After 36 years of sleeping under a roof, I decided (with a little pressure from my husband and our two boys) to try camping. My romanticized vision included a peerless natural setting, toasted marshmallows on long sticks and star-speckled skies. The reality was more elementary, as in the four classic elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The earth we chose is a rare place, a barrier island where wild ponies roam free (we saw 21 of the 171-horse herd), and you can pitch your tent within throwing distance of an unspoiled beach.
If you haven't guessed it yet, Assateague Island, Md., is one of the few beaches around that allows camping. (Chincoteague, the Virginia section of the island, does not.) This pristine national seashore was slated to become Ocean City South when the nor'easter of '62 forced developers to reconsider. (You'll see the chunks of asphalt that were once Baltimore Boulevard if you walk the "Life of the Dunes" trail.) In fact, Assateague Island originally was attached to Ocean City, but the hurricane of '33 separated them, both physically and ideologically.
Our assigned patch of sand was protected from the ocean by a tallish dune. I stood at its crest and surveyed the marvelous scene. Before me, wave upon wave from the wind-buffeted ocean slid across the sand.
As I listened to the silvery rustle of dune grass, few figures broke the white expanse of beach at low tide. Turning around, I could see, between the ocean and the flat blue bay, just our tent and a few others, a couple of RVs and acres of scrubby trees and bayberry bushes that help hold the island in place.
Of course, you can see Assateague by day and stay at a hotel. But you'd miss the evening serenade of the bobwhite and the call of the red-winged blackbird. You'd miss a dazzling Venus in the western sky and the artificial glow of Ocean City to the north. You'd miss being awakened by the roseate dawn light suffusing your tent, which leads me to . . .
An ocean breeze can do wonders for both your soul and your sinuses. Other than an infrequent whiff of fresh pony dung, the air of Assateague nearly shimmers with cleanliness and clarity, at least in the spring.
There's a reason why the adjective "windswept" appears with clichelike frequency in descriptions of Assateague. When we arrived at our campsite, we weren't sure if our tent stakes would hold (long ones are recommended), and the air was much cooler than we'd hoped for in May. My husband, Pete, and I were kept awake by the incessant tent flapping and rattling gusts. For the kids, however, the wind was white noise; the two boys, 4 and 6, and our 7-month-old slept beautifully.
There is a major advantage to breezy, cool air at Assateague, I reminded myself: The bugs don't like it either. Whenever we mentioned where we were camping to friends, their response always included some warning about those pesky denizens. When it's hot and still in the summer, the island teems with mosquitoes and large, biting flies. Because of a cool, dry spring and the brisk breeze, we saw nary a skeeter.
Watch out for the ticks, though. We found a few on the boys that my husband recommended I throw into the . . .
We went through three books of matches trying to light the grill to cook the steaks and baked potatoes my wonderful husband had packed. If I wanted to eat something other than canned tuna, I had to find matches. Our plight led me to discover another boon of camping: camaraderie. I went knocking on other tents and found that our fellow campers were more than happy to share. In short, we lit the fire, cooked our feast and managed to eat it before the wind blew it into the sea.
"Meditation and water are wedded for ever," says Herman Melville in "Moby-Dick." Standing at the edge of Earth, one ponders the endless miles of undulating sea to cross before Earth reemerges. Walking barefoot in the surf, my mind travels more miles than I could ever walk . . . backward and forward through memories and possibilities.
While a long walk into the wind was beyond the comfort zone of our kids that weekend, we made repeated forays to the ocean's edge. The boys played tag with the waves while the baby's arms flapped with glee at the wonder of it all.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Assateague Island is just over three hours from the Beltway. From the Bay Bridge, take U.S. 50 east toward Ocean City. Turn right on Route 611 and follow the signs.
BEING THERE: Besides the camper clusters, there are three natural habitats on the island; dune, forest and marsh are each featured in a half-mile trail. The marsh and forest trails offer elevated vantage points to absorb the scenery or scout for birds. We spotted a great egret feeding in the salt marsh and a family of graceful sika deer lounging beneath loblolly pines. The Barrier Island Visitors Center is worthwhile, particularly if you have kids. The large aquarium and touch tank will introduce them to local inhabitants, and you can pick up a guide to the trails. The National Park Service offers children's programs, guided walks and talks on weekends in season. Visitors can rent bikes, canoes and clam rakes near the bayside picnic area. The bike path in the National Seashore area is ideal for in-line skates.
Near Snow Hill, Md., you can visit 19th-century village life at Furnace Town (410-632-2032), a family-friendly restored village with artisan demonstrations and a one-mile nature trail through forest and cypress swamp. And if you can't go to the beach without a round of miniature golf, Ocean City (1-800-626-2326, www.ocean-city.com) is just a few minutes from the island.
WHERE TO STAY: Assateague Island National Seashore (410-641-1441, www.nps.gov/asis) offers several camping options: ocean, bay, hike/canoe-in and off-road vehicle sites. The ocean and bayside sites have grills, picnic tables, chemical toilets, drinking water and cold showers. We stayed at a walk-in site, carrying our stuff about a hundred yards. A family campsite (up to two tents and six people) is $14 a night, mid-May to mid-October. The $5 entrance fee for the National Seashore is good for a week. Reservations--highly recommended, and it's not too early to plan now for fall--can be made for May 15-Oct. 15 stays up to five months in advance at 1-800-365-CAMP, http://reservations.nps.gov. Off-season sites are $10 a night on a first-come, first-served basis. Back-country campers need a $5 permit for hike-in or paddle-in campsites. Campers with four-wheel-drive vehicles can get an off-road vehicle permit ($60 for an annual permit) and camp in a designated ORV place.
For local conditions or more details, contact the Sinepuxent Ranger Station (410-641-3030).
Maryland's adjacent Assateague State Park is open April 1-Oct. 30. Campsites are $20 per night and include access to a hot-water bathhouse, flush toilets and a concession stand in season. Call 1-888-432-CAMP for reservations up to a year in advance. If the oceanside campgrounds are full, try the Pocomoke River State Park (410-632-2566), 45 minutes inland. Frontier Town Campground and Western Theme Park (1-800-228-5590, www.frontiertown.com) offers the kitsch of Ocean City but is closer to the island.
WHERE TO EAT: Rather than tackling our grill the next day, we headed inland for a great breakfast at the Pony Island Cafe (410-629-1996). For fancier food, the Atlantic Hotel in nearby Berlin (1-800-814-7672) was surprisingly kid-friendly, at least in the middle of the afternoon.
So how often can you combine a canoe ride with horseback and hot-air balloon rides, a Native American pow-wow and the dedication of new state park? At the Shenandoah Riverfest, June 19-20 in Shenandoah River State Park south of Front Royal, Va., bring your bathing suit for the water rodeo, have your face painted or tour the wildlife exhibits. The event's second day (Sunday, June 20) is river clean-up day; reservations are being taken now for free canoes, safety gear, guides, transportation, parking, festival T-shirts, lunch and trash bags for clean-up volunteers (call Trace at 540-635-5050). For information and directions to the Riverfest site, call the park at 1-800-933-7275 or 540-622-6840, or check out festival cosponsor Friends of the Shenandoah River's Web site at www.fosr.org.
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For more than 75 regional getaway ideas, pick up a copy of The Washington Post's "Escape Plans," available at bookstores. Also handy: the year of "Escapes" articles at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/travel /escapes/escapesindex.htm.