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Maryland's Timeless Eastern Shore

There is still a segregated feel, for example, to small towns like Denton, where I walked over to the courthouse green with Uncle Charles. We met up with cousin Randy (who has taken over the funeral business from Uncle Charles, who did the same for Grandpop) and his friend Jok. They told me how they had dragged Annie's little Federal house—abandoned for 10 years after her death—to its original site behind the green, blasted out the pigeon dung, and transformed it into a museum for Denton's newly formed historical society. Inside, we stood staring at a grainy, wall-size photo of black men planting seeds in the wake of mule-drawn plows.

It seems likely that Annie's ancestors were brought to America by William Potter, a grain merchant and slave trader with a plantation about five miles outside town. They became sailors and small farmers, and Annie herself worked in a cannery. My ancestors, meanwhile, plowed the fields owned by the nefarious slave trader Patty Cannon, and dreamed of canning empires that never quite got off the ground.

I CARRIED UNCLE CHARLES'S RASPY VOICE AND HIS SLOW, PLEASURABLE LAUGH with me on my way to Crisfield, once a vital port and still the jumping-off point to Tangier and Smith islands. I wanted to get a glimpse of life on these islands in the bay, where Captain John Smith first observed, in 1608, "such an aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads aboue the water, as for want of nets . . . we attempted to catch them with a frying pan . . ."

All but 5 percent of the nation's soft-shell crabs—those succulent delicacies plucked from the eelgrass as they shed their shells—still come from the shallows around Tangier Sound. The blue crab is also holding its own, with more than 100 million pounds produced each year. But the bay's once-famous oysters, now plagued by parasites, plummeted from 14 million bushels a year in 1875 to 140,000 last year. Island populations are dwindling too, as young people leave for jobs not tied to the vagaries of nature. But they still speak with traces of the rolling dialect, with rounded vowels, that harks back to Elizabethan England. And most of the people I boarded the boat with had broad English faces, ruddy complexions, and blue eyes. They also share an independent spirit. When decisions have to be made, people meet at the Methodist church, which keeps the island dry, by the way.

"I come over every day," said Captain Rudy Thomas, whose father and grandfather captained the mail boat before he took command of the wheel. "The only time we miss is in a sixty-mile wind. If the water freezes, my brother cuts the ice with a steel boat."

EVEN IN THE RAIN, TANGIER ISLAND IS A LOVELY SIGHT. Its low-slung crab shanties sit on stilts in the shallow waters, and the spire of the Methodist church rises over white clapboard houses, which are huddled on three ridges. Joined by wooden footbridges, these strips of land, each 11/2 miles long, are marshy places surrounded by a sea of spartina grasses.

Tangier's streets are barely eight feet wide, so most people either walk or ride bikes with balloon tires and pedal brakes. The lanes are flanked by tiny houses with tinier yards bounded by picket fences. If you can't exactly reach out and touch the porch across the street, you can see what's going on. A Monopoly game was in full swing on the porch of Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, where I had reserved a room, and inside an elderly man was napping on an old couch in front of the TV. My quarters were clean but spare: cotton-poly quilt on the bed, frameless mirror, an ancient air conditioner, which happily didn't have to be turned on because of the sea breeze coming in. I peeked into the bathroom down the hall, which had no lock, and I felt like a rich American traveling in the Amazon, thankful for clean sheets and running water.

It was a few hours before dinner, so I decided to take a walk in the mist. I peeked into yards filled with gravestones because there is no other place to bury the dead. ("And we don't like to walk far to visit," Eva Pruitt told me back at the Chesapeake House.) Islanders share only a handful of names—like Dize (or Dise), Crockett, Pruitt—and they're running out of people to marry.

As I crossed a footbridge, an orange-beaked oystercatcher flew low over the marsh. I realized what a beautiful place this would be to paint, or explore by kayak or canoe. I passed a little house with a flotilla of bikes out front, and had the sudden urge to ride one. A few deep red roses bloomed by the gate, on a bush that perhaps had been brought as a cutting from England. I knocked at the screen door and in a few minutes Euna Dise appeared. Take any bike you please, she said, and ride all afternoon for two dollars. So off I went down the narrow lanes, pedals creaking, until I got to the beach, where I took a walk beside the wind-whipped waves. Then I pedaled into town and tried the soft-shell crabs at the Islander Seafood Restaurant—greasy but as fresh as they come.

By the time I got back to the Chesapeake House, I was kind of sodden. Monica, a pathologist from Washington, D.C., whom I'd met on the mail boat, was rocking on the porch with her husband, Ernie, and their son, Travis, who held a fat island cat in his lap. Monica offered me a little Chablis, which she had spirited onto the island in her suitcase. "Ernie's afraid we'll get kicked out," she said. But we both had noticed a few islanders riding by with six-packs in their bike baskets, so we settled back into the cushions until it was time for dinner, which was served promptly at five.

The Chesapeake House was founded in 1939 by a feisty woman named Hilda Crockett, who started by putting up traveling salesmen for the night and feeding them her home cooking. Her daughters carry on the tradition. About 10 of us sat church-supper-style around a big table as our teenage waitresses brought out dish after dish. The meal seemed to disturb Ernie, a cardiologist, as much as it pleased his wife. We started with ham and warm rolls and moved on to clam fritters and fried crab balls (doled out two to a person, because the tourists used to slip them into their purses), with plenty of corn pudding, hot beets, string beans, applesauce, and mashed potatoes with gravy.

In the morning, pounds heavier, I was glad to be back on the mail boat. Was it the rain or the narrow streets that left me with such a feeling of claustrophobia tinged with melancholy?Or was it having stepped into a life on the verge of vanishing?

By noon I was on the Island Princess to Smith Island, heading for Ewell, the largest of three towns, each on its own scrap of land. A wooden bridge connects Ewell with Rhodes Point, where sturdy workboats have been built for generations, but you have to take a boat from Ewell to Tylerton. That town has the most shade trees and Victorian houses on the island, and, until it closed in 1996, Maryland's last functioning one-room schoolhouse. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is also in Tylerton, and it conducts environmental education programs for students and teachers.

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