Pronounced “Shink (rhymes with SINK) O Teague.”
Misty and Stormy
I read “Misty of Chincoteague” and “Stormy, Misty’s Foal” by Marguerite Henry when I was a kid. I had forgotten about those books over the decades. Imagine my delight, when I realized that I now lived within just a few hours of the island of wild horses!
We planned a two-night get-away where we would stay one night on Chincoteague Island, VA and one in Ocean City, MD. In preparation, I ordered Marguerite Henry’s books to re-read for research purposes.
Waking up on departure day, I realized that I had a sore throat. Oh, God. This is not going to end well. Three hours later, we crossed the island bridge. I felt like crap on a cracker.
We dumped our stuff at the hotel, and then went to Assateague, the adjacent island where the wild horses live.
Assateague is an island that spans the Virginia/Maryland borders. It is a national park, Assateague National Seashore, on the part of the island that is in both states, and is also a state park, Assateague State Park, on the Maryland side.
I sat on the beach under an umbrella for two hours drifting in and out of consciousness. My throat hurt and I felt like I had been run over by a truck. When I couldn’t take it any longer, we headed back to the hotel. I was lying in the front seat praying for death.
It is at this point, that my family apparently saw wild ponies fenced just off the beach road. Of course, no one bothered to tell me to sit up for a minute so that I could see them too.
The ponies on the Virginia side, where we were, belong to the Chincoteague Fire Department. They lease the land from the federal government on the condition that they keep the herd at 150. If you have read “Misty of Chincoteague,” then you know how they accomplish that. Every July, they swim all the horses across the channel between the two islands. This is called “Pony Penning Day,” where they sell off the new foals. Then they swim the remaining horses back to their island for another year of peace and quiet. You can read more about this famous annual festival here.
On the Maryland side, the ponies are owned by the federal government and truly run wild. The females are given birth control injections in order to control herd size. These horses wander where they please and approach people on the beach and campground. They will bust open your cooler, rip into your tent, and they will bite. A notice in the park says that if you are approached by a pony that you should back away and seek shelter in your car! Seriously, and they just let people and ponies hang out together as if they are not vicious wild beasts! Of course, I actually witnessed none of this.
So back to my near-death experience in the hotel room – I managed to rouse myself just enough to go on Daisey’s Island Cruises Sunset Tour. Since I had missed the ponies back at the beach, I thought surely this was my chance.
I saw exactly zero horses.
To be fair, this cruise is not billed as a horse viewing cruise and I did see pods of dolphins playing, a daddy osprey bringing food home for his wife and kids, and a gorgeous sunset. But I didn’t see a damn pony. Our guide, Hunter, was great because he was an actual saltwater cowboy and a volunteer firefighter, so he had intimate knowledge of Pony Penning Day. He even showed us personal photos on his cell phone.
TIP: We didn’t know about Pony Penning Day when planning our trip. Upon arrival on Chincoteague, we learned that it had been held the week prior. Being the animal psychologist that I am, I think that the horses were lying low because humans had just stolen their babies from them a few days earlier and their memories were sharp. I recommend NOT going mere days after the annual round-up if you want to see a pony.
To make a long story short, the next morning I went to an Urgent Care to confirm that I had strep throat and to get a prescription for an antibiotic, then we went on to Ocean City. I never left my hotel room. I actually never left my bed except for 15 minutes on the balcony staring at the ocean and feeling sorry for myself, but my husband and daughter had a great Daddy-Daughter evening on the boardwalk. They came back to the room telling me all about riding Ferris Wheels and eating cannoli while I stared in their general direction with half-open eyes.
For me, the trip was an unmitigated disaster, so I did what I always do. In order to “fix it,” I did it again. This time, it was just a long day-trip with my daughter. Finally, I got to explore the adorable shops on Main Street and have lunch on Chincoteague.
If you visit, DO NOT miss the wee public library in a little white historic building. It is beautiful inside. You can’t check out a book since you aren’t local, but they have used books for sale. The library was one of my favorite things… since I had yet to see a pony, otherwise, I think seeing ponies would have been my favorite thing.
And there is another do-not-miss tiny little museum with the actual Misty and Stormy stuffed and on display. Delightful or gruesome? You be the judge.
This time, I decided that I would go to the Maryland side to see horses, so a quick 45 minutes later and I was at the entrance gate of Assateague State Park. Before paying to go in, I asked about my horse-sighting chances and was told that people had been leaving the park all day and saying that there were none on the beach. Last week, she ruefully informed me, there had been three dozen on the beach. Well, lucky me. I did a U-turn and left. Crushed.
So I left Assateague for the SECOND time this summer seeing exactly ZERO FRICKING PONIES.
Ocean City, MD
Dejectedly, and I would go so far as to say heart-broken, I moved on to Ocean City which is a congested, over-built money pit. If you have kids who like fair rides and miniature golf then this is the place to be, but a relaxing beach vacation it is not. I dropped fifty bucks on lame amusement rides that didn’t look particularly safe, another $15 on a henna tattoo (for my daughter), and $6 for parking – all in less than two hours, then I took my emptier pockets and headed home for the day. I can’t imagine why adults without children would ever go to Ocean City. This is not a criticism of this beach town. It is what it is and at that, it does very well.
What is to be learned from all of this? Wild ponies are hard to find. Strep throat sucks. Chincoteague and Assateague are beautiful islands. Ocean City is a loud, garish, black hole of time and money.
What I have also learned is that I will return to Chincoteague again and again until I finally see a damn horse. I’ll keep you posted.