While I watched the thin sliver of land take shape, I talked to a woman from Baltimore about the writer Anne Tyler. As the wind blew our words off the bow, and salt water sprayed our hair, we tried to remember the name of the book conjured up by this landscape. "She walks down the beach with just her beach bag and leaves her children lying on their towels," the woman was saying. The wreckage of an old hunting club on stilts slid by our starboard side. "Yeah," I said, "she ends up at some town in the middle of nowhere, rents a room, and buys herself a dress at a thrift shop."
A grassy island signaled our entrance into a quiet harbor lined with long, low houses where crabs about to shed their shells are kept in tanks. I got off the boat and found my way to the Smith Island Motel, which has seven little rooms all in a row, with identical décor (ersatz paneling oddly interspersed with strips of mountain-scene wallpaper) and his-and-her bathrooms down the hall. There are also two bed-and-breakfast places in Ewell, but fine accommodations are not what Smith Island is about. So what do you do here?Nothing, really. Except walk and ride a bike, watch the waterbirds fly in and out of the marshes, and take in the glorious light. That's why most people beat it back to the mainland before nightfall.
I BORROWED ONE OF THE MOTEL'S CREAKY BIKES AND RODE by little bungalows with screened porches surrounded by crape myrtles, fig trees, and bushes loaded with big red balls. Pomegranates! I'd never seen them growing before; they are a clue to how balmy island summers can be. Hungry for crabs, I checked out Ruke's Seafood Deck; its weatherworn appearance had declared it the real thing. The screen door opened with a whine and slammed shut with a vengeance. I found Ruke (whose real name is Ruthman Dize) manning the cash register in a jumbled room where everything from bubble gum to fishhooks is sold. His wife, Chart (Charlotte), was frying crab cakes for her customers, including the woman I'd chatted with on the boat, who waved from a picnic table on the porch.
"It was Ladder of Years!" she said as I sat down beside her. But crab cakes, not Anne Tyler, were on our minds now, and I soon sank my teeth into one of the best of my life: almost all crab, with just enough bread crumbs and egg to hold it together. Or was it mayonnaise?I asked Chart, but she wasn't giving away any secrets. A bit of dry mustard, I'm guessing, and a drop or two of Tabasco. But nothing to overwhelm the voluptuous, rich flavor of fresh crab.
By the time I finished lunch, I had a date with a waterman at dawn. Morris Marsh, a crabber for 42 of his 57 years, had agreed to take me out on his workboat, Darlene. The next morning I made my way through the dark streets and followed a little path past the general store to the diesel tanks, where Morris had told me to wait. I had the uneasy feeling that I was at the wrong gas tanks, until I heard the chug of a motor.
Morris, in a faded blue-and-red plaid flannel shirt and big blue Keds, helped me aboard with a friendly lack of ceremony. His arms were the size of young tree trunks, and later I would see why, as he pulled the scrape—a long steel frame that literally scrapes the shallows, gathering crabs and eelgrass into a twine bag attached to the frame.
While the morning drifted by, Morris pulled up scrape after scrape, and each time the twine bag was full of eelgrass crawling with crabs. He threw the babies back, tossing the big blue jimmies (mature males) into one basket and the sooks (mature females) into another. Others in various stages of molting went into live-boxes: green crabs, which show a white rim on the back fin; peelers, whose white rim has turned to blood red; busters, literally busting out of their shells; and soft-shells, which have just completed the process. The latter are handled gently because they fetch $20 a dozen, compared to $25 a bushel for sooks and $45 a bushel for the big male jimmies.
It was peaceful out on the water as the sky pinkened to the east, and in another hour there was nothing but blue sky and the flat green pancakes of islands half a mile out in the bay. Morris took a swig of black coffee from his Hellmann's mayonnaise jar. "This looks like a two-bushel day. I've gone as high as ten, but two to three is a good day."
That afternoon Morris deposited me on the town wharf. As I boarded the mail boat to Crisfield, he was heading back out to check the peelers in his crab shanty.
HAVING ROUGHED IT FOR TWO DAYS, I WAS READY FOR THE HONEYMOON SUITE at the Robert Morris Inn in Oxford. I took a bubble bath in a deep tub and stretched out on a canopy bed wide enough for a wedding party. My quarters were in the Sandaway Lodge, around the corner from the original house and wonderfully secluded, with porches overlooking the Tred Avon River and some lovely trees, such as a towering horse chestnut and a weeping bronze beech whose branches have rooted themselves in the ground. The whole place breathes old-fashioned luxury, from the crab cakes at the inn (well seasoned and perfectly cooked, though Ruke's still reign supreme) to the courtly service of the waiters, who will try to talk you into the strawberry pie (don't bother).
The next day, I passed up the crab omelette at the inn—it was far too dark in there for such a glorious morning—and set off down Morris Street to see what I could find. The best thing about Oxford may be its gracious old houses, where the front porch swing is not on the endangered list and venerable magnolia trees thrive in front yards. The town is a gathering place for the yachting crowd, and I watched a sailboat race as I tried out a big tree swing. But there's something too tweedy about Oxford for me, as if everyone here has shopped at Talbots since birth. So I drove northward to Chestertown, picking up some white peaches at a farm stand. I had arranged to meet my Aunt Fran, who knows the streets of the pre-Revolutionary town backward and forward (and can trace her ancestors to Martha Washington), and Uncle Robert, who knows dogs and boats and once befriended a turkey buzzard.
My 75-year-old aunt practices yoga and stands on her head every morning. I could hardly keep up with her as she charged down brick sidewalks. Chestertown was laid out in 1706 on a grid rather than on old cow tracks, which sufficed for most 18th-century towns. The town's fine Federal houses were built by merchants and sea captains. As you stroll by, you can look through parlor windows that are often kept graciously uncurtained, and peek over walls into gardens that roll down to the Chester River.