Assateague Island: Horses of Course

Posted August 8, 2021 – Narrated by Carmen
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“When the good times come around, they gallop in like wild horses. You just try to stay on them for as long as you can”
– Jimmy Buffet

For the most part, the wildlife we see is printed on road signs …

Assateague island

As feral free-ranging seniors, living in the great outdoors of North America, one would think that by now we’d have spotted a real live moose in the wild.

Nope. Not a one. Grand Teton’s, Canada, Indian Lake, New York, home of the Moose Festival … and still no moose.

Assateague Island
Rabbit – Assateague Island

Bears? Okay, we’ve seen two juvenile brown bears foraging for wild apples near the road in the Canadian Rockies. But, for all the months we stayed in The Florida Keys, we never spotted a single Key Deer – not even when we drove thirty miles out of our way on Key Deer Boulevard to a sanctuary.

Yup, we couldn’t even spot a Key Deer in a Key Deer Refuge.

Assateague Island
Sika Deer – Assateague Island

It’s all about priorities.

Assateague Island

I love wildlife.

And the best places to view wildlife is anywhere Jim doesn’t have to drag my lazy bones out of bed at 0-dark-thirty to beat the crowds and traffic. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Yellowstone National Park.

Assateague Island

It’s rare to find an uncrowded place where people of average ambition can observe free-ranging animals at a decent hour in the middle of the day. We reserve early morning and dusk for more important things, like sleep and Happy Hour.

Assateague Island
Our Bayside Campground site

Three places to view animals at non-bothersome hours (for both us and the animals) are: Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota for wild horses, bison, and prairie dogs galore; and Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Chassahowitzka, Florida for manatees and water fowl.

And, our newest find … Tada! … Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland for migrating birds, protected osprey, snakes, sika, fox, horseshoe crabs, turtles and, of course, “wild” horses.

Getting There

On April 15th, we took the ferry from Okracoke Island and drove out of Hatteras. Then, deciding it would be a shame to rush this epic 297-mile coastal drive, we stopped overnight in Grandy, North Carolina because we brake for beer and brats.

There we enjoyed a solid German meal and a remarkable beer tasting (wow, we liked them all!) at a delightful family establishment on the list of Harvest Hosts participating businesses – The Weeping Radish.

A light, cool rain fell throughout the night and the next morning we woke to a partly cloudy blue-bird sky. Perfect conditions for some spontaneous sightseeing.

Our digs at The Weeping Radish Brewery the oldest microbrewery in North Carolina

Wonder called. What a great day to explore. Let’s eat!

The weather conditions were ideal for some outdoor dining at The Kill Devil Grill before …

a stroll along America’s greatest airfield, The Wright Brother’s National Memorial, where on December 17th, 1903, Orville and Wilbur tested The Wright Flyer, their first successful flight of a motorized aircraft.

The experience had a powerful effect on us. We felt as if we were being drawn into the moment, as we also considered how much the world has changed in 118 years.

Maybe that’s why I experienced my own breakthrough – or maybe it was that glass of wine with lunch – but, for the first time, I faced a very long tunnel …

without freaking out …

… or lying down on the floorboard with sound-canceling earphones singing “The Lusty Month of May” in a trembling, breathless soprano.

I rode through with no anxiety whatsoever.

Jim showered me with congratulations as we crossed the Sinepuxent Bay via the Verrazano Bridge and onto Assateague Island.

Assateague Island

Then, what a delight to enter the park just as the mares were on parade, showing off their new Spring colts.

That afternoon we settled into the Bayside campground (no electricity, water or sewer) for the maximum 14-day stay.

Assateague Island

The Ok, Corral

Americans are still in retreat from covid and – from sea-to-shining-sea – the campgrounds are filling up with RVs. So, at least for the present, we are abandoning our free-roaming lifestyle for a less sexy, but okay solution … reservations.

Assateague Island

Oh, it’s not so bad. At first we bucked the system but we’ve come to respect the benefits of trip-planning. Yes, being corralled by pre-payments and no refunds for changes and cancellations can be frustrating. But there are some juicy carrots too.

