Each year (or more often if I can make it) I make a sort of pilgrimage to a set of barrier islands off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. Assateague is a long, low dragon shape, stretched across the MD/VA border. Chincoteague lies like a tiny egg inside the curve of Assateague's "tail" (The Hook). Assateague is home to wild horses, waterfowl, and sea life. Chincoteague is home to watermen, saltwater cowboys, art galleries and nifty shops, and the only wild horse roundup on the east coast.
First, the pirate ship. Lewes DE lies on the edge of DelMarVa. Occasionally, during the summer, it is the home port of a "pirate ship", the Kalmar Nyckel, a glorious big blue wedding cake of a vessel, carved and decorated and square rigged and cannoned, with a leaping lion on the bow and merrows on the stern and fighting tops aloft (so the crew can go, literally, "over the top"). A reproduction of the 1638 ship that brought the first settlers to Wilmington DE (New Sweden then), she does "pirate sails" out of Lewes, out into the open waters of the Delaware Bay. The guests are invited to help haul on lines, to sing sea shanties, to perch on windlass or cannon, to take ridiculously cool pictures of themselves with a set of 1630's rigging or deck carvings as the set. The crew is in period garb. They climb picturesquely aloft... with a purpose; to set the 17th century windmachine that will haul us out into the High Seas without fossil fuels (mostly, they do have backup engines). One young man tells a fun tale of a kid who becomes a pirate for a day. Another talks about the real history (and misconceptions) of the Golden Age of Piracy. We learn Captain Lauren's last name is Morgan... we think she's a lot cooler than the guy on the rum bottle. We form a line and help set a tops'l. It's a lot harder than jumping in the car and turning a key. The Helmsman steers from a cubbyhole about the size of Harry Potter's closet. There is a huge stick (the whipstaff) attached to a tiller below the deck he's standing on, (the tiller attaches to the rudder, the whipstaff gives some mechanical advantage to the mere human attempting to heave the 100 foot ship on a new course). From HP's closet, the helmsman can see masts, yards, deck stuff, tourists, more tourists, rigging, and a tiny bit of water to port and another tiny bit to starboard. He mostly listens to the orders coming from the Captain, above. We set only the tops'ls (the big square bits above the bigger square bits on the masts... masts = levers that the wind pushes on... a light wind pushing on sails higher up... topsails... is more efficient) as the wind is very light, and the deck is very full (of tourists). We also set the sprit tops'l.
The wha??? you say. Pay attention, this is significant. The boat has a big pointy thing in front: the bowsprit. It helps hold the whole thing together (standing rigging runs through the bowsprit and the masts, like a big string puzzle). The bowsprit on a 17th century Dutch vessel of this type has a sprits'l (a square sail slung low on the bowsprit like a baby's bib) and a sprit topsail, hung a bit higher. Kalmar is the only ship in the western hemisphere to have a sprit tops'l, and she doesn't usually set it. There's a guy from some museum ( in, I believe it was Sweden) who is sailing the next day to study how this works (they have an original vessel of this time period, raised from where it sank in a harbor on its maiden voyage; it was preserved by freshwater in the port... and the sewage... all of which created an anaerobic environment which preserved the ship).
Not quite as ordinary as boarding a comuter flight to Miami.
Somewhere in the midst of the voyage, over the ship's radio, comes the earthquake report.
Back in PA, my uncle is sitting in the car, in a parking lot, waiting for my aunt. He feels someone "shaking the car"...turns around to see no-one.
Kalmar sails back to port with no rumbles felt, no tsunamis seen. We get some pirate booty (T-shirt, a cool line drawing of Kalmar) and I head south by land.
Chincoteague VA, island of the wild ponies, made famous by a 1940s book, Misty of Chincoteague (and 60s film) by Marguerite Henry. I saw it first in 1972, the last year Misty (the pony in the story) was alive. I toured her stable, saw her snoozing in the back corner of her stall (she was old, and her palomino gold color was faded to sand), and didn't take a picture (the flash would have disturbed her). She died a few months later. I never got the picture.
I park, find my buddies, we eat dinner, and someone produces a set of DVDs of a short run TV series called Firefly. It's a sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi/western with a crew of pirate-smuggler-privateer types flying under the radar of the Evil Totalitarian Government that controls the galaxy. Sort of the opposite of Star Trek. The last image in the opening credits pretty much sums it up: a herd of thundering horses with a spaceship (firefly class, the ship of the title) zooming overhead. Over the next few nights, I find the need to stay up way too late, have too many beers (two, which leads to a headache, and a need to drink lots of water and find the porta-bucket in the middle of the night), and absorb the entire series at once.
I get up early for the Marine Explorers program done by the Park Service, we launch a couple of kayaks into Chincoteague Bay, I test the underwater housing from the Dark Ages given to me by a buddy (anybody remember the old Jaques Cousteau specials? Yeah, it's like that stuff), I use the giant sized kitchen strainer to sift out eelgrass, algae, sea-lettuce and a pipefush from the grass beds in the Bay, climb the lighthouse in winds that led the lighthouse interpretive guide to suggest I batten down my hat, I try leaping the waves like I did when I first came to Assateague...
My knees reminded me that leaping like a dolphin is for 20 year olds.
Chris finds the first sandburr. I am aware of this by the sudden shrieks reminiscent of a torture scene in Firefly when the Captain is kidnapped by a psychopathic mobster. I find sandburrs (for the record, Teva sandals, the hiking/river/kayaking sort, are immune...the flipflops are like wearing marshmallows where sandburrs are concerned), Heather's bare feet find more sanburrs. She, always barefoot, resorts to the dreaded Shoe. I find more: on the edges of my longish shorts, stuck to the webbing of my sandals, under my toes...
The islands are full of vampires: several kinds of bloodsucking flies, several dozen kinds of bloodsucking mosquitoes, 3 kinds of ticks, and sandburrs. Perhaps if the Twilight series had been written here, it would actually be scary.
Then we got wind of the weather...
To quote the guy at the beginning of The Little Mermaid..."hurricane a'comin'!!!"
The skies remained sunny, the wind too brisk now for kayaks. The birds went about their business as usual; egrets and blue herons, tricolored herons and sandpipers fishing the shallows, beaks pumping like sewing machines in the sand at the sea's edge. Pelicans soared over the waves like pteradactyls. A mysterious fin surfaced near my kayak (maybe a dolphin).
Oh, we'll just have some rain the last two days of my vacation...I'll drive home Monday, as planned.
Went to the museum that used to be called The Oyster Museum. It's grown in scope from its days as an ode to the local industry. There are exhibits on local culture, waterfowl, the oyster industry, history, the fire company, watermen, the pony roundup...and Misty.
Really, Misty herself, in all her stuffed, taxidermied glory (along with her daughter, Stormy, who I once sketched alive). Taxidermy done by a well-meaning local craftsman with a rather random knowledge of horse anatomy. I take pictures, mostly video, anyway, an experiment in filmaking (shooting around the bad bits, trying to make the stuffed horses look more... unstuffed).
I burn some memory card, abosorb Vast Knowledge until my brain is full, and my eyes glassy.
The guys at the front desk are packing their bags, their boxes...the entire museum, in fact, is being battened down. Back on the beach, the Park Service is using some interesting large Tonka toys to move the changing rooms and porta-pottis off the beach. The girl at the Kite Koop advises me to leave Thursday night, before the causeway (the only way on and off the island that doesn't require a boat) is closed, and we are actually stranded on a desert island. And before the traffic to the north becomes a dreaded crawl through gale force winds and closed bridges and torrential rain.
At the rental house we hover around the weather channel, watching the worst storm since 1962 (the nor'easter that inspired Stormy; Misty's Foal) form and advance toward the Outer Banks. We learn the beach will close at ten tonight, and not reopen until the storm has passed.
We opt for food, beer, and more episodes of Firefly. But first, three of us pile into Janet's car and head for one last look at the beach. The sky sputters. Pours. We drive in the dark out the causeway to Assateague, headlights of other cars occasionally shining through the downpour. Water pools on the road; rain? or rising seas?? Heather rumbles from the backseat as if she is driving a dogsled; "...gee, gee, no haw...stay out of the lagoon!" I remember my dive instructor said to never drive through standing water.... I can't remember how much it takes to sweep you off the road and into the lagoon.
The road becomes packed sand with beach parking lot signs.
The rain peters out into a fine drizzle.
We step out, headlamp shining on rolling surf. I turn the light out. Dim light, the continual roar of surf on sloping sand. The flash of the distant lighthouse on the white breakers; blink-blink....blink-blink....
Friday am, we aquire tarps, plastic, plywood, and copious amounts of duct tape, battening down our buddy Heather's houses, and treasured old books. Chincoteague issues an evacuation notice, rental houses are called; non-residents must be off-island by 6pm... residents by the next day.
We pack, reluctantly, under skies that morph from rain to sun to cloud to sun to drizzle to sun.
Vultures perch on the roof of the condo. The lighthouse is visible across the marsh, sentinel from the Civil War, on the highest piece of ground for miles around, double walled brick tower still flashing its light through the rain Thursday night.
I drive north Friday under sunny skies, calm hot windless skies. The mighty landship Fearaf (my 1983 Ford Econoline van) is loaded with gas, food, water, blankets. I only fear getting out too late and sinking the van.
And the Traffic Jams of Doom.
Chincoteague's Main street is being boarded up (the bay is only a few yards away, and most of Chincoteague is actually below sea level). I take some last pictures, throw good wishes at some guys boarding up a store front. They grin, keep working. They've been through it all before. No big deal.
One of them says; "Everybody gets all excited when God starts rearranging the furniture..."
The Traffic of Doom does not materialize, only some Friday evening rush hour traffic in Dover and Smyrna. Gale force winds do not materialize. The kayaks remain lashed to the roof of the van. Neither I or they blow to Oz. Torrential rains do not materialize. Nor do bridge closings (I still have to get off DelMarVa, which was a penninsula, and now, due to the C&D Canal, is actually a rather large island). I drive north in weather that can't decide what outfit to wear; rain, sun, cloud, rain, drizzle, sun, setting sun.
Somewhere in the middle of the rain, my driver side windshield wiper goes "kraat!" and lurches hard aport.
"That doesn't look right..."
I pull over and inspect this small, and ridiculously important piece of technology I just had replaced a month ago. There's a greebly that turns and a thingie that pops and something that holds it all on the windshield washer arm thingie...
I twist it and poke it and sort of get it back together.
It pops loose.
I delve into the Mighty Landship Fearaf, laden with Hurricane Survival Gear, searching for....
Duct tape, the Force that holds the universe together.
I drive north through rain, the wipers slapping a happy, and slightly offbeat rhythm...