A Love of the Ponies Brings Buyback Babes Together

 By Tammy Rickman

 You never know what can come from a group of ladies standing around, talking with time on their hands. Just ask the Buyback Babes.

 From across the country, they are trickling into Chincoteague, preparing to attend the roundup, swim and auction during Pony Penning. But they have important business to attend to, too.  They will spend their money on several ponies at the auction.

 It all started in 2001. No one knows the details better than Jean Bonde, a member of the Buybacks, whose home on the Island is the unofficial headquarters for the group.

She and her husband moved to Chincoteague, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 14 years ago after spending a lot of time hunting the perfect retirement location. According to Jean they drove around in their RV. She said they knew they wanted to retire on the water but with costs in California where they lived, they knew it would not be in California. They happened to land at Tom’s Cove Camp Ground on Chincoteague. She said they didn’t even know there was a road to Assateague the first time they came. They just planned to drive to the edge of the island and look over at Assateague.

After arriving and settling in they drove out toward Assateague and discovered the bridge between the islands and wild ponies roaming freely; this was before fences were put up along the road. Jean said, “I knew when I saw them this was where we would retire because anyplace that lets horses walk around on the road is ok by me.” 

Jean had grown up with horses and her husband’s family raises race horses. Over the years her love for horses stayed. In her words, “All little girls love ponies, some of us just never out grow them.” Wayne chimed in, “Girls need their horses and guys gotta have wheels.”

Who are the Buyback Babes and where did they come from? Well the group met by accident and their love of horses has bound them together and expanded their group over the years. In 2001 the ponies not sold at the auction were supposed to be delivered to the fairgrounds corral at 1 p.m. There waiting to see them were a group of women who had no idea what fate had in store for them.

The ponies arrived later than expected, nearly 2:30 according to Jean. During that span of time the women now known as the Buyback Babes began talking and getting to know one another. Ideas flowed and over time as they kept in touch the BBBs came to be.

In 2002 they purchased their first buy back pony, a filly they named Gidget for $7,800. It was the first but it would not be the last or the most expensive. Ponies can generally be bought for around $1,100 if they are going home with the purchaser. Because the fire company’s permit to keep the horses on the refuge on Assateague only allows for 150 ponies, the number of buybacks vary year to year.  If they have lost many to age, sickness, or other factors they will keep more.

Many of the members have purchased ponies individually that they have given back as buybacks. Some have taken ponies home with them but as a group they have purchased a total of seven buybacks. Gidget was the first in 2002 followed by Lady in 2003, one of the few solid colored purchases, in 2003 for $3,100. In 2005 came M&M at their lowest purchase price of $1,500 and Freckles in 2006 at $7,500.

Stallions are rarely kept as buy backs due to herd size and other factors. But in 2007 the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the ponies, decided to keep a total of five after losing several stallions to age. Jean says they had always wanted to buy back a stallion and knew instantly that it had to be the creamy colored pinto colt.

Because the number of buy backs is limited and the number of people wanting to purchase them is high the prices are often very much higher than the ponies auctioned off to owners who will take a pony home. The chance to buyback a stallion increases the competition dramatically. The record high bid for a buyback was set in 2001 at $10,500. Jean and her friends would break that record fighting for the creamy colored foal who favored the famous Misty of Chincoteague in 2007. Finally, after it was all said and done, they paid $17,500 for the foal they called Prince.  A record they would not even break in 2008, when for the first time they would purchase two buybacks that together cost $17,000.

Jean says it is a love of horses and animals in general that binds this group who accidentally met that day at the corral. They spend each year preparing for the next roundup and Jean says getting to the Island for those who don’t live here is the greatest preparation. Buyback members and friends are scattered from Alexandria, Virginia to Oakland, California and Jasper, Texas to Dayville, Connecticut and everywhere in between. Some are wealthy and some not so much.  They started out as 10 and now they are a group of 62.

Of the 62 members 33 have actually contributed financially to the buyback fund and are officially Buyback Babes. They gained two new members in 2008 and so far this year they have one new member. However, Jean says two members are not actually babes but men. When asked what they called them she said with a laugh, “I don’t know.” At which point a suggestion came from around the table to call them Buyback Buddies.

Only two or three of the members live locally; the rest travel from near and far. They stay in vacation rentals, hotels, and campgrounds and some own property in Chincoteague. Some bunk together and some even bunk with those who live here.  Some trickle in early and meet for dinner. The real fun begins the weekend before the swim which is the last Wednesday of July each year.

They gather to go and watch the horses rounded up from both southern and northern herds. This is a big event prior to the July swim but they also come up for the fall and spring roundups when the ponies are treated by their long time vet Dr. Charlie Cameron and his staff.

