Monday, June 10, 2013

Chincoteague: A love story



Day 1:

When my boyfriend mentioned to me, many months ago that there was an island in Virginia that touted roaming, wild ponies, I became fixated and knew I had to go. The wild horses of Rodanthe are well known and now even more popularized by Nicholas Sparks, but wild ponies in Virginia, the very place I was currently residing? Seemed like fate to me! I have loved horses since before I even knew how to speak. I have pictures as a wee babe, leaning out of my mothers arms to feed a neighboring horse an apple. It's always been love, between us, horses and I that is. The island is named, Chincoteague and it is off the coast of Virginia, right smack on the great big Atlantic. I drove five hours down from D.C. to reach the ponies and the coast. Upon crossing over a marshland onto the small stretch of island that is Chincoteague, my heart was thrumming with delight. Who am I kidding, my heart had been thrumming with delight since I had woken up at six a.m. that morning, a half hour before my alarm even went off, but upon reaching the island, now that was nirvana.
Is that a pony? I narrowed my eyes looking off into dense marshy waters. I saw a brown shape, quite large actually, as I quickly darted my eyes from the road to marshy waters trying to make it out, it seemed rather boxy and maybe more the size of a smallish vessel, not a smallish pony.
Oh no, that looks like a lobster trap of sorts.
Clearly, I was getting ahead of myself.
Upon checking into my hotel, appropriately named the Refuge Inn, near the back of the island, closer to the ponies and having ponies of their own grazing near the parking lot, I was all but rushing to drop my bags in my, it must be noted, beautiful sea-like room and make haste to where the ponies were on the adjacent island of, Assateague. I bought a day-pass for eight dollars and drove on in. No more than a few minutes later and I saw another marshy area on both sides of the paved drive where cars were pulled over. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I expected to see some cranes, really, as it seemed quite happenstance to just pull into the park and bam, see ponies, but that is exactly what happened.
I was near hyperventilation here, turning this way and that, wanting to point and screech,
"Ponies! Wild ponies! Ponies, I say! Are you seeing this?"
But I felt I shouldn't do that with strangers, so I just did it inside my head, as well as clapped.

After driving around the island, pulling off many a time to take pictures of wild life and the surrounding beauty of the island, and dipping my feet in the ocean for a bit in complete bliss, I decided to go explore town, buy some sunblock and plan out my itinerary a bit. My boyfriend would be so proud. Really if he only knew how much of a planner I was while I am on location like that. I say on location, one because it sounds tremendously cool, and two because I really was in Chincoteague for work if you'll believe it. Work of my own doing. If Conde Nast won't send me to write about new places, then I will send myself, silly gooses. So that is what I did. I called up a local hotel, asked for the owner, and inquired what she could tell me about the island, because I wanted to write about it. Not only was she incredibly helpful but when I arrived there was a packet of welcoming information with my name on it. I had never felt more like a writer. And I truly understood why Hemingway chose to live near and write about the sea, as nothing was more fruitful for my creativity than the sound of the sea and the turquoise sea ambiance of my room. My room even smelled like the sea! And cologne, actually, but not like someones crummy leftover cologne, but a lingering deliberate smell. Like a sexy merman might smell. Heavens, but I loved it! Every moment that I wasn't adventuring I spent writing in my seascape room, with red wooden chairs on the little patio outside and overstuffed crisp white bungalow chairs inside. Sheer, bloody perfection if you ask me.
After driving through town and spotting many a quaint sea item for sale: seashells, minnows, duck decoys with just a rinky-dink rusted box for you to leave cash in exchange for your item, pure honor system, I began to see that this town wasn't just the sea and wild ponies. This town had a whole other kind of allure and magic all its own. I pulled over and parked in town to get out and walk around. I peeked in Neptune's bookstore and Sundial Books, two of the most magnificent bookstores I have happened upon and I adore bookstores. Neptune's was a combination of mermaids and the sea, very Hemingway-esque, while Sundial's was two stories, open, airy and sunny with loads of chairs and even window seats to sit, read, or look out on the water. I honestly, could have moved in it was so perfect. I told the owner that her bookstore was exactly what all bookstores should strive to be. Upon seeing that this town had not one, but two sensational bookstores, on top of ponies and seashells for sale, I pretty much wanted to call DC and tell him I wasn't coming back. In fact, I did.

