There's a change when you let yourself be taken by the ocean. Float, tread water gently, watch the waves come and rise into mountains just before they seize, lift, drop you and roil shorewards. The wrinkling break of a wave from behind plays counterpoint to the frothing face. A different sort of being.
In salty water, near-zero gravity happens, or at least I imagine that's what it's like: a body drifting and buffeted, salt in ears and on lips and tongue. There's a pleasure in letting go of your own mobility and casting yourself into the ocean's. It breathes, but not like a human.
I came to Assateague with an old story. As a small child I read a book about the wild horses, and it stuck deep. For a kid who spent half a childhood inside a cornfield in rural Minnesota, the idea of a wild coastal island on which horses (creatures I'd only seen inside fences and under saddles) roamed free was a magical other world that I couldn't stop thinking about. I'm not sure I knew that the islands were not just a magical other world. The east coast was distant enough that the idea of traveling there -- of it even existing -- never entered my reality.
By and by I grew up, and somewhere along the way, forgot that I had read the book. I forgot that Assateague existed. Then I happened to be traveling to the area for something unrelated.
I looked at a map.
All the stories woke back up.
A jellyfish in the ocean stung me, slipping by so sly that I neither saw nor felt it till it was gone. The prickling of jelly-poison raised the skin on my wrist and right hand. I think the most unpleasant part was the feeling of an alien poison in the body. It was mild -- no danger -- but the body knows when something isn't supposed to be there, and protests.
On the beach: pipers scooting, to and fro at the waveline. Two Russian men walked by, dense-bellied torsos on skinny bird-legs. The seagull beach chatter sounded like a mockery of the beachgoer human chatter.
Ate: Chincoteague salt oysters, shrimp -- inside the (clear) shells the pink hunched bodies looked like little old women in transparent rain bonnets -- and beautiful tacos at Pico the food truck. Waited for the tacos standing barefoot on crushed shells; ate at a friendly picnic table on grass as thick with sand as my hair when I tried to wash it later.
As I write, sand is still in it.
Saw the wild ponies several times: flocks in the marshy lands, amongst groves of tall trees; tails whisking, swishing; joy in those tails, and a bright bright intelligence, that of the free animal, the one that has left the laws of humans and gone back to a primal existence. Not 'I am wild animal' but 'I am wild now and I know it better than you.'
A white bird landed on one horse's back, and got shrugged off.
The billboards coming into Chincoteague are a dreary bite of commercialism; leaving, the weatherworn peeling paint of the backs is friendlier, if still out of place.
Driving north along coast-fringe Virginia, it's easy to tell that this is the beginning of the south. The way large houses are set back in expansive lawns planted with giant shady trees has the inklings of old plantations. Some abandoned homes were being eaten by vines, creepers, nature in a way that felt distinctly southern. One particular pile of rubble looked like the remains of a house that had eaten itself, maybe under the curse of some deep-woods dark magic.
I saw streets along the way with names like Rabbit Knaw, Swan Gut, Potato Truck, and Chicken City. And a small placard by the big road advertised the BLESSING OF THE COMBINES a weekend in August.