CROSSING THE BAY BRIDGE ONLY TO MISS THE BEACH (echoes of a simpler time in small town America) By John Watts

smith island

In the summertime, you can spot the kindred spirits of Ocean City bound vehicles flocking like birds of the same feather in mass flight as they pass Annapolis towards the Bay Bridge.  This leisure obsession of fitting in the perfect beach trip is truly–very serious business.  Cars and SUV’s are decked out with summer hobby crafts strapped to their backs or are being hauled in trailers.  Parents contemplate achieving an era defining family trip while their kids are of age to remember and still under their tutelage.  High school and college age kids, conversely, pin all their hopes at finding new liberation and secure footing with their peer group.

There is a harmony of identity amongst these motorists; so much clarity of purpose and intent, as inculcated values for what is sacred and a rite of passage about reaching the ocean all become exercised simultaneously in mass.

On one such summer visit, My wife and I were locked in the worst 4th of July traffic possible—at the final toll gate station before earning the right to cross the Chesapeake Bay to the eastern shore.

It was downright painful how grounded to a halt we were.  An overhead digital sign flashed the bad news of the total delay minutes we would be facing.  And the reality of what we saw ahead of us confirmed the bad news and even made it look too optimistic.

To make matters worse, we were driving the OTHER car that didn’t have the smart pass tag for getting us through slightly faster.

Yet despite all this, I remained excited about a different ace up our sleeve; the one thing that separated us from the vast majority of other motorists–our overnight destination.

Because we were stopping short of the ocean on purpose; seeking our vacation time on the edges of the eastern shore in and around the Chesapeake Bay.  And not in the obvious beach resort destinations but at places of subtler, year round charms and cadences.  Historic old towns steeped in great traditions.

This meant that our gridlocked, well-worn path would be soon abandoned for thinner crowds and bluer highways.

In fact, it is quite startling how transported one feels when looking around the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia BEFORE the beach resorts come into view.  In fact it feels like you have been transported smack dab into the heartland of agricultural America.

So I want to share two such trips done at two separate times in the space of one year.  In both cases, we merely picked a point on the map and identified internet places that spoke to us as being worthy additions in our life long plunder of the regional treasures surrounding us.

Each year it happens like that, new compulsions crowd with less new ones, and vie for top travel priority.

And we discovered that this lack of choice made for a sweeter appreciation for what WAS available.  Indeed, with our societal overabundance of TV channels and retail and restaurant choices, it seemed a tonic for what we overstimulated Northern Virginian’s sorely are in need of most: a scaled down set of options boasting originality; in order to get our nervous systems better centered and recalibrated.

Our first destination took us to that OTHER inhabited island in the Chesapeake Bay—Smith Island, while the second was spent at a B&B in the delightful old town of Vienna, Maryland (the 3rd most famous town named Vienna in the world according to their claim).

In fact Smith Island still in the off season feels more like a religious retreat than it does a vacation—and it naturally draws in people that are comfortable in their own skin with the art of finding simple things to do like book reading, nature hiking, and wildlife gazing.

To arrive via the ferry from Crisfield immediately sets the right low-key tone for leaving the mainland behind and returning to a slower paced, old world connection.

Dubbed in many on-line tourist sites as a town “literally built on top of oyster shells,” Crisfield’s rise and fall truly reflects the fortunes of the clamming industry.  Back in 1904, the City of Crisfield was the second largest city in Maryland, after Baltimore and this was a hot and happening place on the map.  Soon casinos, hotels, and theaters were quickly assembled as easy cultural accompaniment, along with brothels.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine now looking at the modesty of this town; but back in 1904, Crisfield was the second largest city in the state of Maryland after Baltimore and was one of the best seaports in the country.

Now it is a testimony to the transient nature of BOOM towns in American history.  All this I learned from soaking in the town’s historical markeres before our ferry trip and making mental notes to follow up with some internet delving upon our return.

And once we hurled our overnight bags on to the ferry leaving Crisfield and stepped aboard, the scaling down transformation from the commercial plenty away from the mainland had begun in earnest.

Soon we were enveloped in a misty, overcast canopy as our Captain expertly steered between the highway buoys leading to Smith Island.  As he did so, I wondered how tenaciously I would cling to these same markers if I were kayaking alone to the island.

On the ferry ride, everyone was up close and easy to access as were the  passengers; mostly all locals.  Consequently, it was a journal writers dream to be privileged to so many unguarded snatches of conversations and interactions.  The first passenger to sit by us was a college girl returning to her hometown of Ewell for spring break.

She was clearly very excited about her homecoming back to the island.  When whiffs of smoke were detected on the horizon of the distant island as we approached closer, she expressed a concern for what was causing the fire and who in her community might be affected.  This was a place after all, in which ALL events effected everyone else in a symbiotic ripple effect.

Later, inside the ferry we really got to see this small-town perspective in the eyes of the little boy sitting across from us who proudly rambled on and on about his elementary school and all his accomplishments while chomping on a bag of chip O-hoy cookies, a true blue All American kid if ever there was one in this brave new century!

