“My treasures do not click together or glitter. They gleam in the sun and neigh in the night.” (Bedouin proverb)
A trip to Assateague, where wild horses graze and shore birds fly over dunes, marshes, shrublands, and forests, all within a 37-mile island shared by Virginia and Maryland, is an early-October tradition.
Goldenrods are in full bloom then, covered in monarch butterflies, members of the Methuselah generation who live up to 8 months, so they can migrate thousands of miles–clouds and clouds of butterflies from all over the United States and Canada–to a eucalyptus grove in central Mexico. At Assateague, you witness the fragile link helping to keep this grand North American migration afloat and, in a way, you support it.
A regular part of our Assateague visits is a stay in Maryland’s Ocean City. I love OC off-season. It is moody, quiet, and full of mild, wry quirks. The town is asleep, deserted, so you can see it better, its gaudy beach gear shops and putt-putt golf courses now grey and abandoned: the melancholy ocean, the odd souvenir stores that remain doggedly open, local dives with comforting food and drinks, and empty hotels, with boundless oceanfront views–suddenly both cheap and available.
Assateague’s Maryland side is a 10-mile drive away from Ocean City. It matters which side you visit, Maryland or Virginia, since each has its own rules: for example, pets are permitted in Maryland, but not in Virginia, and wild horses are corralled in enclosed areas in Virginia (so they are easier to find, always in the marshes along Beach Road and Woodland Trail), while in Maryland they roam wherever they please. Maps are available online and offer a glimpse of various activities permitted on the island: camping, horse back riding, kayaking, swimming. On cool October days–or in March, our other favorite time to visit the island–I love simply strolling along the trails, breathing in the salty air, admiring tenacious plantlife, and looking for wild horses and majestic shore birds.
The wild horses of Assateague are not native to the island: According to local legend, they are decedents of horses carried on a Spanish galleon that sunk off the the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia in 1700s. A less romantic, but more likely possibility is that they are offspring of the free-roaming animals brought to the island for tax-free grazing by 17th-century settlers. Regardless of their origin, these hardy horses are now uniquely adapted to Assateague, their pony-like short stature and bloated bellies a result of a 300-year-old diet of nutrient-poor saltmarsh cordgrass, saltmeadow, and gallons and gallons of water.
Assateague is also a birdwatcher’s haven. The island welcomes over 300 species of resident and migratory birds each year, including a stable population of bald eagles. In November and December, dramatic clouds of snow geese descend on Assateague’s Virginia tip to feed on plentiful cordgrass of the Snow Goose Pool and Swan Cove. And you can always count on seeing herons, egrets, and plovers in the marsh, and brown pelicans along the shoreline.
The dunes and the empty beach inevitably end up the highlights of my visit, with soothing expanse of the marsh a close second.
Back in Ocean City, a lazy afternoon awaits with its half-deserted boardwalk, old arcade games, beer with fries by the ocean, and a convention or a festival–like the classic car convention that brightened the town one October weekend.
And then, there is always the sunset on the balcony.
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