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  • Writer's pictureWILLIAM HAZEL

Summering in Chincoteague

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

My beer can was rolling towards the main drag centerline. Early night close bright headlights from both directions guided my steps toward retrieval. My wet bottom paper bag held in futility. The weight of the cold condensation wrapped 32-ouncer proved too much, as the serendipitous synchronicity of my arm swing and the bag’s demise sent me to chase through the middle of a busy Maddox Boulevard. I snatched my can at the crown of the road and crossed the two lanes as if the entire incident were planned. M was shouting something as we quick-stepped, but I only heard blurred words enunciated in hysterics.

We were summering in Chincoteague, Virginia. On a hot August night at road center at the height of high tourism, it was hard not to embrace the verb’s action.

Chincoteague nestles with Assateague, Coastal Virginia barrier island sisters in a large wave protecting family running north to Delaware Bay and south to the mighty Chesapeake. A narrow two-lane offers entrance into a small town americana time-stilled in mid-century nostalgia. Though not absent of fast-food modernity, the narrow Main Street, small brick and mortar shops, and slower pace spilled syrupy back in time metaphors.

Our refuge was the Refuge Inn. Two stories of early seventies architecture owned by the town’s Mayor. Though the fact writes like an average novel’s backdrop, the Inn being in the same family since being raised in ’73 confirms the small-town face isn’t façade. Our stay was both comfortable and memorable. We faced east and were thankful on each of our four mornings for the colors of sunrise painting through towering loblolly from our wooden second floor balcony. The narrow, double row parking lot looked about the same as it did in the old photograph, filled with Valiants, Torinos, Bonnevilles, and Beetles. A metallic blue Porsche Boxster parked near our car would have been a 914 that opening year.

A pleasant woman with a Wonderlier of gray hair gave us a big metal key with a bigger plastic fob and circled the good stuff to see on a glossy neat creased tourist map. In a room of beige on beige we used a tiny pencil to circle our next morning breakfast choices on a paper door hanging card. Our first dinner choice was to a circled gem, a brick-faced concrete block family diner serving guests since 1960. Bill’s Prime black and white clad servers dishing above average classics like clam chowder and friend shrimp did not disappoint. Our post meal town stroll, though, rewarded lower expectations.

Thankfully, there was a boulevard bookshop crowded with claustrophobic aisles that forced the broad shouldered to stand at angle. We both found keepers at Old Neptune's, and I could have hunted longer, but M whispered reminder that neither we nor the hour were getting younger. And she wanted to pet the ponies. You are supposed to pet the ponies when you visit Chincoteague.

They live wild, so the brochure says, these ponies. Or horses. Maybe, they’re horses. We bantered about the difference and couldn’t decide, but we knew the wild was the Assateague Island National Park, and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The feral herd curated and managed for numbers to sustain the animals, park, tourism, and all other parties that may be involved.

The pony has been a town icon and animal spirit since the firehouse first swam the herd across the narrows for a fundraising auction in the 1920s. Locals lined the banks to see the splashing trek and then some tourists came to watch and then lots of tourists came to watch, the annual event steadily stoking an economic firebox.

Marguerite Henry wrote about the ponies after the war. The Second World War, to clarify, since Main Street might confuse which war would be of relevance. Misty of Chincoteague has since sold five million copies. One more if you count the 60th Anniversary paperback I picked up at the Inn’s little shop of gifts. Eight bucks. Misty was a real pony, but only kind of real in the novel. Though the book is fiction, Henry prefaced the happenings within the fiction were nonfiction. Horse stories that occurred at some point in the town’s being. Not Steinbeck Red Pony horse stories, but a Marguerite style narrative that imagined her book’s timeline. I knew Misty was real. I saw Misty in the town museum. Stuffed and forced into standing for tourists forever, Misty invites young and old to imagine the life of fiction she never lived in nonfiction.

So, we bought pony kibbles from the Tupperware hair lady. Three bucks. Not kibbles, we just called them kibbles, and the sound of the grains in the little paper bag alerted the animals to immediate interest. The Inn shares ground corralling four ponies, or maybe they're horses, beneath the pines lining our eastern view. You’re not supposed to pet wild ponies. The visitor centers have gruesome photos of fellow tourists proving it’s a bad idea to try. You pet the people friendly ponies. Still, you don’t hand feed the people friendly ponies but pour the kibbles in the metal feed boxes. The ponies like this very much, and we both enjoyed brushing the flies from the animals’ backs and our own shoulders.

We came to Chincoteague, though, to be with nature. Surrounded by the magnificent view of these barrier island wetlands, our refuge was walking distance into the Park. The bridge over the channel became a destination of its own. Inviting hours for drenching the senses in both the humidity and landscape. Silence, however, proved elusive. The din of two lanes of slow-moving traffic held constant. Peak times brought bumper to bumper rubbernecks with AC blasting SUVs, radios blaring from doorless jeeps, or hoots and chatters of children lounging in beach chairs in the back of pickup trucks. But when you’re summering, these things should be expected.

There were moments, though, beautiful moments, in the loud of nature's silence. Deep within the trails of Assateague we chanced escaping all intrusion of fellow travelers. It is during these times I am always relearning if I offer myself the place and space to be moved so comes the chance for discovering what moves me. And in the rhythm of the Assateague Lighthouse’s bright pulses highlighting the white of a hundred egrets marsh resting at dusk, I was moved.

We took to road walking to distance ourselves from town center Millenarians to discover a more Millennial scene of food trucks and snack shacks, and some of the best eating we’ve enjoyed all year. In a sprawling celebration of casual cuisine, we nibbled on alligator sausage, pink fresh poke, day’s catch tacos with homemade tortillas, friend chicken hotter than Nashville, and not necessarily in that order. Staying on foot proved the most relaxing way to enjoy the very modern Chincoteague food scene.

As the easy miles make for spontaneous getaways from our home base, we will always return to Chincoteague, Virginia. It’s a little too noisy, far too crowded, and the nostalgia does drip a bit melancholic. And the mosquitos, yeah, there are a helluva lot of mosquitos. But we’ll wander back still.

We’ll go to pet a pony. To feel at once back in time and with the times. To slow melt apex predator meat in salted chews, washed with local brews. To watch the egrets highlight the lingering twilight. And to spend pleasing times in a town where two lanes of traffic will come to a complete stop to let you grab a fallen beer.

1. All photos by Author.







7. Misty was made into a movie in 1961.

© Copyright William Hazel, 2023

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