It must be summer, because Ellen Richardson has dropped off the last kid from her Chincoteague Island school bus for the year, and now she spends evenings scrubbing down kitchen equipment at the carnival grounds. Soon she'll be kneading pizza dough for the crowds, with the carousel going round and round, round and round nearby in the warm night air.
Summer's here, and that means tourists: June bugs, some call them, or come-heres, or just strangers. It means a wave of people washing onto Chincoteague, easily doubling its 4,500 population, and swelling as high as 50,000 during the week when crowds come to watch the wild ponies rounded up. Sometimes, Richardson wonders how the island stays afloat.
Tourists bring the money residents need to survive, critical since the fishing industry has dwindled. And every year, like clockwork, they transform the place.
"There's an ebb and flow," Morgan McCook said from his fiancee's Main Street gift shop, "just like the tides."
This is the season that changes patterns, flips routines, makes cities slow down and small towns speed up. Traffic eases on 14th Street and clogs on the Bay Bridge. Offices empty, and museums fill. Rafts get inflated, and computers shut down. The Metro looks different; fewer commuters in shiny shoes glancing at newspapers, more families in sneakers peering at maps. Capitol Hill restaurants fill with baseball fans instead of the usual congressional staffers, swells of people rushing in before the game to bolt down mussels and frites at the Belga Cafe or washing in post-game to Tunnicliff's Tavern, keeping the place busy late with their telltale red hats and ruddy faces.
For a small town near the ocean, summer turns life upside down, inundates it.
Winters on Chincoteague are quiet. Slow. "You can go just about anywhere you want to without running over somebody," Richardson said.
Late in the spring, the energy starts to change, said Megan Willer. People begin gardening and sprucing things up. In April, Ron Lankford starts putting together bikes at his shops, hundreds of them, getting ready. Restaurants open on weekends. Surfboards get propped up outside stores, lounge chairs unfolded by motel pools.
After Memorial Day, Willer put a sign up on the door of her store, Egret Moon Artworks, "Open 10ish to 2ish."
She decided that she wouldn't add " -- maybe."
This week, she'll stay open until 10 every night. By the end of next week, she'll be open until midnight, for tourists wandering by after dinner.
Willer knew it when she saw the first sunburn, that first pair of bright-red feet that marks the tourist. John Beam knew it when he heard the first sputter of a scooter motoring down Main Street. Lankford knew it when the daily sales figure jumped at his bike shop. Brahm Willer, Megan's 17-year-old son, knew it when he saw the first of the "stupid people who don't know how to drive."
Last week, the green trolley started rattling down Main Street for the season. Next weekend, the firemen's carnival opens, with the funnel cakes and the oyster sandwiches, and then Fourth of July fireworks and then it's pony week, when hotels all around are booked, some a year in advance, some as far away as Salisbury.
"I could rent a bike with a flat tire that week," Lankford said.
Now people come to Chincoteague in waves. Over the bridge into town Friday night. To the beach and the trails of the wildlife refuge Saturday morning. Back into town at night for dinner and sunset and soft serve at Mister Whippy. Back over the bridge and away on Sunday. There's a pre-beach rush for miniature golf and bumper boats at Refuge Golf and Amusements, said owner Steve Katsetos, and then a post-beach rush at the end of the day.
Many residents have found ways to avoid those waves of people, staying away from the beach on weekends, picking their times to run errands. "I go one way when everyone else is going another way," Beam said.
Not that they have much time for lying in the sand; summer for many locals means working 12-hour days, seven days a week, trying to earn a year's worth of money in a few months. Katsetos hasn't gotten to the beach, a mile down the road, on a summer day for five years now. Some buy their Christmas presents in the summer when they've got the cash.
The scanner in a corner of Pete and Ellen Richardson's home crackles with triple the number of emergency calls they'd get in winter, she said, lots of surfing and fishing accidents. And the wild-pony auction and carnival bring in enough money to keep the firetrucks going all year.
Over the weekend, the roads of the little island bustled with kayak-laden sport-utility vehicles, families tottering on rented bikes and tiny, bright-yellow, three-wheeled cars zipping around. Signs hollered TAFFY, BEACH GEAR, SOUVENIRS. Mallard ducks bobbed for food beneath a pier, tail feathers up and orange feet paddling, and a tourist leaned in close to snap pictures. The drawbridge bell clanged, and a long line of cars stretched down Main Street, idling, waiting as a shrimp trawler passed by. Colored umbrellas dotted the beach like confetti. A little boy ran toward the ocean, yelled as the wave touched his feet, raced back and turned to try it again. And again. And again.
Ellen Richardson slept in.
She's never learned to love the 5:30 a.m. start for her bus route, not in 28 years on the job. For a few months, she has no more early mornings, no more "Miss Ellen, I don't want to sit next to her anymore" problems to solve. In the summer, she's busy in a different way -- volunteering, helping families who need better housing, serving on the town council, cooking for the Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen's Carnival dinners, dishing up ham, potato salad, string beans, sliced tomatoes, yams, iced tea.
When Richardson first came to the island, in 1958, summer wasn't all that different from any other time of year -- just hotter.
But in 1962, the mayor finally succeeded in building a bridge to the beach. That's when tourists really started coming, she said, and as the years went by, people became more and more reliant on vacationers.
Every weekend in July, she'll be working until midnight, kneading big bowls of dough at the carnival, with 5-year-old grandson Avery at her side in his own small red apron. The carousel ponies will dance in circles, the Tilt-A-Whirl will make kids scream, and enough money for the whole year will be earned in a few hot weeks. Summer's here.