Every year for the past decade or so we’ve made a summer sojourn down to Assateague Island National Seashore in southern Maryland–an unintended tradition which, I suppose, reflects equal parts stubborn nostalgia, lack of creativity, and complicated summer schedules filled with commitments. Most years we say things like “if we go back next year,” as if our return is in doubt, but we do. We always do. Well, maybe not next year…
My family believes that I’m a madman–a silly, opinionated, unreasonable, self-parody of a man, lovable despite his quirks, not because of them–and occasionally not lovable at all. I don’t blame them in the least. This year I had them up at 4am, for a 5am departure. I have my reasons, which are largely based on the fact that it’s fun and exciting to leave so early. However superstitious, and vaguely disturbing this predilection for pre-dawn casting off that I harbor may be, I observe it as law. Pharaoh has spoken. And they don’t so much obey as they do indulge me. The fact remains, any adventurous trip should begin well before nautical sunrise, if at all possible. To do otherwise is to court disaster–or at least to miss the cool, silent streets on the way out of town, the darkened, empty highway, and that first faint finger of violet sunrise along the horizon.
Our path took us to Breezewood, PA–infamous Town of Motels--where so many of the highway-related adventures of so many childhoods began. I will someday wax poetic at length about Breezewood, but not today. For now, all you need to know is that here, at the junction of Interstates 70 and 76, much of the traffic moving between the mid-Atlantic, the Carolinas, and points south and north and west converge upon a mile or so of gas stations and restaurants–not so many motels anymore, but it’s a good nickname. We stopped to switch drivers and tank up on coffee at a Sheetz Store–another Pennsylvania marvel that deserves a post all it’s own–then headed south on 70, out of the rolling ridges of southern Pennsylvania into the broad coastal plain of the mid-Atlantic.
It’s been tough for me, as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who despises the Baltimore Ravens, to grudgingly accept but over the years Maryland has grown into my affections–from the familiar Appalachian terrain of the panhandle to the southern tip of the Eastern Shore, the state possesses a magnificent diversity of geography, geology, culture, climate, and economics. Like West Virginia, it is both north and south, but it has the additional characteristics of it’s substantive maritime culture, mile after mile of coastline along both the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.
A few hours from Breezewood we were refilling the gas tank and our coffee tankards outside Annapolis, Maryland by, making great time on pleasantly unpopulated highways. We always stop at the same WaWa Store–WaWa being a Sheetz wannabe that can’t…ever….quite…catch up to it’s intrastate rival–and it’s our first real taste of vacation. The store is always crowded, the pumps full of cars loaded down with gear, RVs, and vehicles towing boats. In the bathroom this time, I was treated to “Theme from Shaft” by Issac Hayes…and you know by now how I love poetry.
Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
You’re damn right
Who is the man
That would risk his neck for his brother man?
Can ya dig it?
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about
You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother
(Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)
He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
A few miles down the road we hit the Chesapeake Bay, and with it the dreaded Chesapeake Bay Bridge–two bridges, actually, that span the bay side by side, both of which are nausea-inducing to landlocked, weak-stomached candy-asses like me. Tens of thousands–if not hundreds of thousands, I really do not know–cross that monstrosity every day, many commute over it daily, but let’s be clear: I really hate that goddamn bridge–quite possibly because none of the parts match. Look at the photo
Just look at that and tell me it doesn’t look like something cobbled together out of spare parts. None of the sections match. Yep, hate it.
Fortunately, we survived the crossing. This time. We made Berlin, Maryland by noon, shopped for a few groceries at Food Lion–a grocery store chain that really seems to be on it’s last legs if the stores in Berlin and Ocean City are any indication. From there, we officially shut off the air conditioning and opened the windows–7 miles to the beach and we’re not going to miss that first scent of saltwater. We were pleased to note it was already 81 degrees, as we have been experiencing one of the coolest summers in recent memory at home. Soon enough we were passing over Sinepuxent Bay, the verdant finger of Assateague, a barrier island, spread out before us, the welcome stink of salt marsh in the hot breeze–mmm, mmmm good, the smell of summer.
Like I said in the previous post, there are a plenty of reasons not to like Assateague, all of which you should take to heart before booking a vacation somewhere else–somewhere far from me. Wild ponies, descendents of shipwreck survivors over 300 years ago, roam the island like they own the place, snarling traffic, destroying camp sites, biting and kicking misbehaving tourists, and–let’s be blunt–eating whatever they want, shitting on everything and screwing like mad. It’s a lot like college, really.being a wild horse. There is no electricity, no shade, little windbreak, and no hot water. The mosquitoes and carnivorous flies defy conventional description.
We waited in line to check in and made our way to our site–little indication of the mosquitoes at first, and quickly set up our camp: tent, sleeping gear, screen tent, Coleman stove, etc. All food and related items must stay in the car, or the horses will eat through whatever stand between them and your potato chips–leading to the counter-productive necessity of buying ice to keep a cooler cold, then placing said cooler in a vehicle that will quickly reach 180 degrees. Think of it as putting ice cream in the oven. The alternative is to try and hide it–but the horses are small. They’ll tear down your tent on the basis of an odor, rip the top off a closed cooler with shocking dexterity, and this time I even observed a determined quartet stick their heads beneath an RV–twisting their necks the way I do to eat a taco–to retrieve large Rubbermaid containers that the owners had thought safe. The horses then removed the lids from the containers and ate the contents, boxes and plastic and all.
With our site set, we changed down to suits and hit the sand–it was crowded by Assateague standards, which means groups were separated from each other by not much more than 15-20 feet. Think about that for a minute. The photo above is actually from Assateague State Park, a much more densely developed location, and shows conditions more than twice as crowded as any I’ve ever seen at the National Seashore. Of course, they have warm showers at the State Park (you should go there, not where I go.)
Back home, temperatures were in the low 70s and raining. It was crystal clear and 86 on the island, with gentle surf and water temps pushing 80. Our first few days were identically perfect, except for the mosquitoes that emerged at night. We didn’t let it deter us from watching the full moon and a sky loaded with stars.