My story about Assateague actually begins in Avalon, New Jersey, where we visited last year. Despite good trips to pleasant, family-oriented Ocean City as a teenager and a previous visit to Cape May, we hadn’t exactly been sold on the idea of a New Jersey beach. Blame it on the Sopranos and all those depressing post-industrial Springsteen songs.
New Jersey Turnpike
ridin’ on a wet night
‘neath the refinery’s glow,
out where the great black rivers flow….
Yech–I don’t even want to think about The Magic Rat and his sweet machine.
But we’d heard Avalon was quaint, we’d been tubing on the Delaware River, and were heading south to take a dolphin viewing boat ride in Cape May, then cross the bay on the ferry to Loews on our way to–you guessed it–Assateague.
All I can say about Avalon is: what a shame. Avalon is a funky little town on a pleasant scale, no high rises and lots of small businesses. The beaches are beautiful and wide, with wonderful dunes. It was easy to park, there wasn’t much traffic, even on a Saturday, I thought, at first: now this is the kind of place where I might actually invest in a rental home that would one day be my retirement home.
And then I stepped on to the beach: $24 for my family of four for a day stung a little bit, but it’s New Jersey and beach tags are a tradition–they’re just not satisfied with the billions of dollars that visitors spend at businesses and on rentals each summer. Still, it’s cheaper than a movie, and they do keep the beaches spotless, so it’s hard to complain.
What I will complain about is the authoritarian approach Avalon’s beach patrol takes to regulate and restrict behavior. On a crowded Saturday, swimming was restricted to a small areas, perhaps 120 feet, between pairs of lifeguard stands, each of which was staffed by a pair of young guards. Additionally, although the surf was rather weak and there was virtually no undertow, a third guard stalked back and forth about 40 feet off shore, menacing anyone who dared to wade past her in the waist deep water (I’m 6′ 3 and had to squat just to get my head into a wave and get wet).
It was shoulder to shoulder, literally too crowded to swim, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only visitor who gazed longingly at the vast expanses of forbidden surf outside the guarded zones–easily 90 percent of the beach is off-limits not just to swimming, but apparently even to touch. I repeatedly saw lifeguards whistling folks walking down the beach, when the water lapped up against their ankles. Who walks on the hot sand and doesn’t want to slap their feet in the surf where it rolls on shore?
Playing catch is also forbidden. Furious whistle blowing followed the appearance of any thrown object–I asked the young beach tag checker girl and she told me that “sometimes you can play catch in the soft sand near the dunes, but not today.” Several striking young women were, however, permitted to play bocce under the close surveillance of the young men in the lifeguard stands.
A teen with the family next to us on the beach was whistled when he jogged down towards the surf. “No running on the beach!”
What? I had to ask about that, so I wandered over to the lifeguard stand and asked. I was told “People can fall and get hurt, and they sometimes kick sand on other people,”
I laughed, couldn’t help it, and the young man said. “If you have a problem I can get my supervisor down here and we’ll see how funny that is. Let’s see your beach tag!”
I shrugged, walked back to my towel, and held the tag up for him to see–and he flipped me the middle finger. In a different world, I wait for the kid to end his work day and do a little amateur orthopedic work on that obviously malfunctioning finger. It wouldn’t be flopping around like that shoved up his….
I honestly don’t know why anyone goes to this beach, except that it seemed most of the folks didn’t even bother trying to swim. It was a sit on your butt and stare beach. It was even impossible to sleep, with near-constant whistling and some asshat ringing a freaking cowbell every half hour (it turns out this was a ice cream salesperson, but my Pavlovian responses didn’t get the signal–it was just irritating.)
I’ve tried to avoid the obvious metaphors here, but being herded into a tight space by arrogant, authoritarian young Aryan men (and women) elicited some rather gruesome comparisons. We strolled the pleasant shops in the quaint business district after our time on the beach, but were ultimately too resentful of our experience to put much backbone into shopping–before bidding not adieu, but goodbye, to Avalon, never to return again.
