“The ferry leaves at 7:30. Can you make it to Crisfield by then?”
“7:30?” I ask. “That shouldn’t be a problem. I’m leaving Ocean City in the morning.”
“How early in the morning? You gotta rise pretty early to make a 7:30 a.m. ferry. There might be a late ferry. I’ll have to check,” she pauses. “You’ve never been to Smith Island before, have you?”
I, along with most of the U.S. population, had not been to the island. It’s small—only 384 residents (if that), most of whom are crabbers (and their families). And as it’s twelve miles off the coast of Crisfield, Maryland—colloquially known as the Crab Capitol of the World but less travelled since Hurricane Sandy—it’s not exactly accessible. There’s a ferry that runs between the island and the mainland, but reliability isn’t its mainstay.
Instead, it’s best to set up a time to traverse the water with your innkeeper. The island only has three inns/bed and breakfasts, and the ferry captains are stringently aligned with one of the three—don’t expect a ride from a competitor’s captain (a lesson I learned when I missed my ferry back and was secretly shepherded onto an opposing innkeeper’s boat along with some lovely company and a United States Congressman). That’s the kind of place this is: insular, proud, and piously removed.
Not to mention quiet.
That’s the first thing that strikes a newcomer, just how astoundingly quiet it is, the sort of quiet that can really only be found in a place with less cars than most folks have fingers. Residents traverse the island in golf carts, if not their own feet. No one, after all, is in a hurry. There’s no grocery store. There’s one school (with less than 15 students). Two restaurants (Ruke’s and The Bayside Inn). A church. The pastor serves as the town’s mayor, since there’s no government. One man makes his living by boating to shore, picking up basic supplies like bread and bananas, and delivering them around the island.
It’s a refresher for the soul.
For all the island lacks, it does have a bakery, from which you can order the indelible Smith Island Cake. As the official state dessert of Maryland, the cake’s reputation precedes itself. My meal at Bayside Inn Restaurant concludes with a piece, and suddenly I feel like an islander myself. I understand. Layer after paper-thin layer of yellow cake alternates with chocolate icing in an icing-lover’s dream.
But it’s not all cakes and icing.
During the past century and a half, more than 3,000 acres of Smith Island have been laid to rest in the bay.
The islanders may not be rich, but they don’t want for much, and they don’t ask for much. So it’s unusual, to say the least, that United States Congressman Andy Harris is strolling around the island on my final afternoon there. But the island is slipping away. No restoration project its residents can enact has the capacity to match federal funds, and the Congressman is being given a tour of the island that, if nothing is done, will one day become a modern Atlantis.
On the ferry back, the water is choppy, and my fingers grip wooden beams comprising the boat’s roof as my feet occasionally slip and flail. Hands and arms are intertwined, as everyone attempts to remain standing. There’s a strange comfort in this.
The Congressman stands up front, watching the shore bob ever closer, as I watch Smith Island slowly drift into the horizon. The second it’s gone, the whole thing feels like Oz—some mysterious land that truly is out of time.
As we pull up to shore, facade of a hand-dipped ice cream cone shop peeking its head into the afternoon sun, the Congressman turns and looks out over the Chesapeake Bay and its mirage of endlessness. Like someone lost to the past, the island is there, but we can’t see it. Not anymore. In some ways, it’s hard to believe it’s out there at all. Harris stares for a moment, even though the skiff is still as land, docked and ready to load up and head back out again.
The Congressman nods and steps off the boat.