From Washington, drive 3 1/2 hours southeast, past the suffocating commercial strips of Easton and Salisbury, until the land begins to sink away from the highway and it feels as if you are floating over the causeway to Chincoteague Island.
The nearness of the sea melts so much in us, John Fowles wrote, that the island, the original alternative society, is doubly liberating. So it is with tiny Chincoteague, seven miles long and three miles at its widest, set like a jewel between Virginia's Eastern Shore and Assateague Island.
Cross just after sunrise, when the channel reflects the champagne sky and the air rings with the chimes of sea birds. In the distance to the right, over Chincoteague Bay, white cottages hug the back of South Main Street. Roll the window down and the world is a shimmering savannah of sea grass and blue water.
The view to the left of the causeway is less esthetic, but equally instructive of what lies ahead: Dozens of billboards jut up out of the marsh, each trumpeting goods and services in colors that God never made. "Rover's Movie Barn," "Elvie's Electric Co.," "Tom's Cove Park," "J & B Cold Cuts," "The Kite Koop," the "Funland Arcade," "Aussie's Auto Cycle" and "Burglar Alarms."
The signs have multiplied in the past few years. Little Chincoteague, first settled as a fishing village in the 1600s, is booming. Like an elderly aunt who has abandoned her cotton dresses for beach shorts and Foster Grants, the island, or parts of it anyway, appears hellbent on high times.
Along Main Street every other house seems to have a rental cottage thrown up out back. There are Decoys! Decoys! Decoys! for sale everywhere. Beach Road, the boulevard that leads to the beaches and wild ponies of federally protected Assateague Island, is a jumble of sub shops, beach supplies, T-shirts, bicycles and, surprise, more carved ducks.
At the Beach Road circle a giant plaster woman in a painted polka-dot bikini, patron saint of the new water slide, holds her pallid arms aloft, a perpetual beacon to the cars from Richmond and Washington that clog the road at the height of the season. There are town houses and motels with names like East Wind and Refuge and a restaurant called The Spinnaker that is outfitted like a boat.
But head down the piney side roads and sandy lanes, through bogs and marshes, where no one will try to sell you anything. It is here, blessedly oblivious to your own effect on the landscape, that you can find the island's enchanted side.
Out Church Road along the east side of the island, overlooking Assateague Cove, wooden skiffs bob at their moorings. At the Pony Pines Restaurant, the waitress will bring what may be the best crabcakes on the island and point out the restaurant's dance floor, its walls painted with pictures of the legendary Spanish shipwreck that brought the wild ponies to Assateague centuries ago.
She gives matter-of-fact directions to the Beebe ranch, one-time home of Misty of Chincoteague, the colt immortalized in Marguerite Henry's novel of the same name. (The real Misty is stuffed and mounted and available for viewing, for $1.50, at the Chincoteague Miniature Pony Farm on, where else, the Beach Road.) "You know the trailer court at the end of Ridge Road?" says the waitress.
You find that the Ocean Breezes trailer community has indeed obliterated the Beebe ranch, but the old house still stands, its shingles faded and lawn overgrown. Wasps hum angrily in the crag where the brick chimney has pulled away from the side wall. The blinds are drawn and the windows are mute, but there is the unshakable sensation that you have found the island's center, the place where the spirits and memories live.
Main Street is still lined with handsome, white houses, their screened porches and verandas extending right up to the sidewalk. The driveways crunch with bleached oyster shells.
Inside one house an upright vacuum cleaner rests beside a rattan rug beater; the back door is open and you can see the bow of a trawler, and beside it, piles of oyster shells and nets. Walt Disney's "Misty of Chincoteague" has a permanent engagement at the Island Theater down the street.
There is an expectant quality to the island these days, though; something avid about the way some people look at land. A local innkeeper's eyes get dreamy as he contemplates his marina and confides that he will hold the property and "put a few units up" some day. Bill's Restaurant is twice the size it used to be. The H & H Pharmacy has expanded, too.
At the new gourmet health food store (formerly a bank), the proprietor sits at the counter looking pensive. He is friendly and very thin, with close-shorn hair and a black cross tattooed on his forearm. A former schoolteacher (his T-shirt reads "The Teacher From the Black Lagoon"), he emigrated to the island from Parkersburg, W.Va., last year. There was something about island life that appealed to him, he says. Chincoteaguers have been cordial, he says, but slow to flock to his shelves of coriander, turmeric and exotic tomato sauces. "The people from here are raised on seafood, biscuits and gravy." So he waits for the tourists, too.
As a visitor to Chincoteague, you can't help but feel a little guilty about all this hullabaloo. Thirty years ago the island was almost all Chincoteague natives, but these days even the winter population of 3,500 or so includes a growing number of "come here's," as nonnatives are called. (The average estimate puts them at about 20 percent of population now.)
