Eastern Shore Road Trip
The 100-year-old Avalon Theatre in downtown Easton makes the historic Eastern Shore community the epicenter of a perfect overnight excursion.
That’s largely because the grand movie house-turned-community performing arts center somehow manages to attract a delightful mix of high-quality acts that justify the two-hour-plus drive from Washington, Baltimore or our home on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake. In one week in October, for example, the Avalon hosted performances by reggae headliners The Wailers, folk icon Judy Collins, and a reading by satirist David Sedaris.
Dawn and I came to the Avalon see the reigning king and queen of banjo, Bela Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn.
Like Steven Wade, whose Banjo Dancing shows played at the Arena Stage for 10 years straight, