Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Camping at Assateague

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned road trip… just kicking back, seeing the sights, chatting, laughing, and eating. No deadlines, no responsibilities, no work. Just the excitement of the journey and the anticipation of reaching a destination.

Fresh-baked muffins from Hannaford, and coffee coolata and chai tea from Dunkin Donuts for breakfast.

McDonald’s fish sandwiches and French fries for lunch.

Skittles to snack on in between.

Wrappers and crumbs all over the car.

But there’s nothing like new technology to make the trip more enjoyable… Mapquest tells me how long I’ll be on each highway so I know when to start looking for the next junction. EZ Pass works from Maine to Virginia so I don’t have to mess with quarters or even slow down for tolls. And satellite radio saves me from the insanity of long stretches of thoroughfare through which no radio signal can be detected.

Still, it’s the company that makes a road trip enjoyable, and long talks with Mandy are a truly pleasurable treat. Especially now that she’s a teenager, and her time expenditure with family has decreased as time with friends increases (as it should). But it’s nice that she can still enjoy a weekend away with me and appreciate the place that I have circled on the map…

We have been there before. It was about 5 years ago that we first camped on Assateague Island.
The first three days of that earlier trip were spent running around Washington D.C. visiting all the usual attractions. Traffic leaving the city had delayed our departure quite a bit, and we had been lucky to arrive at the front gate of the state park just before closing time. The tent had to be erected by the beams of the car headlights. We could hear the ocean but not see it as I drove the extra long tent stakes into the sand. Sleeping bags had been unrolled, and two weary campers had quickly passed out in the fresh salty nighttime air of the undeveloped island.

The next morning we had been so excited to finally view our surroundings. Unzipping a tent flap, we had our first glimpse of the wild horses grazing right outside our window. It was the first of many encounters with the wild (yet semi-tame) inhabitants of that sandy tract of land off the coast of Maryland.

Between the amazing photo opportunities with the wild horses and the curious deer, the uncrowded beach and awesome boogie boarding, I’d always hoped to return.

So when my father and I began discussing where we would meet up for our summer excursion together, I mentioned Assateague. Although it isn’t anywhere near either one of us, he and his girlfriend living in Ohio and Mandy and me in New York, they were up for the trip.


Sometimes, no matter how much you plan, things can go wrong while you’re on vacation.

You envision relaxation, quality time, summer sun and summer fun, and you get them. But every now and then you also get some tests thrown in for good measure, just to see how badly you want that summer fun…

Like when I started to erect the tent, and I realized that there was a pole missing. You know, the one whose sections won’t come apart anymore, so it doesn’t fit into the tent bag? It was still at home, of course, leaning indignantly against the corner of the garage, arms folded, eyebrows raised – yes, I admit it, completely forgotten.

So I got into the car and drove up the road to the camp supply store to buy a new pole, and while I was driving the battery light came on. The battery light, of course, should not come on while I’m driving. (Dad would need to replace the alternator before I made the trip home).

And when I brought the replacement pole back to camp, I quickly discovered that there was just no way it would work in conjunction with the other poles.
In the meantime, the ocean wind was transforming the tent into a wild, unruly parachute. And as I tackled the disobedient mess to prevent it from escaping down the beach, I snapped one of the smaller fiberglass poles and finally admitted defeat.

So I bought a new tent from Wal-Mart, because I refused to entertain the thought of sleeping in the same tent with my father and his girlfriend. Besides the fact that both Mandy and I value our privacy and personal space, I just couldn’t imaging sleeping shoulder to shoulder with the man who snores a song only a warthog could appreciate.

We put up the tent by the light of the moon.

Yes, this was how my first night of vacation began.
Tent? Broken.
Car? Broken.
Oh and by the way, Mandy? Major cramps, so she was broken too. But at least we had Tylenol with Codeine.

And hey, the new tent was cool, and we were camping on the beach and the weather was glorious.

So we took long walks on the sand, tiptoeing past the scurrying “ghost crabs” and occasionally reaching down to collect some small treasure offered up by the waves.

We built sand castles and took naps.