And what does this have to do with Assateague? Well, at the very same time we were suffocating in the oppression embrace of Avalon’s nanny state, the tides uncovered a substantial quantity of unexploded, World War 2 vintage ordnance, and the response was to send for come guys to blow it up. You know, just in case. That section of beach was closed for half a day, and when the work was done the authorities retreated and it was back to laid-back summer at the beach–kites flying, surfers surfing, fishers fishing, frisbees flying, soccer balls being kicked, and sand castles being built. You can build a sand castle at Avalon but it’s illegal to dig a hole someone might step into, and when you leave the beach you have to flatten your castle so no one trips over it.
In Assateague you swim and if you drown the National Park Service will eventually get someone over to assist in removing your cold, wet corpse–unless you happen to fall into a turtle nest, in which case you’ll have to wait until after the hatch. And rightly so. If a horse bites you, someone will be by to take your statement, and to chastize you for pissing off the horse.
In short, you get to be human, responsible, and free. It’s presumed that you’ll be smart enough to not drown, or step in a hole, or fall face first in a sand castle, and I like that a lot….
Tuesday started well. I woke around 530 and thrashed around a while, finally dragging my sluggish butt, a camp chair, and my stack of pulp science fiction novels down to the beach–David Weber’s take on the old Keith Laumer “BOLO” stories, which was pretty cool, and an old Sci Fi Book Club anthology of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes: Lieutenant of the Survey Services stories. I’m enjoying both immensely–the Bolos are super-powerful sentient battle tanks that lend themselves to some heavy duty metaphorical thoughts about the nature of service, sacrifice, and war while the John Grimes stories are just good old fashioned testosterone-addled space adventures from the days when writers imagined rocket ships landing fins-down on strange and distant worlds. A lot of people don’t get that good speculative fiction, whether it’s space opera or fantasy or whatever, is rarely just about what it looks like it’s about on the surface, and I love that.
The family joined me a little later, and we spent the increasingly cloudy morning swimming in the still-welcoming waves, drying off, and reading. Around noon it began to look like rain, and an hour later we were safely at an Outlet Mall in OCMD–if by safely I mean that we fought out way into the parking lot and found a space. Actually, my wife followed a guy back to his car and begged him to wait for a few minutes until I navigated the gridlocked lot to take his place–how about that for some bold points? I was suitably impressed–things were getting very Darwinian in that lot, more cars than spaces circling like vultures and approaching a state of gridlock. I smelled anarchy and trembled–my wife never flinched.
Outlets…shopping…I try to be a good sport about it, and did pretty well in the first place we went, holding things that the women in my life may or may not want to try on at some distant, foggy point in the future, but after a couple of these store visits I relegated myself to the row of husbands and fathers leaning against walls and posts on the sidewalk in front of the stores. We made some good bonds out there, commiserating and reassuring each other that this, too, would pass. I talked to a young man with a couple of small children–one about 3 in a stroller, enraptured by a handheld electronic game, the other a baby in his arms, and mused about the obvious thing these outlets need: a sports bar for men. At one point, he shook his head and said, “I was 18 when I went to Bosnia. Three trips to Iraq, twice to Afganistan–you think it couldn’t get worse, then you come home and your wife takes you to the outlets.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that one, then he cracked a big smile and laughed. “Nah, this isn’t like war. It’s just as boring, all the waiting, but in a war you at least get to fight back, eventually.” Then he kissed his little baby on the forehead and said, “This isn’t so bad, though.”
No, it wasn’t–and when my family finally emerged it was with demands that I find something to buy for myself, but they never have my shoe size–14–at these places, and I just got some new shirts about 8 years ago. There’s nothing I need, short of one of those $400 stand mixers, and the truth of the matter is that my vintage Sunbeam does everything I need. Since it looked like the rain wouldn’t be stopping, my wife suggested an alternative….
“Let’s go see that movie you want to see.” She said. “The raccoon movie.”
The raccoon movie! I didn’t need to be asked twice–we had a daughter use her magic telephone to get movie times and split, heading inland to Salisbury, MD because we were confidant that 26 miles of highway driving would be faster than crossing the gridlocked bridge and driving through 107 blocks of rain-day Ocean City traffic.
