The determination to spend a weekend thru-hiking from Maryland’s Assateague Island State Park to Chincoteague took root during my first humiliating attempt to camp in the island’s national park. The catastrophe came as the demoralizing climax of a romantic scheme I’d hatched around May 20 of 2014. Namely, to road trip the Eastern Shore and camp on Assateague with my new girlfriend.
At first glance, the logic was spectacular: Combining the island’s infamous wild horses, remote beaches, ocean sunsets, unobscured stargazing and one of the world’s largest seasonal bird migrations—up to 320 species at once!—was a recipe for an ultra-sexy outdoor adventure. Along the way, we’d explore one of the East Coast’s most isolated stretches of coastline. Bookending the trip with fine dining, raw bars and lux B&Bs would easily double the seduction value.
However, at the time, I was unaware of Assateague’s bugs.
After a glorious dinner-stay-breakfast-lunch-dinner run at Berlin’s beautifully restored Hotel Atlantic—the town was that cool, the food that good—I drove 10 miles to the national park, paid our entry fees and proceeded to a lonely oceanfront campsite. By then, it was dusk. The drive had lulled my girlfriend to sleep. Stepping out of the car, I set about the business of removing our tent from the trunk.
But something was going wrong. A swarm of thrumming darkness buzzed through my visual spectrum. Before I could stammer ‘The hell?’ I was cut short by what, in a stroke of horror, I realized were flies—yes, flies—kamikazeing my throat. Then came the biting and stinging. Gagging, flailing my arms, I panicked. With the composure of a Disney toon with his ass on fire, I spluttered about, swatting the air, slapping my face, arms and thighs.
By the time I’d wrenched open the door and flung myself into the car I was mutilated. Checking the mirror, my face looked like it’d been struck by rapid-onset measles. Waking from her nap, my girlfriend stretched and asked, with a kittenish yawn,“What’d I miss?”
That night I was sulking in a Berlin ice-cream parlor. There, the teenaged clerk—a precocious redhead that, at first, reveled in my condition, then took pity when I explained the destruction of my great romantic plan—alerted me to the fatal error of many a “goofy tourist” like myself.
‘If you wanna’ camp on Assateague during the big Atlantic Flyway migration,’ she confided, ‘you gotta’ get here just as the birds arrive, before the warm weather comes and hatches out all the bugs.’
With a solemn nod and a spoonful of butterscotch ice cream, I vowed my revenge: Mother nature had made a fool of me; despite my girlfriend’s asseverations of “never again,” I would return at precisely the right moment and hike the entire 37.28-mile-long island.
Snowy egrets sparring
Thru-Hike: Day One
Sometimes memories die hard. Four years later, when my girlfriend—now fiancée—and I return to Assateague, she refuses to humor any notion of a long-distance hike, much less camping in the backcountry. As she drops me off at the shore-fronting campground registration center marking the entry to Assateague Island State Park, I try one last time.
“But honey, think of the adventure,” I plead. “Are you truly prepared to spend the rest of your life regretting missing out on this awesomeness?”
Shaking her head, she puts the station wagon in drive and calls through the window: “Drink lots of water. And don’t get murdered by bugs. I’ll see you in Chincoteague!”
I watch the vehicle disappear behind the ranger station, it’s engine fading then lost to the crash of waves. It’s the end of April, and the morning air is cool, fresh, crisp with salt. Hoisting my ridiculously heavy backpack, it takes a moment to get stabilized.
“Be confident,” I tell myself, groaning under the unexpected weight. “Compared to most mid-30s writer types, you are in excellent shape.”
Regaining my balance, I set out over the dunes toward the ocean. Aside from the rangers and my fiancée, I’ve seen no one at all. I am, I realize, absolutely alone.
Heading south down the beach, the sand gives way beneath my boots, causing my feet to slide toward the surf with each step. The only freshwater on Assateague is found in puddles, so, to be safe, I’ve packed nearly 20 pounds of H2O (about 2.5 gallons). With the camp stove, cookware, snacks, layers of clothing, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, journal, camera, book, headlamp, sunscreen, bug repellant, lunchbag (for meat and cheese), cigars—also to repel bugs—bottle of saké and two pints of whisky, I’m toting nearly 50 pounds of gear.