"Oh honey, I love it! It's everything I dreamed! There are lobster fisherman and the sea and the library is the cutest little clapboard white building I have ever seen and it's the library! You know how much I love cute libraries! I want to move here! So, yeah I'm not coming back."
"Yes you are. You have my car."
Such. A. Killjoy.
After finding that every building that housed books was a dream, I started to feel hungry and went looking for seafood. I pulled into a bright multi-colored building that had nets and buoys dangling from the exterior. I couldn't see the sign but it looked like a fish shack to me. There were two men and a woman sitting outside the entrance talking as I walked up. I glanced at the sign and saw that it said Chincoteague Treasures. Oh yes. I asked the man sitting closest to the door if they were still open, he pointed to the open sign and said yes, with a chuckle. I smiled and walked in. If the bookstores in Chincoteague were what bookstores were meant to be, then this treasure store was made just for me. It was overflowing in complete disarray with ropes from ships, bird sculptures, record players, driftwood, buoys, lanterns, old traffic lights, moose antlers--moose antlers! I immediately went to find the lady who had followed me in to ask her the price. She told me the antlers weren't for sale and I was crushed but a little relieved. They would have easily been $500 and I probably would have sold a kidney quick to buy them. I wanted desparately to take a picture of the overflowing sea treasure madness but there were signs that said not to take pictures of the merchandise. I at least needed a picture of the outside of the building because it was equally intriguing. I asked the woman if that would be all right, because I was working on a travel writing piece on the island and she perked up and said,
"You're writing a novel about Chincoteague!"
"No. No. Not a novel. I just have a travel blog. I mean, I am writing a novel, but not about the island." She beamed and went out to ask her husband.
"Can she take pictures? She's writing a novel about Chincoteague!"
I interjected, "I am not writing a novel, just an article."
The man said, "So you want to promote my store, eh? You take pictures then. Of my store, me, my wife." He smiled.

His wife waved her hands at the prospect of being photographed but the man looked genuinely interested in me now. He introduced himself as Harry and his wife as Maria. He was not a small man and he had a grey beard and matching hair, but right away something about him seemed kind and inviting, like he had stories to tell and somehow magnetized I felt compelled to stay and listen. I flurried around photographing the shop at all angles while I felt him eyeing my camera. Once satisfied that I had gotten every angle, Harry motioned for me to come try his wife's homemade pear preserves. Maria brought me out a little dish with spoon, a glass of water and a chair at Harry's insistence.
"Sit, sit. Try the preserves!" He commanded in a congenial tone.
I sat and began to eat, feeling very excited, like something good was about to ensue with Harry and Maria here at this unusual treasure trove in Chincoteague. I couldn't have been more right. While I nibbled on my preserves, good though they were, eating straight jam was a little tough for me without some sort of bread or cracker, but I didn't want to be rude so I ate spoonful after spoonful. Harry asked me about photography and then told me about his business. He pointed out the strawberries he had just bought sitting on a bench near me and talked about a fish tank he bought from a sea captain for $8,900, the only one ever made. Maria came out and asked if I would like some coffee. I nodded a profuse yes and smiled as I wasn't going anywhere. I didn't want to and I got the sense Harry just wanted to visit.
So we visited. I found out both Harry and Maria were Greek. Ah-ha. That explained the beautiful lilts to their voices. I asked Harry about this and he told me he moved from Sparta, Greece to Connecticut when he was sixteen years old. Now I wanted to know everything about Harry! He told me about how he would share his food with the homeless or the alcoholics of Chincoteague, sometimes offering them a beer as well. My heart warmed to him immensely.
Then Harry asked if I would like a glass of cognac. Yes. Yes, I would. He yelled for Maria. "I want her to try the cognac. Bring it out here so she can try it." I saw Maria's eyebrows go up in surprise, but he insisted she bring me some. She dutifully went, gathered three small plastic shot glasses with stems and poured us each a hefty amount. Maria and Harry raised their glasses in a salute and I raised mine to meet theirs.
"To good health and good fortune," Maria said.
"And to you settling down," Harry piped in. I laughed and cheers'd. It was an expensive seven star Greek Cognac, Harry pointed out and it tasted as such, smooth and delicious, but burned a fiery trail down my innards. Now Harry asked if I were twenty-three. I said, twenty-seven. He nodded and said that was the perfect time to settle down. I got quite a kick out of him wanting me to settle down. I hadn't even mentioned DC yet when he asked how long I'd been with my boy. I said 8 months. He nodded and offered to give me some advice on marriage.

