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. 

Sketch and impression from a morning 8/8/11

There was always some bastard who had to send something back.  It didn’t really seem to matter what; the silverware was not clean, a steak under or over cooked, a sauce not just right.  Where did they think they were?  It was all a show for whomever the jerk was with.  Somehow trying to show his (it was usually a he) refined taste, when all it really proved was what an insensitive asshole he was.

She breathed deeply of her cigarette ration for the morning.  It was a beautiful day, just before it got too hot.  Sitting out back not far from the garbage didn’t seem so bad today.  She knew she should quit.  It wasn’t just the uneasy feeling of being a social reject (the exponential decrease in places where smokers could partake of their addiction was part of that feeling), she knew it would kill her and she wanted to stop.  But it was her only vice besides the occasional sweet and swearing.

The sounds of the restaurant china and voices made a pleasant background noise.  She stubbed the cigarette out and tossed it into the garbage bin.  She smoothed her apron and walked back inside.  It was a busy Monday morning, and all the FIBS (Fucking Illinois Bastards) were eating early before they hit the road.  It was like this with the summer crowd; moving to the lakes, the campgrounds, the restaurants in hordes and then disappearing.  In the winter it was a smaller bunch, no less transient, of bobble- (the men) and bubble- (the women) heads.  The locals called them this due to the constant wearing of helmets even when not on snowmobiles.

“I thought the sausage tasted like shit today too”, Erin called across the coffee station to Mary.  Mary nodded, took a long drink of water, then balanced a full tray of plates as she walked away from the pass towards tables.

Surveying the crowd she could see the regulars at the big round table (all men) having their morning coffee klatch.  The rest were the tourists, many with gaudy tee shirts and hats stamped “Eagle River” in various fonts.  As a child, she had seen the same junk shops that sold the shirts come and go.  The main drag was a four-block strip of the usual crap, and always had been.  But two fudge shops, really?  She wondered what made fudge a particularly tourist food.  Fudge and taffy.  Everywhere she had ever gone that was a tourist trap had fudge and taffy.  She shook her head.  The tackiness and gullibility of tourists never ceased to amaze her.  Perhaps there was a comfort in knowing that no matter how different the place, there would always be something the same.  Sort of like the RV’ers who counted on the constant string of Walmarts and McDonalds as they inched their ways across a map.  The morning crew took great pleasure in comparing the ridiculous names on the RV’s that came and went.  Interloper (no kidding did in-laws buy these?), Cougar (what RV looks like a cougar?  Maybe the middle aged women who drove them thought it was funny), and dozens more.

She put on her brightest smile, trying to hide any trace of sarcasm.  She took another order of potato pancakes (the cooks managed to turn them out in the worst possible way, but they were the last restaurant in town that served them) and bratwurst.  She usually made little bets in her head about what customers would order just by looking at the people.  She had been at this so long, she was rarely ever wrong.  She was just glad they had taken the cheese curds off the menu.  Every shop in town (even the tire dealer!) carried them in a cooler.  They did not need them here.

Folks assumed she was a local, and she was.  Sort of.  She had spent the big middle part of her life in Santa Fe, and only just returned.  Divorced, the graphic design business she and her husband had shared gone bust (most companies did their own printing work now with all the computer programs available) and trying to raise a part Indian child had just worn her out so she came home.  The schools here were better, and there seemed to be less trouble George could get into than in Santa Fe.  And there were Indians up here.  Half the cooks were Latin, the other half from some tribe with a casino.  Getting George to feel good about his heritage without becoming militant was the problem.  She sighed.  He was a smart boy, but she was never quite sure what he needed, or that she could help him.  Maybe that was just the way it was with teenagers.  She was sure her own mother had felt that way about her.  Mama had a way with George, she could make him laugh.  That was good.  Sometimes the skip in generation helped.

She put all her orders through the pass and checked the coffee pots.  She grabbed one and gave refills to the loners sitting at the counter.

It worked like a well-oiled machine, this morning crew.  When afternoon came, there was a slow down that left them all at an idle.  The evening could be unpredictable, depending on the weather and whatever week in August it happened to be.  Afternoons were a good time to clean, organize, refill, and breathe.

She would leave at three, go home and kick off her shoes.  She might go to the Remorseless Inn, sit by the lake and have a beer.  Maybe Eileen would be up for an evening at the lake.  If not, she would surely be alone in the middle of the college students, families, and retirees.  Men up here were mostly taken, and comfortably numb in marriages that allowed them to behave exactly as they had when they were eighteen.  The only difference was what time of year they were active.  Play ran the gamut from ice fishing and snowmobiles to lies about the size of the muskie that got away and speed boating; that and a generous amount of alcohol thrown in.