We rode our bikes to the camp store for scoops of soft ice cream.

I loaded up on bugspray and ventured into the marsh on the other side of the island to photograph the horses grazing on the tall grass.

The nights were incredible. There was a thick blanket of stars overhead every evening; not a cloud in the sky. And since the full moon reflected so brightly off all the white sand, we never needed to carry flashlights.

We roasted hot dogs over the fire my father proudly built every night, and later we toasted marshmallows for dessert.

Nighttime walks on the beach were an entirely different experience, something magically eerie. The moon illuminated just enough to show the way, but the night still cloaked enough of our surroundings to make it feel mysterious and exhilarating. And with the view slightly veiled, our other senses came alive, soaking up the sound of the waves and of the birds hunting for crabs in the silvery darkness, the smell of the salty ocean mist, the feel of the cool sand massaging our feet as we walked.

We could see the lights from Ocean City twinkling in the distance, a reminder of just how far we were from the crowds of the boardwalk...
(Next post: more about the horses)

Sunday, September 9, 2007


Throughout my childhood, going on a family vacation meant one thing: Camping.

My parents never had a whole lot of money, so there were no flights to tropical locales, no tours through bustling city streets, no visits to distant lands.

We owned a tent. We would pack up the car with sleeping bags and pillows, peanut butter and jelly, bug spray, flashlights, fishing poles, jiffy pop, a propane lantern and the camp stove, a Frisbee and a deck of cards. And, of course, the dogs. And we would set off for a campground in the Catskills to reconnect with earth, water, air and fire.

Camping trips took place every Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. Often we’d go together with my Uncle Mike and Aunt Ronnie and their 6 children, which meant my brother and I would have cousins to play with. They had a pop up camper, which we thought was the epitome of luxury. When they upgraded to a bigger camper, my parents bought their little pop up, and thus we moved up in the world.

It seemed to always rain on those holiday weekends, so there would be 2 kids and 2 dogs and 6 cousins slopping around in the mud for 4 days and bringing it all into the tent and the camper. Everyone and everything would be dirty and wet and cold.

And we loved it.

We’d bring bikes to ride around the campground, and there were enough of us to furnish the feeling of being our own little gang. We’d play tag, or maybe play catch with a softball and our well-worn dusty mitts. My cousin Jenny and I would get lost for a while to explore a mountain creek or a rocky bluff, and occasionally the campground’s game room with our pockets full of quarters.

Of course there would be the usual teasing and fights and sibling rivalries among the kids, but at night we’d converge to toast marshmallows on long thin sticks over the campfire, eyes and smiles illuminated by the flickering orange flames.

It was exciting to be outside after dark, surrounded by the sounds of crickets and frogs, by campfire smoke, by the twinkling fireflies and a sky full of stars.

We would giggle and tell stories and make up new lyrics to the “Diarrhea song” as our bouncing flashlight beams headed up the dirt roads and paths, moving erratically toward the mosquito-filled bathhouses. After one last pee, a quick brush across our teeth and a splash of water over our faces, we were off to snuggle deep down in our sleeping bags and doze off to sleep.

Those were the vacations of my childhood.


I never had a whole lot of money while I was raising my daughter. I brought Mandy on her first camping trip when she was two years old.

We’d practiced in the middle of the living room under tents made from sheets and couch cushions, so she was elated to finally be camping “for real”. She sang to herself as she collected buckets full of pinecones and acorns from around the campsite. Doing things outside – eating, sleeping, even peeing – made them that much more fun. For my little nature-girl-in-training, camping was the perfect vacation. And we took many perfect vacations.

And even when we had the resources to take flights to tropical locales, tour through bustling city streets and visit distant lands, we still took camping trips too. There’s just something about camping, the reconnecting with earth, water, air and fire, that can’t be duplicated in a hotel room.

And so over Labor Day weekend, Mandy and I packed the car with sleeping bags and pillows, peanut butter and jelly, bug spray, flashlights, fishing poles, jiffy pop, a propane lantern and the camp stove, a Frisbee and a deck of cards.

And we went on vacation.

(to be continued...)