He talked comfortably with no filters about his tiny little grade school and some of the current events going on in school and around town.  And why shouldn’t he feel like a big fish in a little pond?  I found out that his ONE SCHOOL fits all enrollment, like the eroding shoreline and general population, had dwindled down between 10 and 15 for its graduating class from 2013 to 2017.

This kid plainly wasn’t too bogged down by modern day “stranger danger” limitations when it came to talking to non-islanders.

We also chatted with a marine biologist lady traveling solo, who had come to Smith Island to charter special boat trips to collect shells and Indian artifacts.

Upon disembarking we discovered very quickly that this decidedly NON-tropical island destination takes plenty of pre-planning and coordination beforehand over the phone before ever making the ferry trip across.  Especially if you happen to spend your 2 nights over Easter weekend before the start of the official summer season because then, well, then you can expect very little choice when it comes to eating arrangements and itinerary options.  Apart from the churches, residences, and the general store; every other store was either closed or out of commission.

The general store particularly was very critical for our Easter weekend as it was the only food source available and it closed at 2 PM.  We therefore had to maximize each visit and make sure we had enough crab cake sandwiches and at least several plate-fulls of the most famous cultural claim to fame—the Smith Island Cake.

The funny thing is, once we had purchased our slices of cake, we were immediately informed who the baker had been for each slice.  Something along the lines of, “Oh you’ve got yourself a Betty cake.  She baked this batch.  You can see her touch on every slice of it.”

As for our Easter dinner, to properly have a traditional FULL course meal befitting the mainland, we needed to arrange with the couple that owned our Inn so as to have our ham and other side dishes brought over on the ferry trip beforehand.  Attention to detail was vital on this trip if one expected to have eating options besides bringing one’s own food with them.

I was disappointed, however, to find one sport not available to me while staying overnight at our B&B.  Although advertised on the web-site, there was no kayaking available due to a mishap or 2 in the previous years with non-native lodgers needing rescue assistance due to unfamiliarity with the strong tides.

So this left us with walking on foot or biking.  And we discovered very quickly that the island ran out of mileage very quickly even after taking the longest paved road to get the best aerobic work-out.

I guess the flip side of this is that EVERYTHING is in walking or golf cart distance.

You can get the lay of the land very quickly at a place like this.

And despite, or probably because of this lack of tourist polish–there were subtle, working class charms at play that made for very enjoyable excursions and  bonding with each sequence of building and landscape.

And without the temptation of a television, it was much more motivating to apply ourselves towards the much neglected art of meditation and reading hard copy books.  For the Inn had great literature on Smith Island which was the perfect complement for talking to the locals.

And the most dominant book by far, available in every room of our Inn was the Tom Horton book “An Island Out of Time.”

Not only was this the dominant book, much as the National Geographic article from 1973 on Tangier Island was the huge talking point on that island—but the author Tom Horton seemed to spark a lively pro con debate by many of the islanders who all seemed to have met him or knew him very well.  In fact, most residents I passed seemed to know the author—referring to him as Tom.  And I found it revealing how a book that reads to a non-islander like myself as being very sensitive in extoling the lifestyle and history of native Chesapeake islanders, could be viewed by residents as being so very controversial and politically motivated.

Over and over again, from owners of B@B’s to residents, I found very emotional reactions to Tom Horton and the stances he has taken regarding the ecology and preservation of Smith Island.  As a matter of fact, a clear line could be drawn by the reaction of 2 camps of people: the recent transplants who had retired to the island or set up B&B’s seemed to really like the book, while island natives tied to the fishing industry, all tended to be very suspicious and resentful.

At Smith Island, one is completely enveloped in nature and feeling close to God.  For the hardworking fishermen, this means forging a life-long connection with the Methodist Church; which so happened to have the same pastor for 3 different church locations around the island.  And after being invited, with promotional zeal of one of the congregation on a golf cart, we found ourselves attending Easter Sunday church service in the still dark hours of the dawn.  It was a stark beauty rarely witnessed in todays standardized age; as we tourists got to stroll with other town folk up the lane in the pre-dawn quiet towards the lone glowing stain glass windows of the Methodist Church.  It was an intimate, pastoral vision I shall remember always.

And as a very incidental post note: from this generous Methodist Pot Luck–we discovered the unusual culinary habit of combining cheddar cheese with hot coffee.  We had done a double take when we first spied a plate stacked with cheddar cheese squares amidst the typical eggs and sausage fare for the pot luck.  Well it turns out it all evolved by accident as most brilliant inventions often do—until by now it has become a proud costume for Smith Islanders to dunk their cheddar chunks in their coffee as a comforting tradition.

And it was a revelation to be embraced by such a small core of islanders.  We received wonderful insights from friendly folks, who we were often blessed to run into several times either on the ferry or in the one general store.  At a setting such as Smith Island, it was truly amazing to see how fast word of mouth could spread as numerous folks we saw at the market or the church knew of us coming on the afternoon ferry ride from the day before.  In fact, we sat next to the ferry captain as we ate our church pot luck for the Easter service.  Of course, he remembered us quite clearly on the crossing over.