Between our scheduled two-week stays at selected destinations, we like to jump the fence and enjoy an exhilarating one-or-two day gallop through No-Reservations Land. Spontaneity is key to LIB and wandering is one of the best reasons to travel in an RV.

Here on the East Coast, open-range camping on government land is scarce. So, our Harvest Hosts membership is even more important here. With a pre-planned schedule, we can still treat ourselves to a day or two to stop and smell the flowers between scheduled locations. It’s the best of both worlds.

Scheduling keeps us true to a relaxing 4-3-2 pace – our solution for full-timing burn-out – and we can experience undeveloped camping opportunities as well.

Assateague Island

Assateague Island

Two states – Maryland and Virginia – straddle the 37-mile long barrier island. Formerly used by the Department of Defense, Assateague Island is currently governed by a tangle of state and federal entities who manage the limited resources.

Assateague Island

The Virginia side – managed by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge – is famous for the Southern Herd Roundup and Pony Penning Day. Marguerite Henry’s youth-novel Misty of Chincoteague brought Assateague into popular culture. The 1947 book and 1961 film about a brother and sister and their encounter with a wild mare – Phantom and her colt, Misty – still captures hearts and stimulates tourism.

No doubt Henry’s pen has also saved the lives of thousands of feral horses and, more importantly, her work still contributes to the environmental protection of this magical place.

Assateague Island

In the 1950’s, investors acquired fifteen linear miles of Assateague and sold thousands of very inexpensive lots. A paved road, “Baltimore Boulevard,” ran down the center of the island. The General Assembly approved construction of a bridge linking the island to the mainland. If not for a devastating storm in 1962, Assateague Island would be a tacky, crowded vacation resort.

Assateague Island
Jim strolls along Baltimore Boulevard

The Herds

Divided by a fence between the state lines, the horses are separated into two herds. Each herd is managed according to each state’s needs and requirements, with striking differences between them.

The Virginia side is held to a stock-breeding approach because the Chincoteague fire department owns the herd.

Arguably, unrestricted breeding can be tough on this delicate environment. So, Maryland’s herd protection program is a combination of birth-control and natural selection – an earth-friendly approach which supports other species as well – and facilitates a humane solution to keep the herd together.

Assateague Island

Though the island is small, a variety of camping environments are available. We stayed on the Maryland side in the National Park, but a Maryland State Park campground is also within walking distance of our site.

Our campsite on the Bayside of Assateague Island National Seashore was only a half-mile walk to the Oceanside campground.

Walking, cycling and kayaking provided all the transportation necessary to navigate the island.

Assateague Island
Kayaking Sinepuxent Bay near the Verrazano Bridge

Early Spring, before bug season, is a good time to visit. The mosquitoes had not hatched and the notorious horse flies were not a nuisance.

But, it wasn’t beach weather either. You make your choices.

But some people didn’t mind the high winds at all …

Most days were sunny and cool. Perfect for bike rides on our Dolphin e-bikes and horsing around.

Assateague Island

Camping on the bay side, rather than the ocean side, spared us a sand blasting. And we enjoyed the tree canopy occupied by a host of fiercely territorial songbirds who serenaded us all day, and all night.

The two consecutive days of high winds gave us an opportunity to catch up on sleep. We also filled the time playing Five Crowns, binging on Schitt’s Creek, and feasting on Hot Pot – a traditional and oh, so comforting Asian soup. Most of the ingredients arrived in a care package from our friend Cyndy and our son, Chris.

The local fish market provided fresh tuna from the Chesapeake and Sinepuxent Bay.

Assateague Island

When the wind finished having its say, a stretch of calm sunny days came out to play. We kayaked in the marshes, hiked the dunes and cycled on the designated bike paths, spotting Sika …

Osprey …

Assateague Island
The osprey was carrying what appeared to be a large horseshoe crab. The house in the background may be the historic Rackliffe House which was closed due to the pandemic.