The roundups are not small tasks and take a lot of man power. The Saltwater Cowboys themselves come from several states, pulling their horse trailers. To bring in the southern herd, they spread out over range of the island and run the ponies into a holding area off Woodland Trail.

When they are all gathered at that location they escort the ponies through the woods and into a big corral that sits next to the Beach Road going to Assateague beach. That normally happens in late afternoon. The following morning, bright and early, they are out on the northern end of the island repeating the maneuvers, but covering a much more expansive area.  It is four miles out on a service road to the northern corral and no vehicles are allowed, not even bikes. Some of the Buybacks have walked out each year to see “their” ponies, but last year, Lou Hinds, the manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, made a bus available. It will run again this time.

The Buyback Babes also go to watch the northern herd run down the beach to be corralled with the southern herd in what is known locally as “The Beach Run.”  It is done very early on Monday morning of swim week and the fog is usually thick along the beach at that hour.

In July, once the ponies are all gathered in the southern corral, the group hangs around to check out previous purchases and chat with old friends about this year’s new additions. This is usually on the Friday and Saturday prior to the swim.  The roundup of the northern herd is a long day, even on the bus.  They leave early packing food and drinks because they spend six hours out on the refuge with no civilities, not even toilets, before being bused back.

After all the roundups and runs are over and they have seen all the ponies they get together for a big meal on Tuesday prior to the swim, a meal that has become tradition. In the past they have normally gone off the island to a restaurant.

However, this year they are in for a real treat. One of the new members from last year who loves to cook and whose family used to run a catering business came prepared to feed them. On Tuesday July 28 they will all meet at a specified rental house and be served a meal by one of their own. She came in a week early to prepare for the event. She and her husband arrived this week with the bed of their truck loaded down with food and cooking supplies.

After the auction which is held early on Thursday each year following the Wednesday swim, they meet for lasagna at what they call the “Naming Party.” Jean says the way they pick a foal varies. Sometimes one stands out and they know early on which one the group will bid for. Other years it just happens once the auction starts. According to her the naming isn’t much different. The names are not formal. In other words, this is not an official Pony Penning event held by the fire department. It is for their records only.

Jean says they make a list of suggested names then call them out one by one. They remove the obvious dislikes and then vote on what remains until they have a winner. She said some like customary names while others like “funky” names. In the end it is all mutually agreed and yet another buyback is named.

Photographer Kelly Lidard is a member of the group. She is group’s official photographer. Jean’s house is adorned with pictures of the buybacks, many of them no doubt Kelly’s works. Jean knows most of them by the names the Buybacks have given each pony. And each one has its own story. It was clear Jean could spend hours in her room of photos that sit in albums along the book shelves. She has sorted them into years and herds. There are albums for certain ponies and even some very old photos that go back beyond her time on the island; just another testament to her devotion to these majestic animals. 

Though the roundups and auctions are main attractions for the group, many come for a chance to see the ponies. Members communicate via email and without it they would not be who and what they are today. Email allows them to communicate from across the country, coordinate trips, find housing, and talk about what is or isn’t happening with one pony or another. It allows them to mobilize and communicate while mobilized.

The love for these animals shines brightly in Jean’s blue eyes. Her love and passion for these wild and beautiful creatures is intoxicating and addictive.  If it is matched by the other members of the group by even a minute amount the fun, joy, and merriment in the upcoming 2009 activities will surely be a sight to behold.

Unfortunately this year’s auction will be a bit harder for many. In February  one of their dear friends lost her battle with pancreatic cancer and passed away. Her name was Suzanne Craig from Yorktown, Virginia. Jean described her as a wonderful and sweet lady who had a passion for the ponies.  Jean, with a loving smile and light laugh, also said she kind of became the leader of the group because, “she was so determined and spirited we just couldn’t tell her no.” Suzanne and Jean both were among the original members who met in 2001. According to Jean she was instrumental in the group’s beginnings and in its continued success.

This year’s buyback will be purchased in honor of Suzanne. When asked if any names had been discussed she said yes but indicated the pony would not carry Suzanne’s name at Suzanne’s request.

The group also has a new venture this year. An organization called the Feather Fund which donates a pony to a needy and deserving child each year will be donating three this year. One of which will be bought with funds donated to the Feather Fund by the Buyback Babes. Jean says it is a new venture they hope to continue supporting each year.

Tammy Rickman is a staff writer for www.wildponytales.info, a website that covers Chincoteague and Assateague. She lives on the Island with her family and teaches special education for Accomack County public schools.


Horses, Like People have their Bad Days: Trainer Katye Allen

By Robert Boswell

Men beware.

