Like many young girls, I went through a horsey phase. I read Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague and played with a plastic horse that I could walk into its stable by pressing down on its back while moving it forward. My parents or grandparents gave me a delicate china bay with white stockings. I learned that the word “bottom,” when applied to racehorses, meant “heart,” or the quality of never giving up. Neighbors down the block laughed at me because I wanted to take riding lessons. Apparently they thought everyone should learn that skill from their relatives who owned horses.
And then I took those horseback riding lessons when I was 12. I remember a saddle, with me on top, sliding down the side of a pony that had puffed out its stomach while I was cinching the saddle. I remember a magical canter through a meadow. I remember a horse galloping across the paddock with me and then stopping, but I don’t know whether I stopped it. I remember trying to saddle a horse whose back was above my head. It kicked the stall, and then one of the instructors came in and kneed it in the belly.
I ended up afraid of horses but would like not to be.
And all the years since, I have dreamed of going to Assateague and Chincoteague without ever knowing exactly where they were.
In October 2012, I finally arrived. Greater black-backed gulls staked out the lights on the bridge north from Virginia Beach, where we were staying with family, to the first in a string of islands slowing the Atlantic: Fisherman Island, Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and then Chincoteague.
About halfway, we stopped for breakfast at the Yellow Duck Café in Exmore, a whimsical, homey place. As you can tell from these pictures, my breakfast was not exactly healthy.
We crossed the Assateague Channel and drove out to Toms Cove visitor center. I was searching for seaside and sharp-tailed sparrows along a brushy stream and wondering to myself, “Where is that red-winged blackbird I keep hearing?” Very possibly, it was a seaside sparrow, but I never saw it, and for some reason I felt I shouldn’t linger there. We walked along the beach for a while, and then headed back to the car. I think we drove the wildlife loop, looking for birds and ponies, and of course, we found the ponies just as we were getting desperate for lunch.
It was a long day, with about five hours of driving. We got up early to get to the refuge while the birds were still active, and we drove back in the dark.
Now that I’ve been to the place of my horsey childhood dreams, I’m partly satisfied. But I would still like to go back. That’s the kind of traveler I am—the one who almost always wants to go back, retrace her steps, remember, and then add a new memory.