"There what are?" replied Jessica.
"Out there, just beyond and to the left of the pine trees."
"Are you sure those are ponies?"
"Try the telephoto lens."
[Having looked through the telephoto lens] "I repeat, are you sure those are ponies? They might be bushes."
I'd been promising Jessica Chincoteague ponies (in truth, "Assateague horses" is a more accurate name, and I go back and forth) for two and a half years, ever since she found out I'd spent a lot of time on Assateague. She'd read Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague as a child, and had always wanted to come here.
Now, here they were—well, there they were, admittedly a good way out—and clearly she was underwhelmed. A discussion ensued concerning what constituted a legitimate pony experience and thus the fulfillment of my promise; I pointed out that they are, after all, wild horses and therefore beyond my control, while she reminded me that I'd told her several stories of close encounters—very close encounters, she emphasized.
She had a point, and I might have felt some anxiety, but I had reason to be confident that we'd get closer looks.
Tuesday morning, we spotted what appeared to be the same band, in more or less the same location but somewhat closer to the road, and Jess was mollified: she could see them with the naked eye, they were more obviously horse-shaped and horse-coloured...altogether a more satisfying sighting, and she held my promise fulfilled. (Just a bit grudgingly, perhaps.)
Eventually, it was time to go, so we bade farewell to the horses and to the refuge at large. We stopped in Chincoteague for some ice cream at Muller's, where I've been going since I was seven. (I checked with the current proprietor, and he confirmed the shop opened in 1974.) Jess took pictures of a duck in their front yard, we had a banana split, and then headed for home.
Somewhere between the NASA facility at Wallop's Island and T's Corner in Oak Hall, Jessica fell asleep. So when we got to Pocomoke City, Maryland, I went right at the split, heading north on US-113 toward the north end of Assateague. She woke up just after we crossed the causeway. "Close enough now?" I asked.
Just a short distance from the road, maybe thirty yards or so, were three mares—two pintos and a chestnut—grazing on cordgrass. I was reminded of Marguerite Henry's description of horses, newly arrived on Assateague, discovering their grazing:
This was it! This was the exciting smell that had urged them on. With wild snorts of happiness they buried their noses in the long grass. They bit and tore great mouthfuls—frantically,as if they were afraid it might not last. Oh, the salty goodness of it! Not bitter at all, but juicy-sweet with rain. It was different from any grass they knew. It billowed and shimmered like the sea. They could not get enough of it. That delicious salty taste! Never had they known anything like this. Never.
Moving on, we encountered a chestnut stallion in one of the beach parking lots. Jess named him "Owen Wilson" for reasons unknown.
There were ducks here, too.
On the way out, we spent some more time with the trio of mares. Up close.
And Jess drove away a happy girl.