I was giddy. Just giddy. This man was kindly and reminded me of my late grandpa Rajala who also loved to visit. I wanted his advice. I wanted it greatly.
This is what he told me:

"Don't be jealous of one another. There is no room for jealousy in marriage, neither you, nor him." I nodded, intently wanting to take notes but not wanting to ruin the moment. "Also. Don't worry about what you're bringing home. If you make $500 a week and he makes $800, don't you pay this and he pays that. You put it together. You share. You are a family and you share and you take care of one another. And it's not important what you make. Don't worry about that. Worry about what you save. I made $12 today and I spent $7 on strawberries. Do you know what I'm saving? $5. And you be faithful to one another! Oh, today you've got the husband going out to the bar and then the wife is doing it. No. You be faithful and loyal to each other! And say he has a bad day and he comes home and is telling you about his boss riding him and this and that and you think I don't want to hear all this, well, why do you suppose God gave you two ears?" he asked me.
"So you could listen twice as much?" I offered.
"No. So it can go in one ear and out the other. Just listen to what he has to say and don't let it bother you. And he'll do the same for you. In one ear, out the other."
At this point an elderly couple looking to be about 75 came into the shop. Harry greeted them kindly. They didn't stay long so when they walked past us again, he asked how long they'd been on their honeymoon. The man paused looking at Harry, confused.
"We're not on our honeymoon."
"Sure you are. How long have you been married?"
"Twenty-eight years," the man replied.
"Well I have been married for forty-three," Harry answered. "I have been on a forty-three year honeymoon." And I loved him.
At this point he yelled for Maria again and told her to bring us some pizza. I laughed to myself wanting to insist that he didn't need to do that, but there seemed to be no point. Harry didn't seem like a person you could argue with. I stayed and ate my delicious pizza, visited some more, including with a friendly older woman who seemed to have all the qualities of a very loving hippy. Harry insisted I photograph her as well and I did.

She was silly and delightful and had more patience than anybody I've come across in my lifetime. Anytime she tried to haggle with Harry on some piece from his shop and he wouldn't budge where I couldn't see a reason not to budge, she smiled like it made no difference and was completely and utterly kind to him. Not that I could imagine being unkind to Harry, but there was something about her that was so full of grace, much more so than the average lovely individual. It was astounding to me, the kindness and love radiating from her, and Harry and Maria. Honestly, I felt changed from meeting all three of them. Eventually the conversation died down and the hippy left and Harry still insisted on entertaining me, showing me an African mandolin made out of a melon and strumming on it while waiting for another picture to be taken of him. I did. It was getting late and I knew I still had loads on the island to see so I thanked Harry and Maria profusely for all their kindness and wisdom and said I had to be going.
"You come back tomorrow and see me," Harry said.
"I will do my best."
"Well, you are welcome here anytime," he smiled. Maria nodded and told me what a beautiful girl I was, while Harry reminded me to settle down. I beamed, feeling warm from the entire interchange, the cognac and the hot sea air. I waved goodbye and lazily made my way back to my steaming car.

Day Two:

I wanted to bike everywhere! I had wheels and I would not be reigned in! The Refuge Inn has a very handy bike shanty with bikes available for rental and I picked one up the night before to cruise around at sunset. Immediately I was reminded of, who else, but Hemingway and a quote I once read from him:

"It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle."

I didn't know why I hadn't bicycled around every place I'd ever been before, because darn it all if Ernest wasn't right! It was the way to see the world! And straightaway after my waffle, banana and coffee from the complimentary breakfast, I hopped back on my bike with that exact intention. I wanted to explore the whole of the island of Assateague, the island that housed the wild ponies. I wanted to see all the hidden trails, more animals and birds, the lighthouse and of course, be one with the ocean. How could I not? I happily pedaled in and out of every trail I spotted, feeling very connected to Mother Nature, very present and blissful, pausing on my bike to photograph trees, or marshland. There were rabbits, a deer darted out right in front of me, snowy egrets, and ample pony poop which should have excited me that the wild ponies were so near, but of course my frantic mind played a worse-case scenario of me coming upon a wild pony herd on my bicycle and the ponies immediately becoming suspicious of me and trampling me while I screamed, No, ponies, no! I came upon a mystery shack that was in the ocean resting precariously on wooden stilts, that looked long forgotten about. I felt like I was on Treasure Island and had just discovered something precious and wonderful that no one else knew was there. I think it was being alone that was having this affect on me.



