In the late 1600′s a herd of ponies swam from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon to the shore of Assateague island on the eastern most tip of Virginia and Maryland. Defying all odds, their descendants still roam freely around the island, which is now a national protected area under the Park Service.
The only man-made structures on Assateague are an old lighthouse, a naturalist shack or two, and a couple of Park Service information buildings providing maps for hiking, camping, and animal spotting. The rest of the island is mile upon mile of undeveloped beaches and marshland.
(A word about the Naturalist Shack for non-Americans: this is the building where park rangers meet groups to give tours and demonstrations on crabbing, bird-watching, and botany. )
On a recent trip to Assateague, an elderly couple from New Jersey taught me how to find and collect mussels. I hesitate to label them elderly because, although in their 70′s, they were a virtual vortex of energy.
I didn’t get a single photograph of the ponies, so you’ll just have to take me at my word: they’re everywhere, particularly on the Maryland side of the island, where they love to graze along the roads that run through the park. If you enter Assateague from the Virginia side, you’ll have to hunt for them in the backwoods and along the marsh.
The only thing I know about horses is how to bet on them. While other little girls were busy with horseback riding lessons and ballet classes, my father was taking me to Arlington Racetrack on the outskirts of Chicago and teaching me how to bet on long-shots.
My father hated going to the track alone, so I or one of my sisters — sometimes all three of us — went along with him. As long as he plied us with popcorn and soda, and gave us $10 to place a bet every now and then, we were happy enough.
By the time I was 8, I could walk up to a betting booth and tell the bouffant-haired attendant that I wanted to bet $2 on number 4 to show in the third. By the time I was 10, I knew the difference between a daily double and a trifecta. To this day, it’s one of the most useful skills I ever learned. From a very young age, I learned to weigh short-term and long-term consequences and to differentiate a long-shot from wishful thinking.
I still miss those chain-smoking old gamblers at the track who were always so kind to me and who thought it was good luck to have a child around. I miss my good father’s endless patience in explaining the in’s and out’s of placing a winning bet to me. I miss the ring of the bell and the announcer’s voice booming “Aaaaand they’re off!”
My father cast off his vice after winning enough in one day to pay for my younger sister’s wedding. Every gambler knows to go out on a winning streak. I never caught the gambling bug from my father, so I placed my last bet at the age of 14 when I took my last trip to Arlington with dad. But if you’re ever in the hole for a few thousand grand and willing to bet on a long-shot, I still know how to read a Racing Form.
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