I make no promises that this’ll happen every week, but I’m instituting Throwback Thursday on 52 Cities so I can hopefully log some of my older trips before the memories fade. And in the spirit of summer, I’m starting with Assateague Island.
Last July, while scrolling through Facebook, I noticed a friendly high school acquaintance had posted some photos from a camping trip to the beach in Maryland. Only this was no ordinary camping trip. There were wild ponies involved.
Five minutes later, I had my sister on the phone. A couple hours later, I had a message up on social media soliciting a tent to borrow. The next day, I had the Assateague Island campsite booked. We were doing it.
To say I had camped before would be generous, and Betsy certainly hadn’t. I’d put up tents a few times as a camp counselor, but never alone, and never without someone with much more experience supervising the process.
The people at Assateague State Park, though, were incredibly nice and helpful. When I called, everything was booked up, but they advised me that some campsites would be opening up a few days before my desired trip date as a construction project wrapped. I called the morning they were due to reopen and snagged one without a problem; we did have to pay for the requisite two-night minimum in order to stay just one night, but it was cheap enough that it didn’t matter. And an added bonus–the finished construction project was actually a bath house renovation, meaning the bathroom stalls and showers were sparkling clean and new.
So off we went on a Saturday. We hit some usual (and unusual) bumps along the road, metaphorically speaking; traffic was terrible, as it generally is on the way to the beach from DC, and what was supposed to be a sub-three-hour trip took up the better part of the day. Part of the problem: We needed sand stakes so that the tent wouldn’t blow away overnight (this was a real concern, I was repeatedly told)–and everywhere we stopped was sold out of them.
We finally found them–thick, bright orange and plastic–at a shack-like convenience store only about a mile off from our destination, which was technically located in Berlin, MD. Pitching the tent at the campsite–just slightly set back from the beach, behind a small hill–was easy enough, though I admit we had some help from the next-door neighbors, whose attention we caught while freaking out over a dead spider in the tent bag.
That gives you an idea of how rustic we are, so it may come as no surprise that after hitting the beach–and ruining my phone in a giant wave–we opted to go out to dinner in civilization instead of preparing something at the site. We made the quick trip over to Ocean City, MD, a beach town we’d heard of thanks to Seacrets, the Jamaican-themed resort, restaurant and nightclub where our sister Liza’s reggae band used to regularly perform. On the way out, we saw our first wild pony, which guests are instructed not to touch or feed. Stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures, though, is apparently totally accepted.
Ocean City had all the makings of a touristy beach town–boardwalk, rides, all the cotton candy/popcorn/fair food you could want, and a pervasive air of tackiness.
After strolling around a bit, we grabbed some sub-par macaroni and cheese at a sit-down place, drove out to Justine’s for overhyped ice cream that was frankly nothing to write home about, and finally decided to forgo themed mini golf in case the campsite was scarily dark at 11:30 p.m.
The drive back, it turned out, was. I couldn’t see a thing on the narrow, pitch-black road as we headed south and then back out toward the ocean.
But as we neared the campsites, glowing orange campfire flames began to spring into view. And when we parked and got out of the car, I was greeted with the most breathtaking view I’ve ever seen.
Beneath a blanket of a million stars, each visible in the vast darkness over the ocean, wild ponies roamed from campfire to campfire, peacefully exploring by the light of the flames. All around was an air of quiet stillness, with the only sound coming from the ocean’s waves.
My iPhone camera couldn’t do a thing to capture it, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to. It’s a scene that’ll stick in my mind’s eye forever–one that memories, however inflated by imagination, couldn’t possibly make any more perfect than it already was.
Of course, as we charted constellations and marveled at the Milky Way, we kicked ourselves for having wasted even a second of the night in a town that essentially felt like America’s armpit. Before I go again, I’m going to learn how to cook outdoors, believe me.
But we made up for it as best we could, waking up before dawn to catch the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean.