For an island getaway Chincoteague, VA is a must – a hidden gem – the seaside, unspoiled soft sand beaches, relaxing in nature, taking in the wildlife, eating salt water taffy but for me the wild ponies are the lure – made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel, “Misty of Chincoteague”.
My route from Cave City to Maryland’s Eastern Shore by way of the 23 mile Chesapeake Bay Tunnel – a mesmerizing bridge that transforms into a tunnel – an engineering wonder – and a thrill to cross. I take the well-marked turn-off to Chincoteague – the best part of the drive is when the I75 leaves behind the forested mainland and transforms into a silver causeway that spans a sea of iridescent green marsh grass, wetlands covered in wildflowers and shimmering blue water finally delivering me to the secluded little island on the horizon. I have the distinct feeling of truly moving into another place and time. The quaint village occupies an entire barrier island and connects via a short bridge span to another barrier island, Assateague, which is home to both the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague National Seashore.
Eager to see the ponies, I have a private boat tour scheduled first thing so head to the pier to meet Jake -who turns out to be the great pony magnet and guide extraordinaire. Originally from Ohio, Jake moved to the island five years ago but now knows the waters as well as any native – he is incredibly knowledgeable about Chincoteague, Assateague, the history, the community, it’s ecosystems, and of course, all about the ponies. Out of the harbor and fifteen minutes from the pier we see the first band of ponies – and amazingly they are wading in the water. Over the two-hour tour we saw more than 50 ponies at multiples spots. It was especially enchanting to see a white foal – great grand-son of Sufer Dude – the most famous Chincoteague pony since Misty – a dark colored stallion with striking blond mane and tail with a bold personality to match. His son Riptide, born in 2009, has now taken over his dad’s band of a dozen mares. Jake took the boat right up to the beach so I could see the beautiful creatures up close. I learned that the ponies are fully supported and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. They control the herd size with a pony auction in July. Each year tens of thousands of spectators come to watch the Saltwater Cowboys swim the pony herd from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. In addition to the Chincoteague ponies, we saw bald eagles, pelicans, ospreys, ducks, egrets, herons, and oyster beds. We also caught a magnificent view of Assateague’s lighthouse. Then Jake ventured out to open sea in hopes of finding a pod of dolphins, but we did not. We did however have a great view of Wallops Island. NASA has been launching small rockets from Wallops since 1945. In recent years, Wallops has become better known for the large scale rocket launch taking place from the facility. Rockets like Northrup Grumman’s Antares, which routinely launches from Wallops, carrying supplies to the International Space Station. Sadly, I had missed a launch by just three days…
Over lunch at Ropewalk – an open-air waterfront restaurant – while enjoying the most the most delicious Crab Cake Eggrolls, Fried Green Tomatoes and a sliver of Key Lime pie – I decide that the charm of an island is the art of doing nothing on the beach – searching for shells and listening to the waves. So, just before sunset I drive to Assateague Island State Park beach to wade in the surf and watch the sun go down in to the wrong direction – it is difficult to wrap my head around the sun setting with my back to beach – here I discover the essential magic of this place.
Most epic day ever… how I wish you had been here.
I take it as a sign of a great day ahead when we spot dolphins off the bow of the Lewes/Cape May ferry – they followed along, escorting us to the Cape. Back on land, Exit 0 takes me to Cape May, NJ – one of the nation’s oldest seaside resort’s – people have been vacationing here since the 1700’s. In the same year that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, a Dutch captain, Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, explored the Delaware River and named the peninsula Cape Mey, after himself, in 1620. The spelling was later changed to Cape May. Over a century later in 1761 Cape May became the first seashore resort in America. It has been legend here that Abraham Lincoln and his wife spent time here. Five United States presidents, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses S Grant, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison spent summers at the grand Congress Hotel, escaping the sweltering heat of Washington, DC. In 1882, the famous composer John Philip Sousa composed a march in honor of the Congress Hotel, the “Congress Hall March”.
Cape May is a picture postcard of the past – what sets it apart is it’s sheer number of Victorian homes – the second highest concentration after San Francisco – a fire in 1878 which devastated the city explains how this came to be; the town quickly re-built itself with the modern style of the day – Victorian. These grand old homes, ornamented in gingerbread trim, garnished with pastel paint, boasting airy front porches with people rocking away, line the streets. Apart from the wonderful architecture, horse-drawn carriages weave around town – the sound of their clip-clopping over the stone pavers providing background music to the day, gas lamps dot the sidewalks and trolleys can be seen giving tours. The adorable streets downtown are jammed with mom and pop shops, nostalgic candy and ice cream parlors and a plethora of old-fashioned B&B’s –downright quaintness.
After poking about town, I am eager to go to the beach, but first visit the famous Cape May Lighthouse. Built in 1859 it is one of the oldest in the United States and one of the most photographed. As impressive as it from the ground you really must climb the 199 steps up the cast-iron spiral stairway to see the staggering view. Right down the road, I discover a couple slices of history – a WWII Lookout Tower built in 1942 – one of 15 such fire control towers stretching along this portion of beach, used to triangulate the position of suspicious ships and submarines. And slowly sinking in Delaware Bay – the WWI SS Atlantus – widely known as the “Concrete Ship” – the SS Atlantus first set sail in December 1918. It is the best-known of a dozen concrete ships built to serve in WWI Emergency Fleet; but the war ended a month prior to launch, so the SS Atlantus became a transport boat for troops and then retired to a salvage yard only two years later. But that is not the end of the story, six years later it was purchased, repaired and towed to Cape May along with the two sister ships to create a ferry dock. However, a storm hit and broke the ship free of its anchorage, causing it to crash off the coast. More than 90 years later, the SS Atlantus remains a permanent fixture in the bay continuing to sink – with just the stern visible today.
At last, I am heading to the beach to put my feet in the sand … I settle in to watch the sun set over Delaware Bay while taps play and Old Glory is lowered for the evening – a 40 year tradition. I have a special spot in my heart for this quaint beach town on the cape — Cape May.
We talk a lot about privilege these days and I am thinking one of the greatest privileges is the prerogative to go where we please, when we please. Today is all about having the free rein / privilege to change course when I get wind of something new.
We all know the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Outer Banks are why I am in the neighborhood rethinking Daytripping’s OBX tour. But the Inner Banks is a term new to me – turns out Inner Banks is new – the term “Inner Banks” is part of a 21st – century attempt to rebrand the coastal plain region of eastern NC previously known as the Carolina Sandhills. Around the time of the Civil War, people from this area were known as “Goobers”. But that is a story for another day.
The highlights of the Inner Banks are the Great Dismal Swamp and the town of Edenton, NC. – where I am fortunate enough to spend my day.
Forbes Magazine has called Edenton the South’s prettiest small town. I am particularly drawn to small towns – especially the ones where time moves at its own pace and one look can send your spirit soaring. Edenton is more than just crazy pretty – history is vividly evident here – you cannot make a turn without bumping into history and significant players in that history – this town has character and authentic old charm.
Edenton was founded in 1712 on the banks of the Albemarle Sound and is the oldest continually settled place in North Carolina. After Jamestown failed, people moved here. Early on it was a prosperous seaport village. After the Civil War, it was an important railroad hub and then an industrial center, producing cotton textiles, peanuts, and lumber. It was North Carolina’s Colonial capital in the early 1700s, birthplace of fugitive slave, writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs, home to James Iredell, one of the first Justices of the Supreme Court appointed by George Washington and Joseph Hewes signer of the Declaration of Independence. Standing on the corner of Broad and Water Streets, pondering which direction to wander, a slow moving Trolley passes by and I hear the tour guide saying “Edenton homes are known for their porches” – a town of porches – what could be finer.
The historic district is lined with stately Victorian homes all wrapped with grand porches, adorned with swings and Southern-style rocking chairs. Grand homes with gables, sleeping porches and historical markers. Quiet treasures preserved through the years. The town’s 1767 courthouse – North Carolina’s oldest – faces the water and overlooks a lawn lined with gracious homes. Including the 1782 home that belonged to Penelope Barker, who was one of America’s earliest and best-known female activists. During the American Revolution, Penelope signed her name to a piece of paper, and another woman signed the same paper, and another did, too, and more followed, until 50 of them had organized the first full-blown women’s movement in the United States history – the 1774 Edenton Tea Party – boycott of British goods.
Downtown is right out of the quaint, small-town handbook and triggers memories of hometown main streets before malls. On the town green along the waterfront sits an amazing little lighthouse – the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse, believed to be the last remaining original screw-pile light house left in the US and the world. Originally situated along the river close to town, in 2007 the dilapidated lighthouse was moved to this location, restored and is now a beautiful landmark.
In the harbor, I stumble across the “Liber-Tea” a spiffy electric boat offering scenic cruises, at the Visitor’s Center, I learn that the Women’s Club presents a biannual Pilgrimage tour of historic homes and gardens with docents in colonial attire, carriage rides and afternoon tea in the court house – still more reasons to make this a must stop on our next Outer Banks tour.
Whether it is the horseshoe-shaped town surrounded by cypress tress and the Ablemarle Sound, the flag lined main street, the scent of honeysuckle in the air or the weathered headstones from the 1700’s under the shade of giant magnolias in St Paul Episcopal cemetery – I love this little town and conclude that “Eden”ton is a fitting name – charming and historic – a real garden of beauty and history.
