photo by Miss Molly
photo by Miss Molly

Spoiler alert.

I mean, spoiler spoiler alert.

For about 35 years I’ve believed the ponies of the windswept, barrier islands of Assateague and Chincoteague had swum ashore from a Spanish galleon shipwrecked in the 17th century.

Nope.

They descended from the colonists’ herds. Apparently the settlers were just trying to avoid fence laws and stock taxes. And the poor beasts aren’t even real ponies. They’re just malnourished horses.

But it depends on whom I’d like to believe.

The National Park Service calls the shipwreck tale “folklore.”

The folks at the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce assiduously avoid the issue, but websites sponsored by members claim to have checked records in Spain, (without actually naming said records,) as proof of shipwreck heritage.

Throughout my visit I encounter references to the annual late July round-up, like the ones next to the many “closed” signs in hotels and restaurants. The place is a bizarre form of ghost town in December, really.

Welcome to Chincoteague, VIrginia.
Welcome to Chincoteague, VIrginia.

Billboards hawking t-shirts, mini-golf, motels and restaurants line the bridge over the marshy waters between the mainland and the inner island of Chincoteague where the herd is penned, thinned and foals auctioned. So many billboards in fact, it is hard to tell if you are crossing into a National Seashore or into a theme park featuring fat furry ponies.

What is more American than a conspiracy theory?

“The USFWS (United States Fish and Wildlife Service?) … refuse to tell the public,” one site claims, of the shipwreck, that occurred, coincidentally, the very year (1750) after the prior population of colonists’ horses was wiped out by a tidal wave, a storm surge of some kind.

Forces are at work keeping romance alive.

There’s still a round-up every year and the horses are forced to swim from Assateague to Chincoteague. A few foals are sold off to keep the numbers to a sustainable level. It is all managed.

And it supports a charity.

The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.

And, my husband astutely noticed, there is a bridge now.

When visiting the cold, windy, starkly beautiful islands this week, I can’t resist asking at the Tom’s Cove visitor center why they don’t just use the bridge to get the horses across.

A blade of grass draws a circle in the sand of northern Assateague Island, Maryland.
A blade of grass draws a circle in the sand of northern Assateague Island, Maryland.

My question is met by the two lovely ladies behind the counter … with a long pause.

“Well,” the gray-haired one finally breaks the silence, “it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic.”

“It’s the tradition,” the dark-haired one adds.

They look long and hard at me.

“I suppose it must have been discussed down at the volunteer fire department at some point,” I suggest.

Both ladies shake their heads.

“They wouldn’t think of it.”

Both ladies agree. “Nope, they’ wouldn’t think of it.”

I am not sure whether they mean, it wouldn’t occur to them, or they wouldn’t give up the tourist attraction and the dollars it provides in fire safety for the town’s aging wooden buildings.

Chincoteague, Virginia
Chincoteague, Virginia

“It probably helps with the fleas anyway,” I said, sensing that I was not making friends.

Some 40,000 people visit the tiny island of Chincoteague for the event, I am told. But this time of year? Very quiet.

As I cross onto the Virginia side — the southern end — of the island of Assateague, the 38-mile long island on which the Virginia herd lives in just a tiny section 363 days a year, I spot several grazing equines off to my right. These are among the herds belonging to, yes, owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. These noble volunteers take good care of their prized ponies, vaccinating and managing them … and keeping them within a fenced viewing area on a southern corner hemmed by a paved road, several viewing platforms, Tom’s Cove visitor center (which smells of dead fish) as well as the nearby Herbert H. Bateman Education and Administration Center, (which offers museum-quality science exhibits for learners of all ages.)

But on the Maryland side of the border — the north end of the island — the ‘ponies’ actually run free.

Entering the 38-mile long Assateague Island from the north is entirely different. First, no billboards so I feel that I’m actually entering a National preserve of some sort, which I am. Horses are harder to spot, which means of course, they are more wild. No buildings, no hotels, no t-shirts sales. Campsites are clustered on the north end of the island and access to the wild areas is controlled. Naturally. My initial observation is that ability to spot horses in the wild is defined by willingness to walk –for miles– in the sand.

I think I’ll make camping reservations for July, but I’ll skip the Virginia-side round-up, thank you.

Assateague, Maryland
Assateague, Maryland