Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sun, Sand and Horses - Ocean City and the Eastern Shore

Our goal for day 1 was to make it to Ocean City. However, there was a big chunk of green space on the map that was too interesting to pass up: Blackwater Wildlife Preserve. Blackwater is home to many interesting birds and has wonderful views. The recommended way to see the park is by driving the wildlife loop, which means that for much of this experience we were sitting in a cool, air conditioned, car. As much as I love hiking, this was pretty luxurious.

Turning off from the Wildlife Loop, after seeing Blackwater, we discovered the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center. We stopped in to check it out, and were amply rewarded. The center tells the story of Tubman's life and highlight other sites in the area related to the Underground Railroad. While I know the general story of Harriet Tumbman, getting a chance to learn more details only made me marvel at her more. What an amazing soul. It was also interesting to see her connections to Frederick Douglas and Rochester, NY. I look forward to getting back to the area to explore more of her legacy.

We started day 2 by seeking out a nearby lighthouse and Shipwreck Musuem. Alas, we started the day too early, and so the lighthouse wasn't open yet. We improvised by hitting one of the many mini-golf places along the main drive. While J. had played real golf before, he claims he had never played mini-golf. It took him a few holes to get the setup figured out, but he was a pro in no time.

His favorite obstacle of the course was one where you had to hit the ball up a slight ramp to have it jump some water. In my infinite wisdom, I decided I'd stand near the hole and get a GIF of him making the shot. J. hadn't quite figured out how much oomph he was going to need to make the shot, so he decided to act like he was at the driving range. Needless to say, I almost got nailed pretty badly, but It all worked out OK as the GIF we made was pretty sweet. But yeah, lesson learned: don't stand downrange of an 8 year old newbie golfer.

The lighthouse was a fine specimen and worth a visit, even though you can't climb to the top. However, you can straddle the marker out front which allows you to have one foot in Maryland and the other in Delaware. It's not quite as exciting as straddling the Equator or the date line, but it was fun none the less.

From there we made our way to the Shipwreck Museum. As promised the museum is at the top floor of a shlocky souvenir shop. As we made our way towards the museum, my hopes sank. Surely we were in for little more than a tourist trap.

As we walked through the museum, it appeared as though we were looking at authentic artifacts recovered from real ship wrecks. From dishware to pirate swords, the collection was fairly broad. Still a bit incredulous, I asked the lady manning the front desk if these were really all authentic items. She reported that they were, and were all pulled out of the ocean by the same gentleman. And just then, the treasure hunter himself walked out of a side room and we had a chance to chat.

This guy was awesome! After exchanging a few words, he ducked into a side office and returned with a *massive* Megaldon shark tooth, and a bar of sliver for J. to pose with. We continued to chat and he showed us a few other remarkable specimens and even let J. pose with a real gold bar.

This place is a true gem in Ocean City. In a location so filled with fake and plastic everything, to find real treasures was such a treat.

After a morning filled with history (and mini-golf) it was finally time to hit the beach! Sure, the water was a bit chilly, but once doused, it was definitely a fun time playing among the crashing waves.

It was hard to believe, but after only one full day in O.C. it was time transition to a new part of the Eastern Shore. Our destination for the day would be the Maryland State Park campground on Assateague Island. However, before we setup camp we decided to explore the surrounding area.

First up, we made our way to the other end of Assateague Island, to visit the lighthouse at Chincoteague. This lighthouse, unlike the one visited the day before, is still in use and you can walk to the top. J. made it all of 10 steps before announcing that he was exhausted and couldn't go on. With much effort, the three of us made it to the top. The views were awesome, although my fear of heights insured I wouldn't spend too much time at the top.

We also took a brief hike in Chincoteague where we got to see the park's famous horses off in the distance. On our way back to our car I had J. collect up a big 'ol pile of pine needles for use as tinder for the upcoming night's fire. I may not be able to teach this boy to hit a home run or make a three point jumper, but I do believe I'm doing a top notch job in the fire building department.

After the lighthouse and hike, we made our way to the NASA Wallops Island facility. The visitor's center was relatively small, but it had interesting exhibits and rockets to oggle on the grounds. The hacker in me loves the balloon work they do there. It's a low cost, low tech alternative to launching rockets that's remarkably effective.

From NASA we made our way back to Assateague State Park in Maryland where we found the campground that would be home for about 24 hours.

Camping on Assateauge Island is full of contrasts. On one hand, you're just a few hundred feet from the beach, which you share with wild horses. It also turns out that the bathroom facilities are top notch (earning Shira's coveted A++ status) and our campsite was relatively spacious. On the other hand, there isn't a speck of shade, so between the bugs, sand, wind and sun you have all the makings of a hellscape.

We did our homework and came prepared: we brought a canopy for shade and extra huge sand stakes for the tent. We also arrived relatively late in the day, after the temperature had been at its hottest. The result was an awesome camping experience, and as the sun went down the stars lit up, became even more so.

For reasons I can't fully explain, we were spared a massive electrical storm in the evening, and had no rain at all. Though due to the proximity to the ocean, during evening, every surface gained a thick layer of moisture.

After setting up camp we made our way to the beach, which was nearly empty and had a wonderful sense of calm about it. Perhaps it was lack of people when compared to Ocean City, or maybe the surf was just a little less pounding, but whatever it was, it was like a totally different experience from the day before. J. and I played in the waves and collected up shells. It felt like we were on our own exclusive island.

We used the tinder we collected earlier in the day to make a most righteous fire, and enjoyed hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks. Yum! This kind of camping is easy!

As we were preparing dinner, J. announced that he had seen a kid his own age at a campsite nearby who had an extra (play) sword, and could he go over and play with the kid? And thus J. made a new friend: Luke. They would spend the rest of the trip playing together, whether it was on the beach or around the campground. I had forgotten how quickly 8 year olds can make friends, and how invaluable a spare plastic sword can be.

Luke asked J. if he would be interested in Ghost Crabbing, something I'd never heard about. The kids took flashlights to the beach and searched out little crabs. Each boy found one, so it was a success.

The next morning we awoke to a perfect sunrise and had a little breakfast. It seemed like our 'chilly' morning turned into a hot day in just a few minutes. Ahhhh, there were those hellscape conditions we were promised. Of course, the solution to the heat was obvious: hit the beach, so that's what we did.

While J. played in the surf I did a bit of shell collecting. At one point, I grabbed a handful of sand only to discover a few tiny shells in it. Looking closer, I realized that the shells were intact and that I was actually holding a series of thumbnail sized clams. I shared my discover with J., who put them in the moat of the castle he was constructing.

A few minutes later J. remarked that the clams had moved! Sure they did J. No, seriously, he promised they did. OK, show me.

He took one of the tiny clams and laid it on its side. He prodded it a bit. And wouldn't you know it, but a tiny membrane came out of the shell, flitted to life, and the clam both righted and burrowed itself in the sand. How did it do that?! It was an awesome display of nature's prowess, in tiny form, anyway.

Before we knew it, it was time to pack up camp and hit the road. Our Eastern Shore adventure had come to a close. As if to give us one more chance at a memory, a group of horses staged themselves at the exit of the park so we could snap one last set of pics.

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