Now, I am headed off to look for some of that “Liber-tea” and a scone. See you here next Wednesday.
Elvis and a bit of Lewis & Clark
I am singing along to “ A Hunk, A Hunk of Burning Love” on Elvis Radio as I enter Tupelo, MS to see the house where Elvis was born. I have been to Graceland to see his life in his glory many times but today I am exploring his humble beginnings. Tupelo is unquestioningly proud of being the birthplace of the rock ’n roll legend – as well they should be. Before arriving, I knew about the Elvis Birthplace Home Museum but am surprised to find the entire town feeds off the memory of the King and his legacy. Still, I am happy to find a seriously cool little town, prosperous, well preserved and booming.
The deep south is where blues music was born, and gospel music was buried deep in Elvis soul – that fusion of gospel and blues that Elvis came to personify was the first time the two were blended and it transformed the sound of music – Elvis embodies rock ‘n roll as we know it today and the chords he produced continue to define American music today. He recorded 710 songs, stared in 31 films – made women all around the world swoon – served in the Army and he only lived 42 years. He has been dead longer than he lived. But his legacy is so much a part of popular culture and our collective consciousness, it would be hard to avoid knowing about Elvis.
This story is a reminder that humble beginnings can produce a King. This is the mid-1930’s and times were tough for the Presley’s, as well as just about everyone else in Tupelo, MS. He was born in the poorest state in the country, during the Great Depression on the wrong side of the tracks. In 1934, Elvis’ mother, Gladys, was expecting so her husband, Vernon, built a tiny home for them with his own hands. He had help from his father and brother and borrowed the $180 for building materials from his employer. It was in this two-room shotgun shack that Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935. He was one of twins, but sadly, his brother, Jessie Garon Presley did not live. When Elvis was three, his father went to prison for eight months for adding a zero to a $4 check he received for selling a pig. The family defaulted on the loan and were evicted. The Presley family lived in other locations in Tupelo until Elvis was 13. At age 11, his mother bought him a guitar for his birthday. Elvis could be seen around town carrying that guitar, right up to the day Vernon piled his family into their 1939 Plymouth and made the move to Memphis. By age 21, he was famous. He had moved to Memphis but came back to Tupelo in 1956 to perform at the same fairgrounds where he won a prize singing “Ole Shep” at age 10. The next year, in 1957, he gave a concert in Tupelo and donated all the money to the city to build a park on the land surrounding his birthplace home. After his death in 1977, the City of Tupelo formed the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation to renovate the birthplace and create all that is here today.
On the grounds of Elvis Birthplace Museum is his original home, the little white house with the porch swing, on its original site, restored to its original state, just as it would have been on the day he was born. Here also, is the Assembly of God Pentecostal Church the Presley family worshipped in and an amazing bronze statue of Elvis at 13 years old with his guitar.
I strolled downtown, a charming mix of old and new with great old brick buildings. I stopped in Tupelo Hardware, which opened its doors in 1926 and from where Elvis got his first guitar – visited Reeds – delivering Confidence, Pride and Joy since 1905 and the former place of employment of Gladys Presley. A photo of her in a group of workers wraps the upper wall.
Back in the rig with a milkshake to go from Johnnies on East Main – where Elvis ate as often as he could during his impoverished youth – I turn up the volume on Elvis Radio and sing along to “Be My Little Good Luck Charm”.
Back on Hwy 78, with Tupelo in my rear view mirror I enter the Natchez Trace Parkway and this is where I slip a tidbit about my heroes Lewis & Clark into the Elvis story. In late 1809, Meriwether Lewis left St. Louis to begin an arduous journey to the Federal City – Washington, DC – to clear his name. This journey would lead to his death on the Natchez Trace six weeks later. Just three years after the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the 35 year old Lewis was no longer the hero he had once been. He was deeply in debt and accused of malfeasance by the War Department. After traveling by boat down the Mississippi, Lewis spent a lengthy stint at Fort Pickering – the site of present-day Memphis where he had weighed the risks of going to Washington by sea via New Orleans, or taking the rugged and dangerous Natchez Trace overland through the wilderness. Lewis’s decision to take the Trace may have been ill-fated, but it was not naive; one of the most experienced wilderness travelers in the world, he was also familiar with the Trace and the resident Chickasaw Indians from his days as a young officer. The route from Memphis to the main Chickasaw village, a place called Big Town, was called Pigeon Roost Road. And while the forests and their millions of passenger pigeons are long gone, you can still take a jaunt down Pigeon Roost’s successor road, today’s US 78, and meet up with the Natchez Trace Parkway at the crossroads where Big Town once stood. Today the bustling junction is known as Tupelo, Mississippi, and it just happens to be the birthplace of Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll.