A violent thunderstorm came out of nowhere in the middle of the night, shaking the White Swan to its bones. The room lit up, and I pulled the comforter well past my chin. After a half-hour the storm subsided, and in place of the thunder and the rain, I could hear the cries of geese growing louder and louder, and even at a distance of so many miles, I could picture them, thousands upon thousands of them, on the water somewhere. They were pretty worked up.
"Goose music, we call it," I was told the next morning by a ranger at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where the geese meet. The refuge is a stop along the Chesapeake Country National Scenic Byways route, the official driving tour of the Eastern Shore, which has a knack for taking you to the brink of being totally lost, then magically coming to your rescue. I learned to rely on it. Here on the Upper Shore, it showed me around Chestertown, with its brick streets, its town houses facing the Chester River, and its residents snug in their wing chairs behind wavy old windowpanes. It also led me to the antiques shops of Galena and the workaday port of Rock Hall, where I tasted my first Maryland crab cakes. Crab cakes are the hamburgers of the Eastern Shore, with no resemblance to the precious first course served in restaurants elsewhere. There's nothing subtle about them. They're big and meaty and delicious, often served on gummy white buns, and if you eat enough of them, you begin to notice the scent of Old Bay on your fingertips.
On Wednesday mornings, follow any van and chances are it will lead you to the town of Crumpton and the auctions run by Dixon's Furniture. Dixon's isn't Sotheby's, and nobody at the auctions looks like the Keno brothers. A huge metal barn rises out of a farm field like a UFO, and all around it are vans and SUV's rushing to park on the grass, driven by people with the hungry look of collectors ready to pounce. Starting at 6 a.m., sellers dump cardboard boxes filled with antiques and collectibles onto long tables in the barn. At 9 a.m., an auctioneer on a motorized cart begins visiting each table, selling every last crystal sconce and Lionel caboose while the crowd practically smothers him. The bidding starts at $10 and rarely ends above $100; I never understood a word in between. He could have been selling heifers.
"Don't miss the fields," one of Dixon's crew told me. What fields?The place was so big, I hadn't even noticed there were two football fields of "big-ticket" furniture as well, with their own motorized carts and auctioneers, and prices starting at $10 and $20. Yes, there was plenty of junk, but it was junk with promise. The only thing that distracted me all morning was a plate of creamed chipped beef served at a counter by an Amish woman in a bonnet, in an atmosphere thick with frying bacon.