Eastern Hognose Snakes …

Assateague Island

And, of course, horses.

Assateague Island
A filly bares her teeth to a stallion stealing a kiss on the eve of the super moon.
Once I catch you and the kissing starts, a team of wild horses couldn’t tear us apart.
– Elvis Presley

The Super Pink Moon in April was something to celebrate – but only at home. Because horses eyes do not reflect light, night-driving in the park is discouraged.

Assateague Island

So, we lunched in Berlin – America’s coolest small town. And, yes, it was cool.

On Sundays, we hung out at Sinepuxent Brewing Company, in Berlin to drink cold beer and listen to the coolest music.

We still don’t know what to think about Ocean City on Maryland’s Grand Strand. Seasonal tourism hadn’t started up yet. The beach, boardwalk and streets of this highly developed and rather large town were almost completely empty. Hundreds of hotels, restaurants and shops which exist only for Summer business were abandoned … tiki bars, taco joints and Hawaiian shirt stores … the effect was weirdly apocalyptic.

But several locals, and a LIB follower, advised us to check out Waterman’s for an authentic Maryland dining experience. It was cool, and the price was right.

Waterman's Seafood
Waterman’s Seafood in Ocean City

But home is where the horses are …

But, of course, the horses are the draw for most out-of-town visitors. For those lucky enough to live near the park, the herd is their community and many locals can identify each horse by name.

Living with horses is really cool if you remember to watch your step. But, for us, the herd is only part of the magic of Assateague.

Assateague Island

The horses compliment this atmospheric landscape. Ethereal as a fairytale, the geography and history and mysteries of Assateague are as softly contoured as a secret.

Assateague Island
Horse path to the bay

Where did the horses come from anyway? Were their ancestors the survivors of La Galga, a Spanish shipwreck?

Assateague Island

Or were they herded here across the water to be kept out of sight from tax collectors and to avoid costly fence laws?

Assateague Island

I can believe all of above, but I’m sticking to the romantic shipwreck story because I was raised on it. So there.

If I paint a wild horse, you might not see the horse … but you will surely see the wildness
– Pablo Picasso
Assateague Island

But the silent, unsung warriors here, are the trees…

Assateague Island

standing up to the salt earth and air, and to the rising sea … bearing up against the blazing summer sun and icy winters. Holding their ground, dignity intact until the very end …

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and then some …

Assateague Island

There is a survival mechanism at work here.

Assateague Island

It’s almost supernatural.

Assateague Island

Only the scrappy can make it on the crusty edge of the earth, where every plant and creature worth its salt must learn to live, eat and breathe the stuff.

Assateague Island

But, if it can survive, it thrives. Self-emancipation is the natural order of things.

Assateague Island

Resistant to restraints and exploitation, Assateague evicted the developers. These barrier islands are managing their own retreat from us, not the other way around. 

Assateague Island

Here, in this relentless expanse of marshland, the fighting spirit of my favorite American disruptor, Harriet Tubman, was born. This is also where the Freedom Seekers gathered the salt to put one foot in front of the other and march.

Assateague Island

Conquest and domination hasn’t been great for horses either. Equestrian DNA studies continue, but so far it’s obvious that six-thousand years of domestication cannot be undone.

Assateague Island

But, when domesticated horses survive abandonment and roam in herds, they have a better chance of working out their origins and purpose.

Assateague Island

Left to browse naturally and to breed freely, the exterior signs of servitude diminish with each generation and their proportions change from that of a beast of burden into an animal – wild, free, and highly opinionated.

Blame it or praise it, there’s no denying the wild horse in us.
– Virginia Woolf
Assateague Island

And that’s what we came to Assateague to see with our own eyes, plain and clear, in the full light of the sun, at a proper hour of the day, between brunch and Happy Hour.

What do horses look like when they are not living an existence that is designed for my comfort, protection or amusement?

Absolutely nothing like a moose, unfortunately.

A horse is a horse.

If you want to see our exact route, click here.

*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.