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Destination: Virginia

The Mane Event : Every summer, the wild ponies made famous in a children's book swim the channel while 50,000 visitors cheer them on

April 21, 1996|JEANETTE BAKER RAMIREZ | Ramirez is a Mission Viejo freelance writer

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Va. — Light leaps across the Assateague Channel, burnishing the shaggy auburn coats of a wild mare and her foal. Taller than Shetlands but smaller than standard size horses, the Chincoteague ponies prick up their ears and raise their heads to listen to the trumpeting of an impatient stallion. To the east of this island, across the channel waters, stands the isand that inspired Marguerite Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague." There truly was a Misty, as gentle and valiant as the pony depicted in the children's classic. And yes, the ponies still swim across the channel on a summer day each year.

Legend has it that these ponies are descended from a 16th century herd destined for labor in the gold mines of South America but swept ashore after the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon. Natives of the area retell stories of pirate ships slipping in and out of the coves, their captains using the coastal barrier of Assateague Island as a natural corral for stolen horses. But historians believe that as early as the 1700s farmers actually herded them to the island after the colonial legislature levied taxes on free-roaming animals. Whatever the truth, the famous wild pony swim immortalized by Henry is a sight worth a long journey.

Every year, during the last week in July (this year, July 24 and 25), when the air is sultry and the black flies are biting, 50,000 tourists from around the world line the shoreline of Chincoteague Island for a first-hand view of the world-renowned pony swim. Volunteer cowboys round up the ponies on the Virginia end of Assateague Island, swim them across the Assateague Channel, herd them down Main Street to the Chincoteague carnival grounds and auction them off to the highest bidders. On Friday, the unsold ponies swim back to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague where they will roam free for another year. This annual event keeps the herd manageable and contributes proceeds--an estimated $79,000 last year--to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co. and toward continued protection and care of the ponies.

It was at that time last year when my husband, Mike, and I crossed the breathtaking Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was Mike's first trip to the East and the miles of thick forests and green marsh grass rendered him speechless; his face became permanently fixed to the eye piece of his video camera. Ahead of us, lightning streaked the sky a metallic gold. Homes, white-pillared and fenceless, were surrounded by acres of green lawn, silver water and shadowy forest. Stands along the road advertised corn, tomatoes, blueberries, soft-shelled crab, shrimp, croquettes served with fries, cole slaw and hush puppies, a delicious Southern concoction of deep-fried cornmeal balls.

The fork in the road came up before I had time to think it through: Maryland 413 toward Crisfield, Md., our eventual destination, or Virginia 175 toward Chincoteague. On impulse, I turned the wheel of our rental car, succumbing to a childhood dream to find my very own Misty and in so doing stumbled upon the most delightful two days of our trip.

Assateague Island is a barrier island separating the Atlantic Ocean from Chincoteague Bay. It is largely undeveloped except for pristine beaches and hiking trails enjoyed by annual tourists. The Maryland (northern) end of Assateague contains part of Assateague Island National Seashore. The southern, Virginia end of the island contains the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and beaches managed by the National Park Service. It is here that the wild ponies, as well as flocks of migrating birds and deer, can be seen at home in their unspoiled paradise.

In between Assateague Island and the mainland, the smaller island of Chincoteague, a mere seven miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, is home to 3,700 people who make their living fishing, clamming, oystering and serving the thousands of tourists who visit the two islands annually. The town of Chincoteague is a haven of motels, restaurants and B&Bs, including the famous Miss Mollie's Inn, a charming Victorian B&B where Marguerite Henry researched her novel, and souvenir shops are charmingly maintained by local residents.

It was late when we arrived, and the first hotel we tried was full. The proprietor called around, reserving the last vacant room on the island. "It's pony swimming day tomorrow," she explained. "Rooms are booked for years in advance."

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