As we headed east, the rain increased from sprinkles to drizzle to wall of water that seemed like a fire hose was aimed at our windshield. We tried not to think of our tent back on Assateague, where we’ve been driven off the island by storms and flash floods twice before over the past decade. We had several days on reservations left and weren’t going anywhere.
Our denial was made easier by “the raccoon movie,” Guardians of the Galaxy, the perfect matinee–funny, exciting, plenty of tongue-in-cheek–just the kind of thing to crawl into and disappear for a few hours on a rainy day, which is what it’s about, right? I would have sat through it a second time, absolutely.
Eventually, we had to face the inevitable–our campsite back at Assategue had been pummeled by the storm. A small tear in the rain fly and been wind-twisted into major damage, and the rain made it’s way inside, soaking all of our sleeping bags and pillows. We agonized even as we tightened the guy lines and replaced the loose spikes, should we give up, suck it up, or retreat to a motel–if we could find one–and deal with it in the morning. Consensus favored the latter, and we actually struck out on a search only to stop about 2 miles from the campground. “We’ll never find a room,” I said. “We should suck it up, deal with this, whatever–worst case, we’re awake all day and we sleep on the beach in the sun tomorrow.”
It seemed like we just needed someone to say it–back we went, sleeping under a few old blankets, jerry-rigged pillows. I slept in my fleece jacket instead of a blanket–fleece stays warm despite being damp. In the morning, the sun rose into a clear blue sky–draw what conclusions and lessons you may, but we stuck it out and were rewarded.
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.
We’ve been back from our annual trip to Assateague Island National Seashore for about 4 hours now–the van in unpacked, the laundry is going, and the rest of family has stumbled off to sleep after a vacation that was, in parts, relaxing and invigorating.
Before I tell you about it, I want to apologize for some stupid empty posts. In my cleverness, I used the magic of the WordPress Dashboard’s scheduling feature to load up a bunch of posts, the object being to continue to entertain my kind, deeply appreciated readers even as I lay basking and baking 6 hours distant from my computer. And I flubbed it. Two placeholder posts made their way to the mysterious interwebs, where I have determined to keep them–as evidence of my incompetence–only shortly, after which time they will vanish into the ether and I will begin systematically denying their existence. Truly.
So, Assateague–it’s like this: Paradise. Now, before you sign up (and make it harder for us to get our reservations), let me elaborate on Paradise: It has uncrowded beaches, even on broiling hot weekends in August, a 10pm quiet hour, and abundant wildlife. It also has no electricity for guests, no hot water (that’s right: ice cold showers, which I’ll talk about later on), sporadic cellular telephone coverage and no wifi. None. The abundant wildlife includes wild ponies that will bite you, steal your food, wreck your campsite, tear down your tent, and teach your little kids a whole damn lot about reproduction–right there on the beach. The other premier species at Assateague, for which it is equally famous, is the mosquito–numerous varieties, in varying degrees of size, tenacity, and itch-factor. If you aren’t up to dealing with mosquitos, Assateague isn’t your place.
In fact, one of my daughters just stumbled out of her bedroom (it’s around 1am) moaning and near tears because she can’t find where her sister left the calamine lotion. At present, she has 27 visible bite marks on her body and may very well go crazy from the itching. We’ll see. I tend to think that it is the scratching that causes the increased irritation. The bites I got all faded within 45-60 minutes, and I adamantly resist scratching. My wife and daughters all scratch, and their itches persist for days, sometimes…OH, IT SEEMS THAT I’M RIGHT! LOOK, GIRLS, AT WHAT DADDY JUST RESEARCHED ON THE MAGICAL MYSTERY INTERWEBS! You want to stop the itch, just let it be. BAM!
And there we go–a trip report in multiple installments to follow. I just wanted to get in here and apologize for those faulty posts–I’ll make ’em up to you this weekend and into next week with plenty of new, original content. It may not be interesting, or even any fun, but it will be new.