Last week, Lesa and I went on a little vacation down the Eastern Seaboard. We ended up at Ocean City, MD for a week. We had a hotel room with a balcony that overlooked the pedestrian boardwalk and the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The hotel was nothing special but the location was pretty amazing. At night, with the sliding door open, the crashing sounds of the strong open-ocean waves filled the room. In the mornings, strange orange and blue lights from the sunrise woke us up. We saw only one or two clouds for most of our stay there and it was in the low 90's daily. Upper 60's at night.
Ocean City is kind of a creepy place. We spent a lot of hours just strolling along the boardwalk and streets past surf shops and candy stores. There are a crazy amount of all-you-can-eat restaurants there. I'm not a big fan. I generally have all I can eat at any restaurant, I don't need to push the envelope. Gross, I just thought of my stomach as an envelope. Gross.
We went to one of these places and it was pretty unpleasant to be surrounded by people with their already-enormous envelopes cramming more fried fish into them. Gross.
Being in Ocean City felt quite a bit like a trip back to the early 1980's. We played a few rounds of miniature golf and checked out a few Jolly Roger amusement parks. Everything felt like it was thirty years old and kind of chintzy. But the beach was beautiful and the people watching was fulfilling.
On one night, right in the middle of our stay, we had also reserved a camp site at Assiteague Island State Park. Have you heard of Assiteague Island? How about Chincoteague Island? If you are a female in the U.S. there's a good chance that you read or owned the book "Misty of Chincoteague" by Marguerite Henry. These two islands are only a half hour drive away from our hotel but they are a world away.
You see, on these islands, there are wild horses.
Before we left on our trip we bought a nice new little tent. It had been quite some time since I camped out and it was even longer for Lesa. Neither of us are terribly experienced campers, though we both did it quite a bit with our families when we were kids.
I had reserved a corner site (you can pick from a map on the website) with nothing but a small dune between us and the beach. As luck would have it the people who were supposed to be right next to us on the inside, never showed up, so we were pretty secluded. When we arrived at the ranger station, they warned us that there was a mother, father, and foal in our area and we should try to stay away from them. Apparently some people had been bitten by the foal. I glanced at a bulletin board on the wall and saw a series of snapshots of large bites hanging there. Great, was this like that warning that you get in the beginning of every horror movie? If only the ranger had been a crazy wrinkle old man instead of a very kindly ranger woman.
We found our site and figured out how to set up the tent in the unrelenting ninety degree sun. Sure enough the little horse family was sniffing around eating dune grass. We kept our distance.
When we had eaten and the sun had gone down and our fire had burned out, we strolled out onto the beach. It had been years since I was on a beach at night. I'd forgotten how good the cool sand feels on your feet. There was a fairly impressive display of stars considering how close we were to the excesses of Ocean City (looking up the beach and beyond the water you could just see the golden glow from the boardwalk ferris wheel). I spotted a shooting star that streaked out across the ocean. The water was black and was only visible when it bubbled up and crashed on the shore in white lines that raced along the sand's edge. It was pretty good. The world felt big and real.
But we saw no horses on the beach. Really, we were there to see horses. Earlier we had seen a bunch of them along the little camp road and trotting past people's campers. We also saw some deer and on our way back to the tent from the beach we saw a nice big ghost crab skitter sideways across our path.
The evening was quite warm so we opened the flaps on both sides of our tiny tent to let the sea breeze drift through the nylon screens. Sleeping didn't come easily. The sand in the camp site was packed down and hard and we forgot to bring pillows. But while lying there I could look out and see the newly risen moon shine down on the hazily glowing sand, the dark dunes beyond it, and the stars above. I could hear the waves as I scanned through the dark for signs of movement. I could barely make out some shapes, the picnic table, our closed beach umbrella, the small white tag on one of our folding chairs.
Eventually, we fell asleep. We must have, because we both suddenly woke up when a horse's whinny shattered the silence. We both bolted upright. There was a wild horse, in the dark, very close to us, and we wanted to see it. We leaned towards the screen and followed the sound of grass being chewed and saw the dark shadowy shape of two horses about twenty feet away. It was a strange feeling to be there, on the ground, watching these animals though the dark. It seemed as though they didn't know we were there. They probably did, horse-sense and all that.
We watched them peacefully, but with a bit of adrenalin, and Lesa leaned a little further and saw that not far behind them there were six more horses standing there too. Suddenly the peaceful feeling started to change. Having eight horses in the dark so close to our tiny tent made us feel a little vulnerable. You feel pretty helpless in a tent.
Then something spooked the horses and they all started freaking out. We both moved to the center of the tented, scared to breathe and watched as horses suddenly stampeded past us on both sides. The largest whooshed by just inches from the tent stake. Were we about to be trampled? Did they know we were there? What do we do?
The horses calmed down quickly and I watched as one last large one walked past my side of the tent blocking out the moon with its dark hulking silhouette.
Lesa and I looked at each other in the dark our hearts beating fast in fear. "What kind of dream is this?" I thought.
The horses had disappeared from sight but we could still hear them munching on the grass from the dark dunes a little ways away. How on earth could we possibly fall back asleep when feeling that vulnerable out there? The answer is that we couldn't. We unzipped the tent and stepped out into the quiet moonlight and scanned the area for large animals. There were none very close, so we very quietly dismantled the tent and packed up the car and snuck out through the narrow State Park roads. Insects by the gazillions swept passed our headlights like summer snow along the way.
When we had crossed over the bridge that connected us to the mainland, we started to breathe easier and I flipped on the radio half expecting to hear Mick Jagger singing about how wild horses couldn't drag him away. We felt a little bit like quitters on the ride back but we figured we had really gotten everything and them some that we were going to get out of the Assiteague experience. I recommend it. I'd go back.