Wild ponies, and that old campfire smell.


May 20, 2016 by Julia

I went back to Assateague Island with my oldest friend this past weekend. It’s a thin strip of land off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, the bay side full of marshes, grass blowing in the wind, stark white herons, orioles, so many birds. The opposite coastline is beach and ocean. Wild ponies graze all over. They wander through campsites, gallop on the beach, and pick their way through the woods. I think they must have the best lives a horse could have.




Sarah and I have camped here about five times over the past fifteen years. The first time was like a comedy of errors (too boring to share), but the second time was better (don’t ask me why we decided there should be a second time), and then by the third time we were thoroughly enchanted not just by the idea of AN ISLAND WITH WILD PONIES!!!, but the island itself. We knew the trails, and that the camping was better on the bay side, where loud generators are banned, unlike on the RV-ridden ocean side camp loops. (Ironically, you can often hear the ocean waves in your tent better from the bay side than the ocean side.)



We learned in previous years how to make a fire on the beach at night. The stars were spectacular. Once, when the weather was too humid to start a fire, we sat on the hood of my car and listened to Nick Drake, Indigo Girls and The Shins, watching the gorgeous display of pink heat lightning far across the horizon. We named the best tree on the “Life of the Dunes” trail “Matilda.” I actually embraced her and felt that she’d missed us. Proud tree-hugger, right here.



My snail slowly climbing


This photo, taken by Dennis with our old gang and camping crew about ten years ago, shows Matilda in her full glory. 

On Friday night, as we sat around our campfire at our site, I said, “I think travel might be one of the top five things I need to be happy. And nature is another.” Earlier in the week, when we were both in the middle of the usual stresses and exhaustions, both suffering head colds from hell, we joked through text: “I am ready to be healed by Mother Nature.” It wasn’t really a joke, though – we just aren’t capable of saying something like that with a straight face.



“Stop taking pictures so I can eat my burnt pancake in peace!” I burned it. We split the burnt one and the good one.

At the campfire, we discussed what the other three needs for happiness might be. Family and relationships, of course. Interests – an umbrella under which we could place all the things we are skilled at, the things we enjoy, the things we create, the things that intrigue us – in short, anything that lights a spark inside us, and breaks us out of boredom or depression. And then, honestly I can’t remember how we summed up the fifth thing, but it was along the lines of generosity for others and the world, something that might involve sacrifice, but leave the world a slightly better place for us having inhabited it. Goodness and concern for humanity.



We got hit by a sudden thunderstorm on our second night, and decided to evacuate to the cheapest hotel we could find. The forecast on our phones said the rain would go all night. It had already puddled inside our tent, and Sarah’s bedding was soaked. Wind tugged at the nylon so much that a few stakes had popped out of the ground – our freezing bodies would most likely be the only anchors for the tent as it whipped around us. We knew from experience what that felt like.



I know this looks staged, but it’s not entirely. Because we are goofballs, we were trying to enjoy the campfire as long as possible, and I was about to pose with a cheesy smile when a strong gust of rain/wind hit me. This IS the photo we sent Dennis when we were contemplating whether we should stay at a hotel. Obviously we wanted him to tell us we should be sensible and go to the hotel, which he did, whew. 

Such circumstances would have prompted wailing and outbursts ten years ago, but this time we prided ourselves on our current roll-with-the-punches maturity. We were pretty much just having fun the entire time, no matter what. Of course, back in college years we may or may not have been able to afford a spontaneous hotel stay – even at the cheap, outdated and odd-smelling place we ended up, where the receptionist actually offered us a smoking room (who knew those even existed anymore?!). Yeah, if we actually had no other option but to sleep in the car it may have been another story. As it was, we thoroughly enjoyed our hot showers and warm beds after throwing all the soaked camping gear into tangled piles in my car, getting beaten by rain and wind. Let me tell you, there is nothing like your first shower after camping.

Still, part of me wanted to prove something by sticking it out in the tent that night. Or maybe I was just sad to leave the island. We stopped on our way out to take a few pictures during a brief respite from the downpour.



Travel and nature are the things that most surprise me in my list of top five. I’ve always loved both, but am only now beginning to realize how important they actually are to my well-being. Fresh air, natural beauty and open space really does heal our minds and bodies. And travel reminds me of how fascinating our world is. It’s good to get away from the usual routine, sometimes. Home becomes sweet again, patience is restored. I recommend it, thunderstorms and all.



Beach at night



I just want to state that this is not the crappy motel – this is the nicer one we got to at 2:15 am after Sarah’s flight arrived after midnight in D.C. on Thursday night/Friday morning. We decided to find one on the way toward Assateague. Because we like to prove that we can still handle driving in the middle of the night at 37 years old, after a full day of packing and work. Relaxing, right? 


Still worth it. 


2 thoughts on “Wild ponies, and that old campfire smell.

  1. Pamela says:

    Love this, Julia. I know I never take time to appreciate the beauty of nature. I’m so glad you did your snail proud and took time just to relax and enjoy life with a good friend 🙂

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