Then I biked around the island to the beach. I walked up to the ocean after locking up my bike, snapped a few photos and then quickly disrobed down to bathing suit and made my way to the water's edge.

Now, here's the thing. I am crazy over the sea. I have a clipper ship tattooed on my arm. My entire bedroom is a salute to water, ships, and lighthouses. On countless occasions in my life I have proclaimed that the sea was calling to me and I must go! However, with that being said, I am slightly scared to swim in the ocean. Which really rankles me as I am a free-spirited and bold adventurer; I can't have limitations! See, I grew up in Michigan surrounded by the Great Lakes. These lakes are vast, deep and ocean-like in their own right as they go for miles upon miles with no opposite shoreline in sight, however they are crystal clear and when I swim in them, I can be as far out as my neck and still see my feet. This is a fact I have always taken great comfort in as I don't care for seaweed, murky waters, or the possibility of unknown sea creatures grazing my feet while I swim. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that more often than not, I have worn water shoes well into adulthood while swimming in a lake where I couldn't see the bottom because my nerves just can't handle the unknown. Ask my boyfriend about how well I reacted the other day to a cicada landing on my shoulder and you will understand how I feel about a slimey fish grazing my foot in some murky depths.
The ocean combines my nervousness over murky unsettled waters and stories I have heard about shark attacks and jelly-fish incidents involving a sting in shallow water and then having to pee on yourself. So being my dramatic self, before I even set one toe in the salty water I already was convinced I spotted a fin darting in a zig-zag pattern in the distance. My heart stopped and then picked up, accompanied by the soundtrack to Jaws immediately playing in my head. I squinted my eyes and looked closely. On second thought it kind of seemed more like a duck than the fin of a shark but I was still leery. Then I spotted a man fishing straight from shore, nearby with large fishing poles that were wedged into the sand for support. Oh dear lord! What could he catch with those? I inched away from him and closer to the gaggle of children running and dive-bombing the waves. That seemed the best place to swim, by the brave five-year olds.

I waded in, little bit by little bit until I was up to about mid-calve. That was fine, I thought, because the waves were gigantic that day and when they swooped in and hit me, it got me wet all the way up to my neck. I don't count it as a swimming experience unless I dunk, so I was gearing myself up to move out a little deeper and submerge but I was so nervous anytime so much as an errant piece of sand grazed my foot and I mistook it for an eel or piranha--wait, mental catalog are there piranhas in the ocean? Nope, I think that's the Amazon my mind supplied. Okay, so it was probably an eel, then but like that's better--I would shimmy all the way back to ankle depth in the water until my nerves weren't requiring a Xanax and then make my way back into the waves. I glanced over to my left where the young girls were playing. They were up to their chests and neck in the waves, much further out than me. Okay, that's a little embarrassing. Who were these advanced swimmers making me look bad?
Then I realized that all four little girls were moving forward in the surf in a line while holding hands. Oh that's the way to do it girls, a buddy system! That way if one of you goes down by shark, the rest of you can see it coming and scatter. Brilliant. I wanted to go over and see about getting in on their ingenious hand-holding system, but I felt the watching mother might mistake me for a pervert. I already had my explanation ready.

It's okay, ma'am. I am the oldest of ten. I am really good with kids.

Nope. Still wouldn't work. I would surely look like a creep. Well, drats, I thought, they really are able to have much more fun in the ocean when they've got back-up like that, but whatever, I guess I just had to get as brave as a seven year old and push forward, with or without hand holding. After many tries of going forward until I was up to my thighs, then feeling something touch my foot (it was sand every time, being pulled up by the strong waves) I got skittish still convinced I was about to be attacked and featured on CNN in a pool of my own pee or blood and back-tracked to the shallow shore. But I did eventually just start face-planting into the waves so I could consider it a dunk in the ocean and could then proudly proclaim I swam in the ocean on a Thursday afternoon while everyone else I knew was being a slave to the man. Ha. Ha. Ha.
After my ocean swimming debut was official I proudly walked out of the sea and back up to my mound of clothes and put them back on nonchalantly. I didn't leave without first collecting seashells and listening to the waves hit the shore. There is nothing in this world so beautiful as the sound of waves crashing onto land. Well, that and when babies coo. Or my parents laugh. Those are my top favorite sounds.
I was mesmerized and then had to stop and place what the sound reminded me of. The salty waves racing up to shore, gaining momentum and then collapsing on themselves at the shoreline, made a fizzing sound, like the opening of a shook up bottle of pop, then when the waves slipped back to the sea, I watched the bubbles dissolving from a white foam, to a luminous sparkle as they scurried and dissipated on their way back to where they came from.
I very begrudgingly left the sea. As soon as I was out of it, though I missed it. I went back in one more time, and my nerves no stronger for having just spent a half an hour frolicking came right back and I turned around and went back to shore. I didn't bring a towel, but I figured the wind could dry me on the bike ride back to the hotel. I stopped at the lighthouse on the island and photographed it.
By the time I cruised into the parking lot of my hotel I was sweaty again from the several hours long bike ride and felt like there was a bucket of sand left over from the ocean, waiting to fall out of my bathing suit the moment I stepped off my bike.



I realized something while biking through the forests of Assateague, the streaming sunshine, smelling the sea air and feeling as free as those wild ponies, that there was a reason I despised closed spaces of any kind, as well as always finding horses so relatable, almost on a primal level, not just love but understanding. I am not someone who can be reigned in. There is a reason I find it hard to work any job for more than a year because I start to feel trapped and corralled and like I need to break free.
No waitressing, or cashier job has ever been able to hold me for too long because in the deepest recesses of my soul, I know I am meant to be out exploring the world, writing about it, introducing myself to every creature, ponies and wise old Greek men, alike. I felt a deep connection to Chincoteague, this island that is known for the wild ponies, but made a sincere impression on me in the way of kindness and goodness.
Not a single person who helped me made me feel like it was just because I was a tourist and might spend money. One man who was mowing the lawn at a shop in town offered to put my bike in the back while I shopped, then brought it back out for me when I was done. Others riding their bikes through town smiled and waved. Seeing the tin boxes to put money in for seashells on the side of the road all speaks to a kind of honesty and good intention you don't see much of anymore, or at least I haven't in a long while. This trip wasn't just good for me as a writer, to feel empowered and full of purpose, seeing and exploring a new place, then writing about it, it reached me on a very intimate human level and I felt incredible for having met Chincoteague in all its splendor. It so moved me that upon returning home, and not smelling the freshness of the sea and surrounding marshland and feeling enveloped in a sort of warm inviting community, I simply cried myself to sleep. I yearned for more.

I offer a sincere wish that you put Chincoteague Island, on your list of places to visit in life. Stop in and see Harry, admire the ponies and their wild freedom, take a moment to feel like Hemingway, bicycling included, and just be present. Present enough to notice every single sound the sea makes, flicker of the wind through your hair, and innate kindness of strangers. I say, it will be more than worth it.


3 comments:

Stephanie Jane said...

Oh my good God. I love this post so much I could burst!!! I saw it this morning when I do my morning check-out-all-my-internet-things, but I purposefully saved it until tonight when I could take my time and I am SO GLAD that I did! Oh my heavens, you completely captured your adventure in your pictures and words, I felt like I was right there with you! I LOVED the part about Harry and Maria! And I laughed out loud, REALLY LOUD by myself in the kitchen when I read the "No, ponies! No!" (LOL...again!) And then I almost hit my head on the counter when you said that you read somewhere about jellyfish stinging you and having to pee on yourself. OHMYGOD I LAUGHED!! :D I just loved it. It made me want to go there so badly! It sounded just perfect, I'm so happy that you finally made it to the ocean and had such an incredible experience. If I had more money than time, I would completely and independently fund your travel pieces (Conde Nast be damned!). You have outdone yourself this time, my friend. Love love love!! Thanks for that mini vacation, I didn't even need to leave my kitchen! :) You are so fabulous. I am sharing this blog because it is too good to keep to myself. Keep these coming, lady! I'll eat them up!

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I have been visiting Chincoteague for Pony Penning almost every summer since 1995. It is truly my second home. I love it when someone really "gets" how special and beautiful this island is.

I am 9 days away from my next visit and am trying to make the wait better by visiting anything I can find about Chincoteague on the web when I found your post. You have told me something I never knew before. Now I want to meet Harry and Maria.

When you go back, do NOT neglect to take a nature cruise with Captain Barry - and get a boogie board. You'll never look at the ocean the same way again!

Cynthia Torola said...

I so enjoyed reading this Cassandra! It made me feel as if I were there! Thanks for taking me away for brief mental vacation!:) Love you lots!