For now there was a steady stream of customers flowing through the door needing breakfast.  Raise an eyebrow at the length of a pair of shorts (or lack there of), share a grin at the comb-over on table nine, bus the china and refill the cups.  Grab the errant plate of wheat toast and drop it off as you glide by to take an order from table ten.  There must be a waitress in every café in every tourist town from Bellingham to Savannah taking orders this morning, she thought.  Good luck to them and every Griswold they serve, and hope the heat breaks soon.

Give me that pill!

What is your drug of choice?  There is a reason I never really got into drugs- illegal or prescription.  Somewhat like Woody Allen’s attitude in Annie Hall:

Alvy Singer: (As Annie is trying to get him to smoke weed) Yeah, grass, right? The illusion that it will make a white woman more like Billie Holiday.

Annie Hall: Well, have you ever made love high?

Alvy Singer: Me? No. I – I, you know, If I have grass or alcohol or anything, I get unbearably wonderful. I get too, too wonderful for words. I don’t know why you have to get high every time we make love.

Annie Hall: It relaxes me.

Alvy Singer: You have to be artificially relaxed before we can go to bed?

Annie Hall: Well, what’s the difference anyway?

Alvy Singer: Well, I’ll give you a shot of sodium pentothal. You can sleep through it.

Annie Hall: Oh come on. Look who’s talking. You’ve been seeing a psychiatrist for 15 years. You should smoke some of this. You’d be off the couch in no time.

 [Later in the film Alvy is asked to try cocaine]

Alvy Singer: I don’t want to put a wad of white powder in my nose. There’s the nasal membrane…

Annie Hall: You never want to try anything new, Alvy.

Alvy Singer: How can you say that? Whose idea was it? I said that you, I and that girl from your acting class should sleep together in a threesome.

Alvy’s sex fantasies aside, drugs just seemed like more trouble than they were worth.  What little experimentation I did in my Mesozoic era taught me one important thing- drugs are never as fun as they are a complete, mostly negative distortion of perception; something I was not too keen to repeat (although the fuzzy, laugh enabling feeling from a glass of wine can be cathartic).  Coming down from various drugs after surgeries and caesarians just made me headachy and afflicted with nausea.  Why people want to take those drugs is beyond me.


Right now I am on a strong dose of prednisone for a truly horrifying case of hives.  Hives that prove no vacation is a real one unless someone gets sick (at least it wasn’t one of the kids vomiting in a hotel bed this time).

Husband confirmed tonight (he found the bite holes) what I suspected at 35,000 ft in a crowded airplane.  A spider had found its way to my hairline on the back of my neck and bitten me during the last night in our B&B.  My immune system went into over-drive, and I started feeling hard lumps on my scalp that were forming down my body as the plane ride went on. Of COURSE when asked, flight attendants had no Benadryl handy for such a common problem (what?  No official form I could quickly sign saying I was aware, no liability, etc. then give me the damned Benadryl!).  So I looked like a poorly stitched, scratching Bride of Frankenstein when we landed, and had to wait in the heat while someone brought the wheel chair for my father that had been requested five hours earlier.  A mob of people were waiting for a flight to L.A., and thankfully, by the sheer grace of one observant woman (who was pushing a small child in a stroller while waiting) I got some Benadryl.  She reached into the emergency zipper on her mom bag (mine is still woefully under packed, and Benadryl will become a staple now) and drew out two small pills and gave them to Husband, who was standing near her.  He passed them on to me and in a panic I ran down the hall for a bottle of water and took them while in line to pay.  At that point I could not move my neck from the swelling and hoped the fabulous B would at least stop the mutation (over the next hour, it stopped the swelling in my neck.  It did not stop the formation of hives down to my toes).  When I got back to the family, the LA plane had boarded and I did not get a chance to thank the mysterious wonder woman.  If anyone knows her, thank her for me.  This all happened on Memorial Day, and she was flying out of D.C. (and always carry Benadryl- you never know when someone might need it!).  I passed out on our connection (I mumbled to Husband, “is this what Beany-drill does?” and he laughed, saying yes), and I fell into bed once we got home.

Upon waking, it was all so much worse.

My doctor (the office is over an hour away) fit me in, and chuckled that I had a classic case of hives.  She told me it could be caused by anything- even though I had never had such hives before (my virulent reactions to poison sumac and ivy were not quite the same thing).  So I got a small dose of doxycycline (in case it was a bite from a tick or spider), and the magic drug Prednisone.  My father says it is the only drug he was ever tempted to be addicted to, but for the liver damage and other side effects.  He says I’ll feel like a teenager by Friday.  I hope not, I did not enjoy feeling like a teenager.  My favorite years were my early 30’s. Where is the drug that will make me feel like that again?.

I finished my entire New Yorker, and was chatty tonight with husband who kept falling asleep.  I asked, “Is this what steroids do to you?  Are they a stimulant?  I did not have any coffee today. . .Ohhh! Look!  The redness is subsiding and the welts are going down, it must be working. . .”

