Now that we’re mostly returning to normal life after the pandemic, the early days of the lockdown seem almost like a dream – or a nightmare, depending how you look at it. Our family locked down at home in Washington, DC in the spring of 2020. The kids had bare bones online school and we took them out for walks every day, but our long, cool, spring dragged on, and by early June after distance-learning fizzled out three weeks before the original end of the school year, we were ready to get out of town. So we rented a place in Chincoteague and drove out for our first family trip outside the beltway since Christmas.
Chincoteague is a small island off the eastern shore of Virginia, protected by a longer barrier island, Assateague, famous for its wild ponies. Legend has it that their ancestors escaped the cargo hold of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon, but the less romantic and more likely explanation is that they descend from herds grazed on the island by colonists wanting to avoid fences and taxation. As a girl I was horse-obsessed and read every book by Marguerite Henry, including her most famous novel, Misty of Chincoteague, so it’s my ten-year-old self’s dream vacation spot.
While Misty signs and souvenirs are everywhere on Chincoteague, outside the annual pony swim in late July, most summer visitors to the island are there for the beach. Chincoteague itself has no real beach; Assateague is a national seashore and has no permanent human residents, so everyone who wants to go to the beach has to stay on or drive through Chincoteague, a ten-minute drive away. As a result, Chincoteague is affordable compared to other beach towns in the mid-Atlantic, and not much farther than the usual DC retreats like Rehoboth and Bethany Beach.
During the day we went to the beach, and in the evenings we would walk around the quaint, compact downtown. Chincoteague has some glorious sunsets from Main Street, which faces westward toward the mainland. We had a perfect sunset view from Waterfront Park, and we could also walk down the long pier (where my son lost a flip-flop to the channel) and climb on the oversize LOVE Adirondack chairs.
Wherever we went, I took a camera. Like any enthusiastic photographer, I overpack when I can fit as many cameras as I want in my vehicle. We’re a minivan family, so cargo space is generous as long as I can wedge my camera bag between the beach umbrellas and camp chairs. (And there’s the sand. I will never be able to vacuum out all the sand.)
But despite overpacking cameras, I really only used one or two. My favorite photos from this trip were taken on my Rolleiflex Automat with its Schneider Xenar f/3.5 lens. For me this is the ideal medium format travel camera. It’s light, compact, and easy to use, and the quality of the lens holds up next to its more famous Xenotar and Planar siblings. So it’s an easy camera to take anywhere – I even somewhat apprehensively took it to the beach, although I didn’t load or unload film there for fear of getting sand inside. But most of my photos are from walking around the town, especially in golden hour light. For film I used Kodak Portra 400 and 800, which captured the bright colors and warm light on the island.
After several months of the five of us living on top of each other, it was refreshing to get some space to spread out and visit new places on our walks. I often went out with one or two kids at a time. My son, who, like me, is more introverted, tends to open up more when he’s with one other person, and he enjoyed exploring a new path in the evening and catching Pokemon. On another morning, I took my older daughter to Assateague Lighthouse, a quick hike up a hill on the island where we saw hundreds of tiny frogs bolting from us along the path.
My Rolleiflex attracted the attention of one year-round resident named Gary who told me about a similar camera he had inherited from his dad. I don’t ordinarily take portraits of strangers, but after a long conversation I felt comfortable asking to take one of him and his dog.
I’ll remember this trip as a silver lining to the strange first half of 2020. While our other visits to Chincoteague have been later in the summer, this time we were able to visit in early June, when the beach wasn’t too hot, and more importantly, when there were no mosquitoes which plague the island later in the summer. Normally the kids are in school until late June, so the timing of this trip will be unrepeatable until our youngest is in college. The warm light in these images reflects how I feel about our visit to Chincoteague, the first time we emerged from the gray, undifferentiated days of quarantine to the brightness of a better season.
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