If you perk up one ear, lick or chew on your lips a little, or watch your mate with only one eye you have given yourself away. You are the submissive type and from here on out you are at the will of your trainer.

When Katye Allen steps into the ring to begin training a horse, these are the signs she is looking for. Once she sees them, she knows she has her subject’s attention. Before long, no matter where she moves in the ring, the horse will face her and follow her. “When I see those signs,” said Katye, “I will step in front of him and back up. I want him to turn and face me; I never want their butt toward me. That is a sign of disrespect.”

Katye is the lead trainer at the Chincoteague Pony Centre on Chicken City Road, Chincoteague, and captain of the Chincoteague Pony Drill Team. Her day begins early and ends late. She is up at 5 a.m., facing what most young women would not choose for that time of day, 15 stalls with poop to scoop, tack to clean, manes to clip and saddle pads to be washed. This is her side job.

By 8:15 she is at the pony centre. There she joins other members of the drill team who work at the centre. There are pony rides to give out front, riding lessons in the ring, water tanks to fill, hay to bring out, and more brushing and bathing and ponies to be trained.  She helps out with other duties throughout the day. Katye may get away for a few hours but by late in the day she is back, staying until around 10 p.m.

 Katye will be appearing with the drill team at the Chincoteague Pony Centre pony shows during Pony Penning week along with other drill team members.

 One horse Katye is training now is Misty II’s Henry, the 11 year old son of Misty II, who is buried on the pony centre property. Henry missed out on being trained at the usual age of 3 because he was given other responsibilities. “Henry was a stallion for the herd for a number of years,” said Kendy Allen, manager of the Chincoteague Pony Centre.  ”He is the sire of Misty III.”

Henry, by the way, is named for Marguerite Henry, the author of Misty of Chincoteague,. She was a great friend and inspiration to the family, said Mrs. Allen. “He was born the same year she died and we wanted her name to live on. So we incorporated the name of his mom, Misty II and Henry to come up with Misty II’s Henry.’

Katye has grown up in a horse family. Before moving to the Eastern Shore, the Allens lived on a farm in Lancaster, Penn. There is Keith and Kendy and their three children, the oldest now Kerra Allen Johnson, Katye and Kenneth.  Kerra Allen Johnson, is the manager and riding instructor at a farm in Assawoman. She rides with the drill team and is past captain.  Her brother, Kenneth, also rides with the drill team.

They got their first Chincoteague pony, Misty II, in the 1980s. She was the granddaughter of Misty of Chincoteague fame, 13 years old and untrained. The Allens gentled her to ride and she went on to become a hunter champion. Since then they have developed a herd of about 30 Chincoteague ponies and continue to breed, raise, buy, and sell and according to Mrs. Allen, “always love” Chincoteague ponies.

Katye describes Henry as “incredibly smart.” But he has a little bit of a stubborn streak, she said. “Once in a while he will swing around and kick his heels at me. With Henry, I just ignore it, don’t make a big deal out of it and keep on going.” Each horse has a unique personality and so, too, does Henry. “Henry likes to get dirty in the mud,” said Katye. “He likes to roll over and get dirty and I have to bring five changes of clothes just to give him a shampoo.”

If this sounds like she hates her work, she does not. Despite being bitten, kicked, bucked off, and thrown through a glass bookshelf, she rides every day and wouldn’t think of doing anything else. Well, almost nothing else. She does plan on starting classes this fall at Eastern Shore Community College with a long range goal of becoming a teacher.

Around horses, Katye said, you can’t be afraid. They will pick up on it. “Hesitate, they will know.” In any situation, she said, you always have to act natural and cool. She said her mother always says, “It takes a hundred falls off a horse to make a good rider.”  Mrs. Allen said her daughter qualified a long time ago.

When she begins to train a horse, said Katye, within a month she can be on his back. In two or three months he can be completely gentled.  But it takes a year or two, putting on as many training miles as you can, taking them to new places, to say they are “fully gentled.”

“I stand in the center of the ring, making them lunge (run) around me,” she said. They need to be able to listen to you on the ground. “If they try to swing their butts around, by the way I move my body in the center of the ring, I’ll push them right back around. I want them to turn and face me, and eventually I won’t need to hook a lead. “I want them to follow me, so I can move wherever and his head will always face me.”

It was evident Henry had learned his early lessons. As Katye moved around the ring, he faced her and yes, gave those fateful signs of submissiveness. “Some horses want to please you, pick up on things right away. Others are stubborn and seem to say, I don’t want to do this and you can’t make me,” she said.

Just like people, horses, said Katye, can have bad days. “Some days they will not listen, will not focus. Maybe they are bored. You have to do something to get their attention.” She said every now and then one of the stars of the pony show won’t feel like doing something. “You just have to smile and pretend it is part of the show.”

“Henry has the heart of a champion and soul of an angel, just like his mom, Misty II,” said Mrs. Allen. “She was a very special pony with great athletic ability and a loving heart.”

While some ponies at the centre are for sale, Henry and five great grand foals of Misty are not. “They will spend the rest of their lives with us,” said Mrs.  Allen. 

In addition to training Henry, Katye is also working with a yearling and helping with other Misty descendents, Heart of the Storm and Icicle. “I help my mom with the weanlings and all our horses in general as do my brother and sister.”

Katye, 23, has been training horses for 12 years. She graduated from Manheim Central High School in Manheim, Penn. She had her first pony when she was 3 years old and has been showing horses and competing in horse events ever since.

Her biggest moments come when a horse she has gentled goes to a show and wins. “There is no feeling like it,” she said, “knowing that all the hard work has finally paid off.”

A day after the interview for this article she took riders and mounts to a competition, the Evening Shade 2, at the Old Hope Farm in Elkville, Md. She won her event on a half-Chincoteague “Andante” that she had raised and trained herself. She competed in dressage, stadium jumping and cross country jumping.

Having already put in a long day, by 7 p.m. the team members who are riding in the show begin to arrive. All kinds of preparations take place, brushing manes and tails, and finally, blankets and saddles. The ponies get a dose of bug spray and at 8 p.m. the music begins. Katye’s mom goes to the center of the show ring and welcomes her audience for another hour long performance.

But when the show ends at 9:00 and the horses have been returned to their stalls, or to the paddock in front of the centre, Katye’s day still has time left in it. With help from the drill team members, a final poop scoop takes place out front and in the stalls and anywhere else the ponies have been. Tack has to be taken apart and cleaned, the glass displays and windows in the surrounding museum have to be wiped down, cobwebs are whisked from walls and the carriages outside the ring have to be dusted.

Then, it is out the door, hoping the ice cream parlors are still open.

For more information go to www.chincoteague.com/ponycentre.             

The writer is publisher of www.wildponytales.info, a website that covers Chincoteague and Assateague. <Mr. Boswell is a retired newspaper editor Accomack County journalism teacher.

Chincoteague Pony Drill Team Makes it Look Easy

By Robert Boswell and Kate White

It is an hour before show time.

But unlike on Broadway, for this show some performers have to be brought in from the paddock out front, manes have to be brushed and braided, and girths tightened so saddles won’t slip.  Instead of the dressing room, trips are made back and forth to the tack room, for bridles and blankets.  And by the way, don’t forget the bug spray.

Chincoteague ponies are being pampered and saddled but there is work ahead.  At 8 p.m. they will carry their riders, members of the Chincoteague Pony Drill Team, into the indoor ring at the Chincoteague Pony Centre before an audience of excited children and parents. Chances are the spectators will not be disappointed. Chincoteague and Assateague are islands on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

For the next hour the ponies and their riders will perform skilled maneuvers that call for expert horsemanship, working as a team to coordinated music. But probably no one will take home a memory that means more than being able to go up to the ring and pat the ponies at the end of the show. And for those old enough to have read Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague,” it will be a special memory to take home because some of the ponies are descendents of the famous “Misty.” Misty’s last grand foal, Misty II, spent her final summer at the pony centre and is buried on the property.

Misty has a heavy presence in the museum that surrounds the show ring, with a photo display from the movie, “Misty,” with Grandma and Grandpa Beebe, and a Misty family tree on a wall and a display of all of Marguerite Henry’s books.

If that’s not enough, there are the neighs and movement of Misty descendents in nearby stalls wanting attention or excited about their upcoming time in the ring.

The latest Misty descendent to make an appearance is one-month old Smoke n’ Mist who bucks and romps, showing off his frisky self to the delight of the young audience. He will be the only one, pony or rider, to enter the ring who hasn’t spent many hours of practice and training preparing for the  drill team at tonight’s show as well as other appearances. The pony show goes on at 8:00 every night except Sunday and during Pony Penning there will be a 4 p.m. performance each day.

The drill team will present a special routine July 30 at the widely attended annual pony auction.

The show is the creation of Kendy Allen, horse trainer, breeder, author and at show time, mistress of ceremonies. Her daughter, Katye, is captain of the drill team and mom’s “right hand assistant” in the running of the drill team and pony centre.

Both put in countless hours during the summer at the centre and at their farm in Assawoman, on the mainland a few miles from Chincoteague, where the Allens can get away from their long days in public life and the ponies can relax in roomy pastures and paddocks.

