (and changing names) of The Valley. 

Not that I don’t get “lost”, but as Husband assures me, lost is a relative term.  Lost for me is not quite being sure in a 5-mile radius of where I am.  I know the block so to speak, but not the detail within it. Hence, I can get to a point of reference pretty quickly by following my instincts and using my skills.  This happens when I am going someplace new, or after having studied maps. Husband still gets lost in our town.  People ask him for directions and he shrugs, saying, “Ask her”.  Or, he will try to tell someone he has a lousy sense of direction and they do not believe him.  He often has to explain the terror he feels when he gets a couple of miles out of town.  He has absolutely no mental map of where he is.  He tells me The Valley is especially difficult for him, and that he misses the Midwest, where he could count on the grid structure of roads.

We sorely miss the orderly squares of the Midwest, the big sky, the rich soils, and the deep rivers.  The spaces between villages and the loud, powerful thunderstorms that can rage for hours.  I did not indulge in drugs or other vices as a teenager, with the exception of driving.  I lived on my bicycle until I turned 16, and then I backroaded, completing ever more distant trips.  There are very few dirt roads or blacktops in an approximately 150-mile radius of my old hometown that I do not know intimately, having taken great pleasure in random stops for food at diners, noting unusual architecture or geography, and reveling in historical, arcane, and natural sites.

The valley we live in now gets very little snow, and almost no storms.  My husband and I lie on summer evenings and listen wistfully when a small electrical storm passes by, whispering shared memories of great storms we have known.  We also listen to the sound of the train horn as it makes regular passes, and silently hold one another’s hand.

My sons get out their wooden tracks and build routes, putting their tiny engines and cars on the track and pushing them along with “chug a chugs” and an occasional “whoo-woo”.  Trains maintain strong symbolism, a battered romance, and an enduring promise that is evident even to children.  My father took his mother and our family with him on a nostalgic train ride this past fall through West Virginia.  The train was a pastiche of various old trains, some cars from the 1930’s, some the 50’s, and some later.  We had a meal in the dining car (a salvaged early 50’s model), and then adjourned to a cheaply refurbished 1930’s deco car, with wavy seating looking out wide windows.  It was an interesting trip, and the two little boys enjoyed themselves very much. The static scrambled voice on the loud speaker gave historical information as we wound through a valley, and the mostly geriatric riders all smiled indulgently at the boys as they hooted and walked about the train.  I only caught the faintest echoes of what rail travel must have been like, as if some ghost from the past were just out of the corner of my peripheral vision, never quite coming into view.  This was not the train of my imagination, of family stories, or of the horns in the night.  This was more like the wooden track and cars my sons play with.  It offered little insight into what haunts me about the sound of the horn, or helping to cool the itch in my feet.  I know trains are a faulty business now, mostly shipping goods across country, and not without the usual scary bunch of train “hobos”.  Amtrak is a sorry excuse for rail travel, not the least because the heavily federally subsidized system offers tickets to non-citizens at half the cost for citizens.  When I pursued this issue with Amtrak, I was told, “Well if you went to Europe you would get cheap tickets”.  This in no way explains the expensive and non-rational ticket prices.  I had been looking into getting Dad a ticket to visit his sister in Washington State, and was shocked by what I found in the limited routes and outrageously expensive tickets.  He did not believe me at first, recalling when rail travel was like bus travel, and about as expensive.  “That was 50 years ago, Dad”  I said, also telling him it made no sense to me either.  Call or write your congresspersons, your senators, people.  This is a rip off, and the whole system needs to be developed.

I grew up with autos for travel, not the train. The early oil “crisis” of the 70’s created the cars I drove, and I avoided owning a car (and came to know Greyhound very well in college) for a long time, and did not need one when living in the city.  It was not until I turned 27 that I owned my first auto, and had that truck for 15 years before I gave it away.  It was my buddy, my trusted companion who got 35 mpg in town and up to 42 on the highway, and never failed me mechanically.  It was my turtle, with the camper shell and rolled up futon in back.  It was a Mazda B2200, the stealth bomber in which I never got a speeding ticket, and I miss it.

When I turned 30, I made a trip to New Orleans to give my first paper and explore the region.  Many trips else where and a few years later, I was invited by some friends who happened to be from the Nambe pueblo to come and stay for a while.  I took off in my pick-up and drove out.  After a long visit, I decided to continue west, winding through Flagstaff, down to Phoenix.  I entered at night, and when I got up in the morning and looked out the window I was convinced I had died and gone to hell- the landscape looked like something out of my old Catholic school catechism, some woodcut landscape Dante had imagined.  Then I wandered west to L.A., along the whole route visiting friends and relatives.  When I headed east again I camped in my truck, but for Vegas one evening, which was enough to last this woman for a lifetime.  The north rim of the Grand Canyon was a revelation, and the blacktops out of the Kaibab into Colorado are burned into my soul. I camped and followed the “million dollar highway”, then the back roads down into the high plains of Kansas, always behind a string of huge thunderstorms.  I regret not being able to do that again, but keep saying I will soon. Husband is an excellent wing-man and CAN read a map, and I miss the days when we traveled together to the upper Midwest, out to Colorado, down to Georgia, and other points U.S.  Our eldest even remembers hotel rooms, cabins, and tents, saying,“Let’s go somewhere” from time to time, spinning out tales about when we traveled with him.

The train horn sounds again, and I feel the call to get up, to go. But it is late, one of our tiny guys has the flu, and the house needs to be cleaned in order to remove the small blue engines from the floor to avoid the sure pain they will cause if I step on them.  Money is tight, and I console myself with the knowledge of a conference trip in the near future. “Goodbye” I find myself whispering to the train.  Good night moon, bye bye train, some other time.  These feet will have to itch just a little while longer.