My first summer in D.C., fully unprepared for multiple consecutive days of temperatures over 100 degrees, I asked co-workers and friends where the best nearby ocean beach was. Ocean City, Maryland was often the answer, so I rented a car that June and drove three hours to visit the popular vacation town. What I remember most from the day is salt water taffy, lines of shops filled with beach destination souvenirs, and getting knocked down by one particularly hefty wave. Mostly, I got the impression that in the height of summer the city and boardwalk happily rival Panama City or Daytona Beach during spring break. (Been there, done that, no thank you.)
Unbeknownst to me, a 37-mile barrier island with white sand beaches and wild horses was less than ten miles away.
I finally learned about Assateague Island a year ago and it has been on my adventure list ever since. How no one told me about it before then leads me to believe that this magical place can still be truthfully labeled "tucked away". I made a visit to the Maryland side with my friend Katie last Sunday. Equipped with the first four episodes of NPR's new show Serial, we drove for just over three hours, and were immediately greeted by four of the island's 300 or so wild horses.
Despite several posted warnings not to touch, feed, or attract the horses, I watched each of the seven cars waiting to pull into the park roll their windows down and allow bold muzzles to say hello. It was hard to imagine them kicking or biting, but four years of horseback riding camp in middle school cautioned me otherwise—any animal we think we can make our pet often works double-time to prove their wildness.
We skipped a visit to the Bay-side marshes and made our way up and over the white sand dunes to Atlantic waves and whipping winds. No horses visited the beach, in my imagination they're a little over it, but we found a few more on the many pedestrian paths. The horses varied in size—some resembling Icelandic ponies with their short legs and round bellies, others with lengthier legs and more slender frames—presumably representing different breeds. The Assateague horses have roamed the beaches, forests, and marshes on the island since the 1600s when a Spanish galleon ship supposedly sank offshore. Having now met some of their descendants, it's easy to picture their watery escape to freedom.
When I posted photos of the day on Instagram, several people commented with fond memories from camping on the island. Maybe it takes a certain type of animal to discover this strip of land, but I don't doubt anyone can fall in love with it. It's a place to leave the world, or at least a life on any part of the mainland, behind for a while. To stare out at the Atlantic and watch the black dots of surfers enter waves. To feel the salty wind whip or grace your face, depending on the weather. To make eye contact with one of the wild horses long enough to start to give off a little wild from your eyes, too. Assateague feels like the outermost part of the East Coast (supposedly it's actually Lubec, Maine) -- like you can swim just a little ways out and be in some unnamed country where floating is all that matters.
Often it's the most beautiful places, places like Assateague, that leave me feeling like I still need to gather up something more inside of myself. More calm, more peace, more fresh air. Sometimes I can spend a whole day in nature and leave feeling this way. For whatever reason, maybe because I had a good friend nearby, maybe because the resilience of the wild horses reassured me of something in myself, I only needed a few hours to feel ready to leave. As we drove away the same four horses we met on the way in were blocking most of the way out, putting their hoofs down about being just that wild, just that free.
“We need the tonic of wildness -- to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature."
-Henry David Thoreau, from Chapter 17 of Walden