Husband grunted a laugh, saying, “Yes.  They are a stimulant.  I am going to sleep.”

That’s usually a variation of MY line.

The histamines are being blocked, and the steroids are doing what ever they do, and instead of lumpy, tired and grumpy, I feel rested and wakeful, and cognitively alert.  Yep- this is a drug I could get used to (but for the liver damage and all that. This is NOT, by the way, how I felt as a teenager.  Closer to how I felt in my 30’s).  We’ll see if it gets me through tomorrow and the unseasonably high heat, a parent teacher conference, and a play date at our house with my sons friend- among the usual work of unpacking and getting back into a routine. 

Oh, yeah, and through a monster case of hives.

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?

Is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city? 

Today I suffocated under 4 consecutive hours of a crying 20 month old, and the usual domestic duties.  I told my husband, who came home at 6 p.m. intellectually on fire after participating as a mentor in numerous trying and yet exhilarating grad critiques, that I was jealous.  It had been so long since I had discussed David Byrne’s Big Suit, or the tricky route from symbol to meaning in creative endeavors.  So I cracked open yet another bottle of cheap red wine (now 0 for 6, the other 6 in the past two months having been relegated to cooking use after a first sip), surprised at the irony of finally getting a drinkable glass on this of all days.  Perhaps not irony then, but grace.

Ever seen the movie Network?

Of course you have.  If I have not completely alienated all readers of every stereotypical stripe, what’s left will understand.

It is a true life partner, it is true love, when one melts down and says “I just want to get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow, throw the kids in the car and go to the city for the weekend and feed my head”, and partner says simply “Ok, let’s do it.”  After a moment adding with wry humor, “heck- is it any better to yell at your kids at home or in the city?”

I grew up working class- yes the word class.  The taboo word of not only the academy, but also public life.  Sniff at the socialist whiff, turn to the GOP fantasy and tell me I am obsolete.  My colleagues in academia have already beaten you to it, Race being the “good”, and strangely exclusive, concept of the moment (if 40 years is a moment).  I worked in pizza restaurants at 15, and a string of cheese factories (where I was not asked to sit with women my age at break, on the midnight to 7 shift because I was going to college- I was informed by the matrons on shift- and was perceived as having a way out), temp jobs, restaurant jobs, and other good working class girl wage endeavors while trying to rise beyond, explicitly so, the factory and receptionist life my parents were relegated to and hated.  It was not the honest work; it was the gradual decay of respect and evidence of respect (lost health benefits, wage stagnation, retirement raiding, lay offs and eliminations, dismissals of concerns, rudeness, invisibility) that wore them down.

What is this hybridized identity- so post modern, yet so not cool- that finds me university PhD educated, middle aged and female, discarded and invisible to most.  Bitter?  Angry?  Hell yes.  To a mutual friend of ours who writes “graphic novels” (not to over simplify, but a fancy name for comic books), I said my hero is the middle-aged woman who becomes a vigilante.  Say, have you seen the new series on TV about that?  Yea sure, those glamour pusses are my ideal.  As my niece would say, NOT.

Perhaps you could call upon women writers of 40 years ago, who had rage and understanding in spades.  Say I am “uninformed”, derivative.  I say, No.  I know them.  I have read them.  And that they are still relevant does not negate this space, this life.  After the first blog, I was told I was angry.  I laughed.  Oh yeah, you got it.  Acerbic?  Sarcastic?  Yet still sincere?  Oh my.  Fold another napkin on the fire, and let me apologize for my lack of tact.  NOT.

Think of this as the anti-Ann Coulter.  That scion of current journalism who has never worked an honest day in her life.  And yet, I say you go girl, savor it while you can, because when it all goes away all you’ll be left with is your nasty coke habit and wrinkly neck skin.  Those GOP puppet masters who romanced your rise to fame will run and hide, bounce your emails and treat you as the pariah you are.  You may want to have a feminist moment when this point comes, you may even think you earned it, but you’ll probably find yourself alienated.   Whisper to yourself that you are still good, you are still important, while the world shuns you.  Welcome to the real world baby- if you have not saved, you have not earned- as that female money guru Suze Orman would say.

You want placebo? You want sexy, palatable, mildly amusing mother? Read the syndicated folks.  Those who get paid to entertain.  Enter here, and enter another realm.  My hero Molly Ivins died this past year, and a little bit of my hope went with her.  When Studs (Terkel) goes, I don’t know what I’ll do.  .  . Scream, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more”.  Not that many will notice me without an AK-47, or other armaments- the standard attention getting (and economy riding) devices for all from Dub to the local sad teenager.  I guess middle-aged women are just not threatening or sexy.  Pass the Provigil and the written ammunition. 

Halleluiah. . .get your hands off the scissors!  Get in bed! Where is that damned cooler? 

See you tomorrow at the Smithsonian.