We only stayed a night on Smith Island.  Imagine if we had stayed a week or more?  Who knows how deeply ingrained in the social fabric we would have ended up?

Hands down, what turned out to be the most memorably moving part of both the Smith Island trip and the Vienna, Maryland B&B; were the close-up encounters with real small-town life.

For our second off the beaten path trip to the eastern shore, we dropped by the historic Tavern House Bed & Breakfast for a 2-night stay during spring break.  The Inn was situated right on the Nanticoke River and marshes, and enjoyed, as the web-site put it—“all the amenities of being ‘off the beaten path.”

The gracious owners, proceeded to get to know us quickly by actively engaging us in the ancient art of entertaining via simple conversation and storytelling.  In fact all the special attention we received upon our late arrival made us feel like long lost friends rather than mere patrons or occupants.

We even got an extra deli sandwich as a special perk due to the fact that every other store seemed too far to try out in the dark and too close to closing time.  This was a couple who considered their Inn-keeping work to be a calling—beyond the pragmatic business aspects of making a profit.  When you sat down and ate and had meaningful conversations, you could expect extra treats for the asking above and beyond the standard ones listed on the web-site.

Later, before we adjourned to bed, they regaled us with several stories of assisting wanderers and distressed lodgers alike that needed help.  Instead of turning away people who seemed odd or just square pegs not fitting in round holes, this couple took the time to reach out and offer them good listening ears and a temporary sanctuary.

Unlike the grueling variety of feeling like a captive audience as some B&B’s will do, this socializing was feeling very substantive and satisfying by the time we did turn in.

And thanks to the events calendar heads-up that we were privy to at the Inn, we naturally felt inclined the next morning to attend the annual 4th of July PARADE, which just so happened to go right down the same street as the Tavern House.

Echoing the intimacy of the Easter Service on Smith Island, this truly was a home-grown parade and, thanks to the inside status of our guest status at the Inn, my wife and I were made to feel like family.

In fact, the couple’s daughter returned this very morning of the parade so we got properly introduced and still showered with plenty of attention.

And as the organically harvested assortment of parade floats honked passed us on the street—we were still catered to by our host family at the Inn as they insisted we stand with them to cheer on the fire department, police station, and every other odd assortment of dune buggy, SUV, and tractor that tooled by in tricked out patriotic splendor.

And fittingly, the parade, and our visit at the Tavern House, culminated with an old fashion hot dog picnic at the Fire Department.  So, after hearing some words of thanks to the local sponsors of the parade, and saying a collective prayer along with the National Anthem, we rubbed elbows in line with the locals and sat with our adopted host family for one more meal at the checker board picnic table spread.

THE NEED FOR CONNECTIVITY (and a smaller, fixed field of choices)

Big events, crowded and in high demand, certainly can offer great memories and spectacular highlights.  But like paintings and music, travel is best when the simpler, unvarnished things are allowed to shine.  Anyone can bask in the glow of a big event and be counted in the wake of its powerful draw.

But it is in the quiet moments that the loudest truths get told.

And the older I get; the more motivated I am to discover and explore the less obvious places in the off-season where fewer crowds congregate.  Because when I do, I uncover many overlooked gems shining brightly and pointing to the comforts of every day life.

There is something primal and restorative about having a diminishment of choices; as sophisticated as we are now about on line orders, pick up orders and dine in orders.  I find it manifests more satisfaction.  It can even contribute towards restoring sanity.

Most of us have lost that link to town and community.  We are satiated with standardized sterility and inundated with too many redundant choices.  We miss defining cultural symbols and traditions and down town sequences like train tracks and rivers and water towers that mark us as being home.

Think of the simplicity of Mayberry RFD or even a fictitious trolley town like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  Each has clearly defined, lovingly captured locations and sequences that are maximized and never wasted.

Being surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay means that towns like Crisfield, even if their heyday is a century removed, still retain a working-class relationship with the natural environment and a bedrock identity in the mind’s eye for exports such as crab cake sandwiches and Smith Island Cakes.  The timeless thread of history is still tangible.

And I believe that today more than ever, the concept of fewer options resonates in so many hearts.  Chesapeake islanders and rural small towners have a distinct advantage in the “appreciation of life” category that I was fortunate enough to experience growing up with in the 20th century.  The brackish world of the bay signifies the interactive connectivity of all the endless miles of fresh water tributaries emptying into it from unseen mountain headwaters.

Smith Island and the town of Vienna, Maryland reminded us of all these meaningful traditions and timeless verities.  They offer definition and an antidote for all the clutter of convenience around us.  Who needs 10 pizza restaurants in a 3-mile vicinity?  Or 10 deli restaurants offering basically the same mediocre choices.  And on our pair of little regional trips, it was best encapsulated in a pre-dawn walk to an early Easter church service and a homespun 4th of July street parade in a small town.



About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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