We normally camp at Assateague State Park, the Maryland park, with its luxurious bath houses, spacious parking pads, and hot and cold running amenities, but in the summer of 2016 we camped at the national park, the decidedly more primitive Assateague Island National Seashore. Cold showers. Hike your gear in. Nothing we hadn’t experienced before, of course. By the time the week ended, though–after the third and final storm of the week completely devastated our campsites–we experienced something new to us and very unique to the island: Even when you’re surrounded by booze-fueled rage and suffused with all-consuming dread, it’s still a place of magic.
We arrived on a Sunday and spread out over the two beachfront campsites we had reserved. Behind us to our south was one of the most dysfunctional families ever to assemble on the campground. Highlights included many violent, drunken, profanity-laced verbal brawls and throw-downs, glasses of a potent blue punch, a young child named after a popular amoral television dwarf, and one family member mounting and briefly riding an Assateague pony at the water’s edge.
Directly behind us, though, a much calmer and far more pleasant woman and her dog (a big, lovable hound) were setting up camp, and it was not going well. She had bought what was billed by Coleman as an “instant tent,” the idea being that you took it out of the bag, added a cross-pole at the top, lifted and voila! You have a tent. Except she didn’t.
She struggled for a couple of hours, to no avail. I dragged my brother-in-law over to see if we could help her out, but nothing seemed to fit. Finally she said she was going to drive into town, and when she got back, she would throw mosquito netting over the picnic table, and she and her dog would spend the night there. She left the tent in a heap and drove off into the approaching twilight.
I did not think this was a good idea, sleeping under a table, so after we got our campsites in order, I dragged my brother-in-law back over to her tent to see if we could find what we were missing. Eventually we figured out that the two supports that the cross-pole was supposed to slide into, one at each end, were facing out and away from each other instead of facing in and toward each other. The only way the pole would work under that set-up was if it went completely around the planet first. So we took the tent apart and put it back together with everything facing the right way, set it up, brought her sleeping gear inside, and set her camp chair outside the front door, ready for her return.
When she got back long after sunset, she couldn’t have been more surprised and happy. She and her hound slept well that night. The next morning they joined us at our site for some lovely conversation. Then she thanked us, and then headed home.
A few days later, two Park Rangers approached us. As it happened, I had a history with them. The day before, our then 12-year-old and his friend who he brought camping went out biking and ended up at the Assateague General Store. Somehow they ended up leaving separately, and the friend went the wrong way and got lost.
Let me just say, losing someone else’s child in a strange place far from home is one of the most horrible experiences you can go through. So you can imagine the sheer relief, the sheer exhausted relief that washed over me when, after what seemed like hours of futile searching, I told my story to a Ranger in the national park office and she said, “Oh, I believe he just got dropped off. He’s over there with those two Rangers,” and pointed out the window to our lost child in the company of two Rangers who even in the hot Assateague sun exuded pure cool.
Those same two Rangers who had safely delivered our lost child to us–our heroes–were now bringing us a package. The package was from the woman we had helped. Inside was a beautiful, heartfelt, really sweet letter of thanks and a proclamation citing us for our good deed.
And along with the proclamation were magic sticks. She had made one set for each of us, each stick hand-painted, and paired and wrapped in a glittering fabric. A tag tied around the set told us these were “… magic sticks, so you may always have a child-like heart.”
Assateague is at its heart a place of wonder. Still, even there suspicion can threaten to replace compassion and a good deed can be hard to find. But even though your neighbors may misbehave badly, and children may lose their way, the magic of caring for others shines through. Magic sticks are a sweet reminder of that.
Oh, and the Rangers confirmed my thoughts about our neighbor sleeping under the table. Even under mosquito netting, they said, out there on the sand she and her dog would have been eaten alive.