One thing I learned on Chincoteague Island last week is that Chesapeake Bay breezes do not impede the mosquitoes that congregate one or two blocks inland after a hard rain soaks back roads made from dirt and crushed seashells. Walking an agreeable little dog becomes a full-contact sport for anyone not wearing mosquito repellent.
Despite the pesky mosquitoes, a vacation in Chincoteague timed to coincide with the annual Pony Penning Day left a pleasant jumble of equine and nautical impressions in its wake, together with a family consensus that we like the place well enough to visit it again.
Marguerite Henry put that part of Virginia on the map with an award-winning story in 1947. She could not then have known that seafood stands on the island would now be run by two brothers, or that you cannot dance a tango there without bumping up against a handful of cemeteries, most of them yard-sized plots named for pioneer families or fraternal societies like the Mechanics and the Oddfellows. Main Street has beach-themed shops and an indoor mall that looks as if it will go belly-up without more foot traffic.
We skipped an aquarium the size of a ping-pong table and a chance to go parasailing (“no skill required,” the brochure promised), but made three different visits to the Island Creamery, where “Banana Caramba” eventually edged “Java Nirvana” for the top spot in my pantheon of ice cream flavors.
Pony Penning Day is a tourist draw for all the right reasons: the ponies are beautiful if sometimes scrawny-looking, and proceeds from the auction at which wild foals are sold buy equipment for the volunteer fire department whose “saltwater cowboys” help round up the ponies and drive them from one island to the next across the open water of a narrow channel.
We rented kayaks to watch the festivities, with 10-year-old Jane sitting in front of me and 11-year-old Thomas sitting in front of my wife. Our daughter had already tested the waterproof cast on her right arm, so our main concern was that she not exert herself too much. We need not have worried. Jane was happy to let me do the work of holding our kayak steady while we waited for slack tide to spur the horses of the Saltwater Cowboys into action.
Coast Guard patrol boats kept the passage between Assateague and Chincoteague islands free of obstacles by buzzing the flotilla of watercraft keeping the same vigil we were. The pony swim itself lasts just a few minutes, but it was a sight to see, even as it exposed the inadequacies of cheap point-and-shoot cameras like mine. Judging by the prints on offer from official photographers, really good photos require some combination of long lenses, relatives in the fire department, and helicopters.
In the paddle back to the marina afterward, another tourist mishandled his own kayak enough to drench my wife and son with seawater, effectively drowning the Blackberry in her pocket. He perhaps had not learned that Internet-enabled cell phones carried by realtors are not to be messed with. Fortunately, a kindly stranger later kept that annoyance from becoming more annoying by letting Cathleen check email on one of the computers in the little library that occupies the oldest wood frame building on the island.
I never did find out whether the Amish teenagers loitering in the bed of an F-250 super duty pickup truck drove back to Pennsylvania after the pony auction; they might well have lived elsewhere in Virginia. The distinctive clothing of the Amish (hand-sewn pants and suspenders for boys; smocks and skirts for girls) looked surprisingly chic, because they accented basic black with shirts or blouses of royal purple, floral orange, pale blue, and olive green. At least one teenager not yet old enough to grow a patriarchal beard even wore mirrored sunglasses. In any event, the Amish wardrobe contrasted vividly with the shorts and t-shirts almost everyone else was wearing. These old-fashioned people cannot be blamed for mass-producing signs like “My horse is smarter than your honor student.”
Virginia’s eastern shore groans with seafood places but is short on variety of the culinary kind. On Chincoteague, there are no Spanish-speaking owls: a restaurant whose chairs proclaim that it would be called “El Tecolote” anywhere else goes by the name of “That Mexican Place.” Unlike the deli counter at the only grocery store in town (down two days because a fryer went on the fritz) or the Refuge Waterfowl and Decoy Museum (closed for unspecified reasons), That Mexican Place was open. While the food there is not up to the standard set by establishments in California and Arizona, it keeps pace with anything found in the land of hush puppies where we live now.
Ponies whose lineage can be traced back to the Misty of Marguerite Henry’s novel are treated like rock stars in that vicinity, but both Chincoteague and Assateague Islands are also prized by bird watchers. Egrets stand sentinel in the marsh grass, and we spent one afternoon on Assateague Beach listening to ragged surf play bass lines under the tenor squawking of at least three different kinds of sea gulls.
When Pony Penning Day had passed, we decamped from our cottage of sloping floors and uncomfortable beds to buy time on a pontoon boat from a friendly guy with an elfin blonde Russian assistant who keeps the TV in her bayfront office tuned to the Weather Channel even though “the Weather Channel always lies.”
Jane wanted to end our vacation by crabbing, and Thomas warmed to that idea because by then he had run out of books, so when we were done with the pontoon boat, the two of them pestered the “Boat Rental Marta” for crabbing instructions. With line, hooks, net, and frozen chicken necks in hand, we caught three blue crabs in about thirty minutes.
We’re not likely to make it back to the island for its Blueberry or Oyster Festivals, or class Misty with legendary horses like Seabiscuit and Traveler, but Chincoteague — and awesome wifely planning — gave us a fine American vacation. The next time a breeze stirs the humid air of a Carolina summer day, our thoughts are going to arc northeast.