Dick Cooper - January 2011


Touring the Eastern Shore
Dick Cooper


My wife, Pat, and I love to toodle topless, and living on the Eastern Shore makes it easier than ever.
On any given weekend, after sailing season has finished and our beloved Bermuda 40 sailboat is on its jack stands, we jump into our powder-blue VW convertible and head out for a day trip. On sunny days in the winter we drop the top, turn up the heater and head out for one of the great destinations within an hour or two of our home in St. Michaels. Bundled up in scarves and gloves, we zip down Route 50 for a walk on Assateague Beach or cruise through the countryside to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to watch the snow geese swirl.
When we first moved to the Eastern Shore, big city friends thought we were nuts. “What are you going to do?” they asked. “There’s nothing there!”
What they didn’t know was that while we are an hour from anywhere, we are only an hour from almost everything. The cultural treasures of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and, if you stretch it another hour, the museums and theaters of Philadelphia, are within easy reach. Yet we have found that the trips that are closer to home are more intriguing.
One of our favorite jaunts is to Berlin, Maryland, a gem of a village tucked out of harm’s way, south on Route 50 and just west of Ocean City. The red brick buildings that line the village streets are full of antiques shops and boutiques. The Drummer’s Café in the historic Atlantic Hotel is a great stop for lunch with a very good menu that offers large sandwiches and delicious soups. The enclosed porch is a bright and cheery dining spot.
From Berlin, it is a quick drive down to the state and national beach parks on Assateague Island. One of the advantages of turning 62 is that you qualify for senior passes that allow you to frequent state and national parks for free, as many times as you like, and you can bring a carload of friends with you as well.
So, after a fine meal in Berlin, we take a walk on the beach. Assateague is one of those places that make you really appreciate the foresighted public officials who preserved parkland. There are miles of white sandy beach uninterrupted by buildings. Wild ponies range up and down the dunes. No boardwalk, no neon, no nothing – just nature. Piping plovers and sandpipers play tag with the breaking surf, scurrying back and forth in the foam, darting for tiny clams rolling in the sand.
On a clear day, if you look north, you can make out the Ocean City high-rises and realize that if Assateague had not been saved, it would have been paved and plundered as well.
Pat likes to collect seashells, and no trip the Assateague ends without some souvenirs in her pockets.
One thing we often marvel at is the way other tourists react to the ponies. Signs along the road warn that the ponies are wild and will bite. Posters in the restrooms show photos of children that have been bitten by the beasts. Yet as soon as a herd moves into public view, people stop their cars in the middle of the road, get out and pet them. They even pose their children next to them. Go figure.
We recently took a daytrip to another favorite town, Lewes, Delaware. Lewes is an amazing enclave of beautiful homes, unique shops, inns and restaurants in a sea of strip malls, discount outlets and fast food franchises.
This time, the open gates of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church enticed us to wander through the graveyard of the church that was established in 1681 and bills itself as “The first church in the first state.” As we were reading the inscriptions on the centuries-old stones, a gentleman approached and pointed out one of the more interesting anomalies in the cemetery. Before he died in 1868, Captain Henry F. McCracken, a Delaware Bay and River pilot, requested he be buried with his anchor. Now, 143 years later, Captain McCracken is still resting in peace, but his anchor is making a break for it. One of its flukes has emerged from the grave and is sticking about six inches out of the ground.
One of our regular day trips is to Blackwater, west of Cambridge. Every season brings new natural wonders to the 27,000-acre swamp. In the winter, the migratory waterfowl turn the preserve into a concert hall of quacks, honks and screeches. The air is full of sound. Hundreds of thousands of Canada geese, tundra swans, snow geese and ducks of all kinds move from fields to ponds to the lake in constant motion.
On a warm spring day, we watched turtles by the score sunning themselves on the edge of the ponds. In the summer, green-headed flies large enough to cast shadows buzz overhead as herons and egrets stalk the shallow waters.
We usually complete the trip by driving out to the end of Hoopers Island, where time seems to have stood still and the ways of the watermen still hold sway. In some spots, the Chesapeake Bay feels like it is a foot or two away, depending on the tides. One homeowner has a dinghy mounted on the edge of his porch. At low tide, it is an ornament, at high tide a conveyance.
We have found great out-of-the-way places with charm and deep history from Taylors Island to Bishops Head, from Vienna to Elliots Island. We have watched the shrimping fleet pull out of Chincoteague Harbor and enjoyed spectacular sunsets from the dock in Rock Hall.
We have found that living on the Eastern Shore has given us a base of operation for “toodling” that we never experienced before. Give us a little sunshine and the top goes down and we are on the road again.

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Md. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.