But it is not much time off. Katye rises early each morning and mucks stalls at a neighboring boarding stable, a job she takes to bring in extra money. Later in the morning she might be giving riding lessons at the centre or training Henry, another Misty descendent, and as the days goes on she will attend to details for the night’s show. Tack has to be cleaned, floors swept, poop scooped, and before they leave every night, the carriages and displays have to be dusted.

Katye’s mother also puts in exhausting hours. During interviews for this article Kendy Allen left a note after a long night. “We had a baby born Tuesday at 5 a.m. and another Wednesday at 3 a.m. which means I was basically up two nights in a row and then here most of the day. …right now I’m pretty sleep deprived and may sneak off this afternoon for a nap.”

But at 8:00 Mrs. Allen is standing in the center of the ring, mike in hand, telling the audience what is about to take place and reminding the audience, seated only a few feet from the ring, not to get too close during the show.

For anyone who doesn’t know much about horses, it would be impossible to imagine the amount of effort it takes to train and conduct the drill team, which Mrs. Allen says is the only mounted drill team in the world made up entirely of Chincoteague ponies.

The riders, some teenagers and some in their twenties, come from various points around Chincoteague Island and nearby Virginia and Maryland communities, with some having come from as far Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Nearly all of them have five or more year’s horse experience and some have been riding with the drill team for years. Some of them own their own horses and all of them say they have a special attachment to horses, starting to ride as early as age 3.

“I have loved horses every since I can remember,” said Ashley Northam of Stockton, Md. Kenneth Allen, 20, son of Kendy, who is in the National Guard and awaiting deployment, said, “Sometimes they are the only friend you have that understands.”  About horses, Georgia Kalmoutis, 18, of nearby Gargatha said, “They are the one constant in my life.”

Mrs. Allen can easily relate to these feelings. You cannot spend time with her and fail to see that as much of a business as pony centre operations have become, her goals go far beyond the commercial undertaking. She is a teacher and that is where she started. As a school librarian for more than 20 years in Pennsylvania she has worked with students on student council, yearbook and coached girls basketball.  

Now instead of working in a school she is working in the horse business but she is still teaching.

Mrs. Allen has written four books and the entire activity program at the centre is aimed at pony education, including foal seminars and training tips, riding lessons and training opportunities.  A fifth book is being released during Pony Penning, about Ember, the Miracle Misty Pony. For more about Ember, go to www.chincoteague.com/ponycentre.

“So many of the ponies have done so much and won so much. Chincoteague ponies are just so talented and athletically gifted,” said Mrs. Allen. “It has been a joy to train them and work with them,” she said.

 If you listen to her script to her nightly audience, which she delivers without notes, you will hear the voice of a teacher, who carefully explains everything so that the youngest spectator will leave, knowing a lot more about Chincoteague ponies than they did.

 One of her students, Olivie Kruis, now a student at Lancaster Mennonite High School in Lititz, Penn., knew Mrs. Allen as her elementary school librarian. That relationship has brought her here this summer to try out for the drill team.

Most of the young men and women who ride got started in 4-H riding clubs and many of them have won riding titles either on their own or with the drill team. Mrs. Allen can point to a list of awards and titles the drill team has brought home.

“Having the drill team named World Champion Youth Team at Equitana USA in Louisville, Ky. several years ago was an experience I will never forget,” she said. “And being invited and having the team perform at the Kentucky Horse Park where they honored Misty II was quite an honor.”

As coach Mrs. Allen comes up with the music and the drill. Practice begins in the spring with riders who live within 100 miles. “One of the challenges of the drills is that every ring is a different size and shape,” she said, “so trying to make a drill that can work in all of them is a real challenge.”

“Drill is very good for riders,” said Mrs. Allen, “because they have to worry about not only their own horse and themselves, but everybody else on the team.” She added, “Sometimes you have to make a quick decision as a drill member to keep that drill going, and I am always amazed at what the team can pull off.”

A week before the pony centre opens on Easter weekend practice begins by going through the routines on foot, then with the horses. Each maneuver is gone over, with the older riders helping the new ones. As prepared as she would like to be by her opening show Ms. Allen said you never know what will happen in a ring.

“I remember one time a couple of years ago, Kenneth (her son) rode a horse into the ring that had never given any problems, and for some reason it freaked, and proceeded to buck him off, not an easy thing to do. After the show a lady came up to me and said that was so neat to see, and wondered if we did that every show.”

The riders must be 15, have a minimum of five years horse experience, ride hunt seat and western, work long hours and help with fund raising. The drill team is a non-profit enterprise. Drill team members must know a lot about Chincoteague ponies and the Misty family heritage they represent. “A genuine love of horses is a must,” said Mrs. Allen, “they must put their horse and drill team ahead of themselves. They work long hours and often don’t have time to eat when they are preparing and doing a show.”

Before moving to the Eastern Shore, the Allens ran a farm in Lancaster, Penn. There is Keith and Kendy and their three children, Kerra, Katye and Kenneth. They got their first Chincoteague pony, Misty II, in the 1980s on a vacation trip to Chincoteague. She was the granddaughter of Misty of Chincoteague fame, 13 years old and untrained. The Allens gentled her to ride and she went on to become a hunter champion. Since then they have developed a herd of about 30 Chincoteague ponies and continue to breed, raise, buy sell, and according to Ms. Allen, “always love” Chincoteague ponies.

 For 30 years she was a 4-H leader and they would take in “horseless kids who wanted to learn to ride.”  Nine years ago the Richard Conklin family of Chincoteague opened the Pony Centre on Chicken City Road. The Pony Centre horses are owned and managed by the Allen family. Their partners, Richard, Carolyn and Mark Conklin own the pony centre and the gift shop.

Veterans of the drill team, returning this year are, in addition to the captain, Katye, her brother Kenneth, Matt DesJardins of Lambertville, Mich.; Sara Miles, Pocomoke, Md.; Natalie Whealton, Chincoteague; Georgia Kiamoutis, Gargatha; Laura Hopkins, Pocomoke, Md., and Kerra Allen Johnson, New Church.

Kerra is the oldest daughter in the Allen family. She has been riding since age 3 and is now the manager and riding instructor at an Assawoman farm. She is the past captain of the drill team, a torch now passed to her younger sister, Katye. 

The newer members are twins Ashley and Shelby Northam, Stockton, Md., Crystal Kinard, Temperanceville; Amelia Monroe, Myersville, Md;  and Olivia Kruis, Lititz, Penn.

For more information go to www.chincoteague.com/ponycentre.

Mr. Boswell, a retired newsman and journalism teacher, is publisher of www.wildponytales.info, a website that covers Chincoteague and Assateague.  Kate White, an 8th grader at Arcadia Middle School, is a staff writer for the site.





How One Family Came to Call Chincoteague Home

Thousands of families come to visit Chincoteague and Assateague Islands. Few of them, though, have packed up and moved here and so quickly began calling this little seaside part of Virginia home. Tammy Rickman and her husband, Lee, did though and with their children have gotten into school and community activities, fished from our waters, explored hiking trails and woodlands and seem to know every shop on Chincoteague streets. Tammy, who teaches special education in Accomack County, began writing for www.wildponytales.info this past year. So did her daughter, Alissa Reid, now going into the 11th grade at Chincoteague High who, as it turns out, knew a lot about horses before she discovered our famous wild ponies. Wild Pony Tales has asked Tammy to share her Island experiences with its readers in a column to be published weekly during the summer. This first account, though, tells us how she followed her heart to the Eastern Shore.

By Tammy Rickman

In the summer of 2001 my life had changed so much during the course of the past year and a half that I really had no expectations. I was contentedly enjoying the peace and serenity of the Shenandoah Valley, a majestic valley cradled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Mountains near the northern tip of Virginia.

I used to joke that my love of nature came from my Native American Heritage. Over the years I came to believe in that a little more than even I knew at times.  I don’t know that those kinds of connections to nature can transcend that many generations, but something in me has always been connected to the wild and untouched parts of the world. Eventually I found my home among the mountains and spent eight wonderful years exploring the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.

At this point in my life I had never seen the ocean. I had grown up in the South and spent 27 years along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida but I had never seen the ocean.

My husband, who was then still my boyfriend, came in from work for lunch in early August and announced we were going to the beach. Within an hour we were packed and off.

I barely remember the trip over. I was too much like a kid in a candy store, my mind full of expectations and wonderings.  What I do remember is the rain….it poured for hours and as we neared the Eastern Shore of Virginia the storms strengthened and lightning and thunder boomed, roared, and rolled across the sky.

The Eastern Shore is a small peninsula that is divided between Delaware to the north, Maryland and in the middle and Virginia in the south.  It is bordered on the east by the Atlantic and many barrier islands that dart the coastal landscape. To the west it is bordered by the Chesapeake Bay. At its southern tip the Bay meets the Atlantic and at the north it joins the mainland.

A spur of the moment trip, we had no reservations. We were headed to Ocean City Maryland; a busy tourist destination. The weather caused us to arrive in the night somewhere around 10 p.m., I think.  As we turned onto the main stretch of road that runs along the beachfront, lights greeted us. Hotel signs blinked…unfortunately most said no vacancy. It was like any boardwalk I had seen along the coast of the Gulf but it wasn’t the boardwalk I was there to see.

