Assateague and Chincoteague National Parks – Late Fall 2016 Road Trip – Day 4

One of my favorite movies was one from the 1980s called Diner, set in Baltimore, so it was only appropriate since we were in the area that we find one for breakfast. The Double TT Diner is an iconic old-time diner that looked similar to an airstream RV with shiny chrome. Back in the 1950’s, two business partners named Thomas and Tony opened the first Double T restaurant that was named after the two T’s in their first names.

The restaurant had a look of the 1950’s with rows of booths and a small jukebox placed at the end of each table but instead of 45 rpm records it had an updated version of compact discs that also seemed outdated now. Our omelets were tasty and filling then we moved on travelling east across the Bay Bridge.

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The Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans the Chesapeake Bay, connecting Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore region with the urban Western Shore. The original span opened in 1952 with a length of 4.3 miles, and was the world’s longest continuous over-water steel structure. The bridge is part of U.S. Route 50 which connects the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area with Ocean City, Maryland. The long four-lane split bridge is high above the bay giving us a view of the shimmering water in the morning with freighters chugging by.

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 Ocean City, Maryland is a summer resort destination but it was nearly a ghost town void of people when we arrived. This town brought back memories from a 1970s vacation for one of us, which resulted us in searching for the Santa Maria motel where her family stayed on our vacation forty-two years ago. Ironically we found the location, but it had been torn down and a new upscale Courtyard Hotel was in its place, by far the best looking place on the boardwalk.

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Later we continued our walk down the boardwalk and onto the beach, with a stiff breeze blowing up a lot of sand and created choppy water that crashed onto the beach. We spent a few more minutes on the empty boardwalk with all of the shops closed up for winter.

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Da Dum, Da Dum, Da Dum, — the creepy music from the movie Jaws which generates the fear and anticipation of a shark in the water delivered that feeling when we stopped to see a recreational camp called Frontier Land that celebrated the Wild West with sets of cowboys, Indians, and can-can girls.

The camp was closed the day of our visit but rested at the front of the establishment was a 31-foot shark prop from the movie Jaws. The plaster-cast shark sits in a parking lot, straining to devour a rowboat always just beyond its reach. It is unknown whether the shark is an actual prop from the movie Jaws since so many others claim the same fame. It just seems wrongly placed in Frontier Land next to a statue of a cowboy holding an ice cream cone unless it were renamed Weird Land.

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Stopping briefly at the Assateague National Park Visitor Center to renew our annual National Parks, we promptly continued across the Verrazano Bridge into the park that is well known for its wild horses and birds on the 37-mile barrier island along Maryland and Virginia. The “wild” horses on Assateague are actually feral animals, meaning that they are descendants of domestic animals that have reverted to a wild state. Local folklore describes the Assateague horses as survivors of a shipwreck off the Virginia coast.

The most plausible explanation is that they are the descendants of horses that were brought to barrier islands like Assateague in the late 17th century by mainland owners to avoid fencing laws and taxation of livestock.

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The horses are split into two main herds, one on the Virginia side and one on the Maryland side of Assateague. They are separated by a fence at the Virginia/Maryland State line. These herds have divided themselves into bands of two to twelve animals and each band occupies a home range. The National Park Service manages the Maryland herd. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns and manages the Virginia herd, which is allowed to graze on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, through a special use permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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The permit restricts the size of the herd to approximately 150 adult animals in order to protect the other natural resources of the wildlife refuge. It is the Virginia herd which is often referred to as the “Chincoteague” ponies. The feral horse population of Assateague Island is known as the Assateague horse in Maryland and the Chincoteague pony in Virginia. This distinction is based on the traditional definition of a horse or a pony as to whether the animal falls over or under 14.2 hands that is 58 inches. The equines on the island tend to be under 14.2, but have horse’s traits.  It is believed that their relatively small size is primarily due to environmental, rather than genetic conditions.

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Our arrival on the island soon allowed us to see the feral horses. As we drove toward the beach, we saw two horses grazing near the edge of the road. The areas beyond the road were sandy with spots of dense shrubs. Beyond the shrubs was a marsh of cord grass.

We hiked a trail to the beach and up a dune trying to spot more feral horses on this breezy day, coming upon horses corralled by a group of people who often brought their domestic horses to ride on the beach. They said that they sometimes encountered the feral horses when they rode.

A further walk up the beach a bit more without another human being around while watching the birds scamper at the water’s edge was delightful.

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Heading south to Chincoteague, we opted to do a driving tour first, where we had the opportunity to see more feral ponies. This time the ponies grazed in a marshy meadow under leafless trees. Two more pairs of ponies stood in the meadow.

We had planned to take a boat tour to see more ponies but decided against it due to the choppy water. Later when the winds calmed, we thought of the boat cruise again but would have to pay for a ghost rider as if there were three riders instead of two so that it would be worthwhile for the boat captain to sail.

Instead we continued our own tour stopping at different points to photograph a large variety of birds and some horses. We drove out to the end of the island where the marsh, the sand dunes, and the ocean met. It was exceptionally gusty but we saw gulls, herons, and other birds using the wind to their advantage. The birds just seem to float in the air without flapping their wings.

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Assateague Light is a 142-foot-tall lighthouse located on the southern end of Assateague Island off the coast of the Virginia Eastern Shore, a short one-quarter mile walk from the visitor center. The brick conical shaped lighthouse is at the top of a hill near the Coast Guard Station. The lighthouse is painted in alternate red and white horizontal stripes and built in 1867 to replace a much shorter lighthouse. This spot was a nice rest for us after our hike up the hill and a nice view also.

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We continued our drive of the Virginia Eastern Shore and noticed a number of contrails from jets above us. Seven separate vapor trails suspended above us against the blue sky. This continued as we drove on our way to Onancock. Not quite as good a name as a small town in Newfoundland, it was amusing enough to divert off the main road; it turned out to be a very quaint historic town.

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We landed at the Hampton Inn in Exmoor, Virginia for the night. There is not much in Exmoor so we had to drive back to the highway to get something to eat. We ate at El Maguey, where we had chorizo arroz and a chicken enchilada with rice. The Mexican restaurant was shabby looking but the food was good and the prices cheap.