Summertime population is at least three times that and it swells to more than 40,000 when the island's "cowboys" drive the wild ponies from Assateague to Chincoteague for the annual penning and sale in late July. The island's elderly natives find this time especially trying, and there are many on the island who worry that escalating land prices will force young families off the island. Ask about real estate on Chincoteague and people say the same thing: "Gone crazy."
Two years ago the small but energetic Citizens League incorporated itself "to Continue, Preserve and Develop the Chincoteague way of life," but there is still much debate between natives, "come heres" and vacationers about what that way of life is and how or if it should change as the island's economy changes from fishing to tourism.
In his book "Islands," John Fowles speculated that islanders grow dour and puritannical in their ways as protection against "the perennial temptation of the island: to drop the necessary inhibitions of mainland society . . . Islands pour a stronger wine of forgetfulness of all that lies beyond the horizon than any other places."
Chincoteaguers are not dour, but they are distinguished by a certain grace, a self-possession that comes with knowing whence they came and where they belong. (Even if these days they have to share the place with "come heres" who have decided they belong here, too.)
The commercial fishermen who gather at the Chincoteague Inn after they've unloaded a catch of trout, or blue fish or shark, are polite, even friendly, in the face of tiresome questions.
"I've had people come up and say, 'Are those fish?' " Calvin Matthews said as he hauled nylon nets studded with starfish up onto the dock beside the inn. It is April, but he is already deeply tanned, dressed in faded green overalls and cotton longjohns. It's been two years since he quit his pipefitting job in Northern Virginia and returned to Chincoteague to fish with his father.
Matthews says the island is "more lively" since tourism picked up, but he's not sure that's worth the crowded streets and crowded water. "Only a few people here make money from the tourists. Eighty percent of the people don't see anything from it." He points to the causeway that brings mainlanders onto the island. "See that bridge 'ere? I haven't been back over it except to sell fish since I got here. I'd like to take a stick of dynamite and blow it up." Then he laughs, shrugs and hands you his card: "Sea Bitch, Calvin Matthews, Capt. Water skiing, Island Tours, Shark fishing, Private Beach Parties."
Nancy Conklin's family has been on Chincoteague since the 1800s, when the island was a community of scattered fishing villages. She is the proprietress of the Seashell Motel and, like many on the island, she compares the poverty on the rest of Virginia's Eastern Shore to Chincoteague's newfound popularity and is grateful for the summer crowds. "There was a time when everyone on the island had to go to Baltimore or Philadelphia or New York. Now our sons and daughters stay here. Every kid in high school has a job here in the summertime if he wants it." One of her sons teaches school and runs the Mr. Chocolate ice-cream store.
When islanders have nightmares about the specter of Ocean City, they console themselves with the thought that they will always have Assateague. That island, divided between Maryland and Virginia, is undeveloped and likely to stay that way.
The Maryland half, which stretches north almost all the way to Ocean City, contains state and national parkland and campsites. And flies the size of golf tees. Virginia's half, just over another causeway from Chincoteague, has a good, clean beach and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge draws more than a million visitors a year, and it is, of course, most crowded in summer, but it is possible to create a traffic jam any time of year. Stand at the roadside and peer intently into the water, or toward the horizon. Squint, point if you like. Almost immediately the cars in either direction will slow to a crawl. Doors will open to eject amateur naturalists eager for a glimpse of river otter or sea hawk.
"Do Not Feed the Wild Animals" the sign says. Tantalizing, but on a recent visit the ponies seemed so jaded we half expected them to trot over and demand posing fees.
In comparison, the Sika deer we saw by the path was positively frenzied. It stood by the side of the road roadway, nose buried in the sweet grass. At 20 yards, my friend and I dismounted bicycles and considered how Marlin Perkins would handle the situation. At 10 feet we stopped breathing. We walked by, almost touching its tail. Only after we'd passed did the deer lift its head. It shot us a bored, brown glance and went back to supper.
At dusk, the refuge's freshwater ponds and salt cove fill with dozens of species of birds, a perfect classroom for anyone whose ornithological universe extends no further than the urban LBJ, or Little Brown Jobber.
The snowy egret walks with the slow, disjointed gait of a thief on the way to the vault. The osprey is nervous and fast. The mute swans float by like big white pillows, and the laughing gulls live up to the name.
Dusk is also the best time to return to Chincoteague to see what may be the East Coast's best collection of lawn decorations. There are seahorse birdbaths, pink elephants, anchors, wagon wheels, white grooms, black grooms, mallards, deer, seahorse birdbaths with fishermen, grizzly bears and windmills, all arranged as precisely as pictures at an exhibition.
There are several trailer courts on the island, some ivy-covered, others new and bald. Strange, suburban pockets of red-brick split levels or plantation-style ramblers rise out of patches of dog fennel; along the water, the sleek wooden boxes of well-heeled vacationers have begun to compete with white saltboxes.
Chincoteague accommodates it all. Chincoteague is not yet chic. What it is, especially when the crowds are down, is much better than that.