We checked prices on a few hotels and, after riding around for quite some time, we were trying to decide whether to go with a high priced vacancy or keep looking. As if someone flicked a light switch in the sky, thunder rolled and lightning flashed and all in sight went dark. Looking back later I wondered at the hand of destiny or of God. Whatever it was, our decision was made. It was stormy, hot and we had three small children. There was no way I was dealing with no electricity.

Luckily we had stopped at the local Wal-mart before hitting the road and purchased a tent just in case we found somewhere to camp and save some money.  That was the smartest move we had made thus far.

I don’t really remember much about how we got where we ended up.  A few signs and some vague references about an island and wild horses and we were off again, this time back to Virginia.  At that point I didn’t care I just wanted a place to stay.

It was dark so I don’t remember much about my first arrival on Chincoteague Island. What I remember was the cool breeze in my face and the smell of marsh in the air. The rain had stopped but the skies had not yet cleared so it was dark.  I remember the draw bridge and a few lights gleaming in the distance.

In the end we found what turned out to be Tom’s Cove Campground.  We pitched a tent, slept in the cool breeze, and woke to more sounds than I can begin to recall. I remember feeling slightly more alive than I had when I went to bed but I didn’t “get it” …not yet but I would….

We spent several days enjoying a long weekend. We played on the beach, swam in the Atlantic, saw wild ponies, and explored an Island. We learned about Pony Penning, what, when, where, how, and why. We had missed it by a weekend. I had never heard of Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry, or the Island for that matter before that weekend.

When it came time to leave I felt I had only had a taste of what was there and something tugged at me somewhere deep in my soul that I couldn’t explain… I had no idea what had begun that early August morn when I woke up on an Island, I couldn’t even imagine the impact it was going to have in my life.

We left and somehow I think a part of me stayed behind. I felt sad at leaving and wanted more.

The following summer of 2002 we returned for a five day weekend. My husband and I had married in January of 2002 and this time we had seven kids in tow because my step-children were here this time and it was Pony Penning time. The previous summer my children had been 2, 5, and 8. Now we had my 14 yr old step-son, 12 yr old step-son, my daughter was now 9, my step-daughter was 7, my oldest son was 6, my youngest step-son was 5, and the baby of them all, my youngest son, was 3. There was no “ours” we had plenty to raise with his and mine.

We were a bit more prepared this time. We had a reservation at Maddox Family Camp Ground. We arrived at a reasonable time, had researched what we wanted to try this time, and were a little less overwhelmed with everything new.

The five days sped by and we enjoyed the excitement of the Islands and the new experience of Pony Penning.  This would be the second in a list of trips to come. Unfortunately it would be two years before we returned. During the two years following our 2002 trip the desire to be on the island never stopped. The kids and I talked about it often.  At times I could smell the salt air of the marshes and at night I would dream of the gulls and wake to find their calls were only a memory.

In the summer of 2004 we were able to return this time for a 10 day trip. We again camped at Maddox and for the first time we were really able to slow down and discover this unique place. We spent time on the beach, we learned to saltwater fish, we hiked trails, watched birds, explored nooks and crannies, and fell more and more in love with this tiny Island. Leaving became harder with every trip.

We returned in 2005 and for the first time rented a house for another 10 day stay. This time we had two extra kids in tow.  By this time I had begun talking about moving here. At first it was a fanciful dream of retirement years. During the day it became almost natural to say, “It’s time to go home.” Home of course referred to the Lost Pearl. The Lost Pearl was and still is a nice house on a quiet street where we were staying.  The owners had named it because of a game they had invented to entertain guests. All over the house they had painted small pearls in obscure places and our kids loved spending evenings searching for another pearl. Either way, saying home and meaning a place on the Island had a good sound to it.

By the spring of 2006 being away felt more like being homesick. We came back in March during spring break for a week and again in July for Pony Penning for 10 days. The spring trip was a new view of the island outside of summer and only deepened the intensity to which I was drawn to this place. We stayed at the Lost Pearl both times and found more pearls. Found new restaurants, fishing spots, discovered the Island Creamery, and began making friends among shop owners who by now recognized us.

In the years between 2001 and 2006 we had only began to discover the uniqueness of the islands. We visited the Oyster museum on every trip and discovered a man who had a name almost identical to my son.  We took a charter boat fishing trip with Captain Shawn of FiSHAWN Charters aboard the Torgtuga. Over the years we would go out with him many times and my daughter would eventually get lessons in steering his boat.  Aboard those cruises we participated in a study by the US Fish and Wildlife Services, met a dear old man by the name of “William the Fishman,” and made a friend or two of the captain and crew.