Amplified by the weight, the slippery-sand-effect makes walking much harder than anticipated. Within a mile, I begin to doubt my so-called exemplary physical prowess.
“Why did you have to do this?” I mutter. “This is not romantic, it is masochism. There will be no conquering. The bugs will eat us alive and we will look like a buffoon.”
Us, we? Clearly someone needs a snack. Yes, yes, it is time for a break.
Plopping down on the beach, I watch gangs of industrious plover, sandpiper and sanderling scamper along the hissing fringes of the surf, diligently combing the shoreline for food. Inspired, I fish a fresh baguette and brie from my pack. Smearing the cheese across the bread with my pocket knife, I indulge a deliciously inappropriate treat.
Meanwhile, I brainstorm a new stratagem for walking …
Trudging back over the dunes, I weave my way through the scrub-grass to the ruins of an old road. Like remnants from some forgotten apocalypse, long room-sized chunks of asphalt rise craggy and broken through the sand. Disappearing among the brush and dwarf pine, they emerge five, 10, even 20 steps away. Hop-scotching or otherwise, the debris offers vastly improved footing. Soon, I am congratulating my ingenuity with a toast of whisky.
Here, the sand is everywhere marked by animal tracks. The smoothed trenches of critter byways emerge from westward stands of pines. Snaking through the dense chaparral, they bisect the antiquated roadway en route to the coast. I make out rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, a variety of birds, long slither-some loops made by god knows what, and, yes, horse hooves.
Overhead, puffy cotton-white cumulus waft across a sky so blue it seems unreal. Boating over the dark ocean, they chug along toward what may as well be the end of the earth.
Preoccupied by visions of anthropomorphic clouds swan-diving into the cosmos, I step on a limb, topple, shriek an expletive, fall. The racket startles a great blue heron from the pines. Big and sleek, he slices through the air like an astonished silence. Arching out toward the ocean, he loops southward down the coast.
Amid all this nature, the road takes on a quiet but ominous significance. Like a tombstone, it recalls the demise of what was once intended to be a 15-mile-long resort community called “Ocean Beach.” Shortly after “Baltimore Road” was installed and the first homes began to rise from the earth, like a thunderbolt from Zeus, the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 struck the island and wiped out everything. Bankrupt, the developers washed their hands of the cursed project and sold the land to the federal government. Three years later, it was reconstituted into a 41,000-acre national park.
Though my interpretations of the shambled asphalt vary, some favorites are ‘unwanted interloper,’ ‘gloomy parable,’ and ‘haunting anachronism.’ Despite the relative ease it has afforded me, as a metaphorical companion, the B.R. gets pretty annoying. So when the sand finally swallows it for good, I cross myself and tip back some whisky: “Good Riddance and Salut.”
The refuge at dusk
Sunset finds me having hiked about 15 miles. My two-person Kelty Salida is pitched in the State Line backcountry camping area. Nestled in a scooped corral between a pair of grass-studded dunes running perpendicular to the ocean, I sit cross-legged on a blanket, enjoying a giddy pomposity.
Over the muted hiss of my ultra-lite cook stove and frying pan, I ponder what, for my intents and purposes, appears an infinite procession, an ever-vigilant rise and fall of breakers. Suddenly I am laughing: Those hubristic developers were slaughtered like a plague of filthy rats!
Just then, an osprey tears through the sky and dive-bombs the ocean. Half-a-second later, it is back in the air, a fish-dinner clasped in its talons. Spotlighted by golden rays, it rises like a symbol against a backdrop of radiant pink-red clouds.
That bird is a survivor. And for that matter, so am I.
“Where are your vile bugs now Assateague?” I murmur, raising my small plastic bowl of Japanese rice wine to the surf. Gloating, I have opted to forego repellant. Despite having next to zero wind, I’ve yet to suffer a single bite.
For dinner, I have a tsuyu-marinated tuna steak with garlic and diced onions. It is accompanied by salt and peppered asparagus soaked in olive oil and topped with shavings of Pamigiano-Reggiano. Also, some more bread. By now, both my belly and vision are warm with saké.
Walking the beach, hot joy explodes inside my chest. It has occurred to me I am hardly roughing it. And that that is, in fact, precisely the point.
Soon the light fades. Stars arrive in ever-deepening bursts like clusters of shattered diamonds. The temperature has dropped nearly 20 degrees and the presence of stove-warmed saké has taken on an air of decadent utility.
Lying sprawled on my back in the sand I murmur: “Fiancée, you do not know what you’ve missed.”
A flock of snow geese
Thru-Hike: Day Two
I awake to confusion. Strange crunching sounds. Gull calls. Ocean. Snorts? Blinking at the newly lit sky—ZANG!—my consciousness sparks to life. With a bolt of dread, I comprehend what’s happening: Lulled by the stars and rice wine, I’d passed out along the beach; capitalizing on the blunder, wild horses have ransacked my bivouac!
Leaping to my feet, I charge northwest across the sand wailing like a rabid chimp. However, rounding the southern dune, I see it’s only a couple of mares and stop. As if amused, the ponies crane their necks and regard me sidewise. Compared to some of the island’s other motley samples—the 300-horse population survives on salty marsh grass and drinks rainwater from puddles—these two are gorgeous. Their pinto-patterned coats are cream-white with splotches of caramel; their long manes feathered like hairdos in the era of Bowie. Veritably, they are radiant as the morning sun.
To think, this line of horses has (or so say the locals) been around since a pair of Spanish shipwrecks stranded them in the late-1600s.
In the light of such achievement, I feel vaguely embarrassed. Compared to centuries of survival in a harsh and unforgiving environment, my mission is, admittedly, fairly lame. Be that as it may, I begin to point toward the crashing waves, to implicate the soft sand and vanished cosmos, but the gesture dies midway. Instead, I take to scratching my head, toeing the sand.
“Guess you’d have had to of been there,” I mutter, by way of explication.
With a muted snort, the mares toss their heads. Half-pirouetting, they saunter off toward the forest.
Light falling through woods on Assateague
I find it impossible to describe the miraculous joy of witnessing a thousand birds simultaneously descend and rise from a football-field sized salt marsh. The feeling is childlike and yet extremely adult. Because to appreciate the spectacle, you have to be able to grasp its almost unfathomable enormity.
Tiny warblers, wrens, swallows and thrush flitter in and out of high marsh grass and surrounding brush—among them, perhaps, American goldfinch, yellow-billed cuckoo, purple martin, Carolina wren, blue grosbeak and yellow-rumped and black-and-white warblers. On the water, there are more long-legged and strangely beaked birds than I knew existed. Stalking the shallows are snowy and cattle egret, glossy and white ibis, green heron, whimbrel and many more. Some perch elegantly on one leg. Others dagger their slender necks and long curved beaks into the water hunting for tiny fish and worms. Meanwhile, waterfowl boat about with calm placidity. I see red-breasted merganser, common loon and double-crested cormorant, just to name a few.
The array of avian shape, size, color and motion overloads my brain. Some of these birds have traveled more than 1,500 miles to get here. My pulse quickens. Cocktails of dopamine and serotonin spur a wild and giddy wonderment. Although 2.1 million people visit Assateague Island each year, at this particular event, I am the lone spectator.
For two hours I sit and watch. Nipping the whisky, I cut an heirloom Cherokee purple tomato into slices. Add slivers of cool mozzarella cheese. Finger-paint on a gooey balsamic reduction. That’s when I spy the bald eagles. Big and ferocious, the raptors circle the marshes. With a slow then startlingly speedy swoop, they descend upon the lake-like pool. Munching a tomato, I brace myself for the carnage. The ducks are like, well, sitting ducks. Those beasts will rip them to shreds!
But that’s not what happens. Instead, 10–20 feet over the water, they pull up and, gliding on tangential vectors, light with astounding delicacy in a grove of distant pines overlooking the bay.
Great blue heron
About 9 miles past the Maryland-Virginia state line I encounter a grove of dead pines rising from the beach. Mummified by salt, every limb, nook and cranny has been decorated with conch, oyster and clam shells, or miscellaneous bits of trash.
Beyond this threshold lies the final phase and last easy leg of my journey. From here, it is no more than 6 miles—and 3.4 of them paved—to the bridge that will deliver me unto the Refuge Inn, platters of fresh Chincoteague oysters and clams and the celebratory arms of my fiancée.
I have come, seen the worst and stand ready to emerge unscathed and victorious. In a word, I should be happy. But the tableau has given me the heebie-jeebies. Like a tribal warning, it whispers: ‘Beware, here lies the gates of civilization.’
Here comes a sudden loathing for further walking. For a long while I squat on my haunches just beyond the purlieu of that weird forest, observing the surf. The evening has begun to creep in. The tide is rising. Hurling itself against a long six-foot-tall cliff of sand, foam and spray are flung dramatically into the air.
In the far southern distance, I hear laughter. A little girl, I see, gathering seashells on the beach. Flanking her is an older couple, probably grandparents. Rising, I brush the sand from my shorts and check my watch. If I’m going to make it into town in time for a shower and fine-dining at Bill’s PRIME, I’d better get a move on.
Approaching the grove’s outermost snag, a wary pang strikes my gut. I get the sense something is lacking, incomplete. Fishing the pint from my back pocket, I take a last heavy sip of whisky, then sacrifice the rest to the sand.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep,” I recite. Amused by my epitaphic indulgence, I slip the empty bottle over a gnarled limb and walk on.
Situated just 10 miles from Assateague, Berlin was named 2014’s “Coolest Small Town in America” by Budget Travel magazine. With a population of less than 5,000 people, a downtown of revitalized 19th-century buildings and a laid-back artsy vibe, the place is a fantastic spot to visit in its own right, and a great basecamp for outdoor exploration.
Stay—The Hotel Atlantic
Located at the heart of downtown, this 18-room boutique hotel dates to 1895 and has been restored to its original Victorian elegance. Rooms are unique and feature beautiful antique furniture, light fixtures and bed frames. The Dickens room is outfitted with an iron bed, marble-topped tables, gold brocade chairs, lace curtains, claw foot tub, Beiderboard trim and brass wall lamps. From $190. AtlanticHotel.com
Enjoy fine-dining and creative cocktails street-side in the Hotel Atlantic’s outdoor seating area, wraparound porch, or gorgeously renovated dining room. Inside, a vintage bar complements gleaming hardwood floors, chandeliers and tin-stamped ceilings. Cuisine is farm-to-table new American with a touch of French decadence. Though the website shows a fixed menu, daily seasonal specials highlight chef’s passion. Entrees from $24. AtlanticHotel.com/Atlantic-Hotel-Bistro-Bar
The lone fine-dining establishment on the island, with excellent service, speakeasy ambience and fantastic hand-blown glass sculptures, Bill’s demands a visit. Start with local oysters from the raw bar. From there, proceed to traditional American surf and turf options studded with surprising variances like cioppino, an Italian stew of mussels, shrimp, scallops, clams, fresh fish, lobster tail, basil & tomato. Plates from $22.50. BillsSeafoodRestaurant.com
Stay—The Refuge Inn
Situated less than a tenth-of-a-mile from the bridge leading to Assateague, these are the closest lodgings to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Family-owned, the inn is small enough to possess the warmth and character of a B&B and the amenities of a boutique hotel. Large rooms are outfitted with local art, comfortable decor and private balconies. A heated indoor swimming pool, sauna and hot tub is situated within a unique, plant-lined greenhouse. Tip: The refuge is best explored by bike; book a first-floor room, nab on-site rentals and park them on your balcony. Off-season rates from $120 a night. RefugeInn.com