“I never thought I’d be here.”
Those are the words my Mom recently said to me as we sat together looking up at the Assateague Lighthouse. During a recent visit that saw her coming to see me from Houston, I had the privilege of making a lifelong dream of hers come true.
When we discussed her visiting me this May, Mom told me that if we were going to take a trip together instead of staying in Powhatan all weekend, she wanted to go somewhere we hadn’t been yet. That is when I thought of Chincoteague Island.
Mom grew up in Texas around horses, and Marguerite Henry’s book “Misty of Chincoteague” was one of her favorites as a child. Later, when she gave birth to her own horse-crazy daughter, she eventually introduced me to the book as well.
For years now, we would look at a map of Virginia when deciding where to take a trip and Chincoteague Island has been mentioned several times. Yet we didn’t make the trek – until now.
When deciding what to do on the short three-day weekend away from Powhatan, first and foremost was always doing our best to try to see the wild ponies of Assateague. We booked a boat tour for Saturday, which I will talk about in a minute, and a walking tour that would include a visit to the real Beebe Ranch made famous by Henry’s books.
When we arrived in Chincoteague late Friday afternoon after many hours in the car, I didn’t think we would have time to do much. But we enjoyed exploring Main Street and seeing some beautiful homes and water views.
We also made our way to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is where we visited the lighthouse. I was incredibly grateful that the refuge has a handicap accessible parking lot right across from the lighthouse so Mom, who has mobility issues, was able to see it. After taking some photos, we sat on a bench in the shadow of the lighthouse. That is the moment when Mom told me how grateful she was I suggested the trip – a trip she seemed to doubt would ever happen.
The wildlife refuge is an amazing place to visit. In addition to the lighthouse, we pulled to the side of the road and saw some ponies far in the distance. We could barely make out the swishing of their tails. At the time, I prayed it wouldn’t be the only sighting. We also traveled to the opposite side of Assateague to walk out on the beach and view the Atlantic Ocean – always a bold, beautiful sight to behold and especially gorgeous on the first of three perfect weather days.
We ended the night on the balcony of our hotel, watching the sun set over the water, listening to the wild birds, and noticing the boats passing nearby.
It barely seemed possible, but Saturday dawned even more beautiful than the day before. The boat tour was amazing and we were fortunate in all we got to see. We started the journey by finding a pod of dolphins and joined other boats there to watch the amazing creatures as they surfaced for a few seconds at a time. I am not going to admit to the amount of water footage I got while trying to capture a decent photo of the dolphins.
Then came the moment our boat sidled up to the shores of Assateague where one of the bands of wild ponies was grazing and lazing not far from the water’s edge. You could tell they are used to gawking at humans by now as several large boats filled with people and a whole group of kayakers watched them without once spooking any of the ponies.
Our guide identified this particular band as being led by Riptide, a beautiful chestnut stallion whose father was the famous Surfer Dude. While the ponies weren’t the only topic of the boat tour, they featured heavily. Our guide talked about Chincoteague’s annual Pony Swim, which normally occurs at the end of July but has been canceled again in 2021. While the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns the ponies, Assateague Island is owned by the federal government. The ponies are allowed to graze the refuge thanks to a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but it restricts the size of the combined herds to 150 adult animals to protect the other natural resources there. During three roundups held each year – the most famous of which is the big July event – the foals are auctioned off to bring the number back to roughly 150 in accordance with the permit and also raise money for the fire department.
The experience of seeing the ponies of Assateague – something I have read about since childhood – in the flesh was incredibly exciting. At the same time, it was utterly calming to observe the stallion as he calmly watched over his good-sized herd of mares and adorable foals. If I could have pulled up a chair and sat and watched them for hours, I would have done it.
As the boat drove away, I kept stealing glances back at the ponies, still placidly enjoying the sunny day while another boat drifted into the spot we had just vacated.
To top off the perfect trifecta, while angling to get a good view of the lighthouse from the water, the guide spotted two bald eagles we were able to see through our binoculars.
I don’t want to turn this into more of a travelogue than it already is, so I will simply say the rest of the day was taken up by great moments like learning some of Chincoteague’s history on a walking tour, trying delicious homemade ice cream at a local shop, taking the Pony Express (a seasonal trolley service that only costs 50 cents a person) around the island, and exploring more of the back roads and the myriad of houses of different sizes and styles to see.
As amazing as it was to see the ponies, I didn’t think anything could beat that moment of quiet gratefulness with Mom sitting beneath the lighthouse. But that was before we officially saw the ponies up close. As we left the shore behind and I kept looking back at the ponies, Mom was obviously emotional as she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had any more fun than this.”
It doesn’t get much better than helping a loved one’s lifelong dream come true.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.