We returned in the summer yet again. We had no idea that it would be our last vacation to Chincoteague. We visited our many favorite spots and found a new one or two.  My heart was heavy every time we left and we had not crossed the bridge before talk of next time had begun.

Also in 2007 after a long three and a half years I graduated from college and began teaching the following August.  My job was not with a public schools system and was a 12 month position rather than a typical summer off job.  So in early 2008, during spring when money started to become tight and I would be working through summer, we decided not to make our yearly trip out to the Island.

We were more than disappointed since it was to be our first two week trip.  We resigned ourselves to the idea and focused on other matters. My second oldest step son graduated from high school that spring. We celebrated and focused on enjoying summer as it began.

I had no idea the turn that my life was about to take.  In early June life dealt us several big blows that were both emotionally draining and stressful.  I felt like my whole life had been thrown into a blender on high. After many long nights, talks, and prayers we decide it was time for a change. So by the end of June I had put in an application with Accomack County Public Schools on the Eastern Shore. It was not my only application but it was the one I was most intent on because of its location.

I was excited when I was called for an interview but let down when I was unable to get there as soon as they needed me to. Disappointed I kept putting in applications and going on interviews. Nothing panned out.

In July I decided to email the school system and find out if they had filled the position I had applied for.  I was asked how soon I could be there for an interview and arrangements were made for the following Monday, July 21st.

Withholding the information from the kids, we packed for a four day camping trip and drove out on Thursday.  We enjoyed our weekend and on Monday morning I went on my interview. It went well and I drove back to the campground and helped pack up. Less than four hours after the interview and about an hour before we headed back to the mountains my cell phone rang. I had the job. I don’t really remember that trip back…or the three weeks that followed.

Yes I said three weeks! That was how much time I had to pack and find a place to live. We had spent our weekend trip looking for a rental, but in a tourist destination most rentals are not long term. We had found a few prospects and were hopeful. Within a week I had given notice at my job, began packing and secured a home on the Island that would last through the school year.

The next few weeks flew by and on August 8, 2008 we made the drive home. It did feel like home. The kids had grown up here. They knew their way around the Island. We knew the street where our youngest learned to ride a bike on one visit. We had memories here and for reasons I still can’t explain some part of me belongs here.

The past year has been almost a dream. I still wake in the mornings amazed that I am finally here.  I left for work every morning even in winter with windows down smelling the marshes.  In the evenings I returned still in disbelief I was home. In the fall we brought apples back from a trip to the Shenandoah Valley and took a few to Captain Shawn’s house. We saw William the Fishman every Saturday at the farmer’s market and mourned him when he passed away in the spring of 2009.

We still buy our fish bait at Captain Steve’s bait and Tackle on Maddox Boulevard, we still get home made ice-cream at the creamery, but we have learned new things too.  I have been on the spring roundup of the wild ponies and watched the firemen prepare the carnival grounds for opening in July, we made a home at Union Baptist Church on Church Street, and participated in many more activities and community events.

The kids have made friends and seem to have always lived here. They go to the beach, surf, and play little league. My daughter is now a junior fire fighter for station 3 Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and on July 3rd she was crowned Miss Chincoteague 2009. This year she isn’t a spectator to the carnival and Pony Penning, she is a part of it. Life has changed and so have we.

I have found new trails to hike, seen the beach change with the seasons, watched a storm serge flood the park, seen tides rise and fall, celebrated holidays, been to a block party, watched eagles hatch, foals gallop, and that is only the beginning.

I have also come to love and appreciate Chincoteague and its people far more than I could have ever imagined. They are a unique and resilient people with a rich history.

Most of all, I have found myself in all of this.  On one of our trips over the years I read a poem that stated, “Once you’ve slept on an island your never quite the same.” I still don’t know what it is that connects me here. The feeling has never gone away. I still marvel at this place and its people.

In June of this year we moved after our lease was up and believe it or not I drive by the house we use to stay in every day  that I pull out of my drive way. We moved just a few hoses away. Almost every day I drive down the street where my oldest son taught his little brother to ride a bike. How ironic God can be.

In my 36 years I have traveled to 18 of our wonderful United States and to the beautiful country of Canada.  Nothing anywhere has ever called to me as deeply as this tiny barrier Island. I can’t even say I will never leave. I still love to travel and I dream of many places…Alaska, Australia, Colorado, Tuscany…well you get the idea…

For now I am deeply content. I will always and forever be a “come here” and I am fine with that because whatever I am, I am home.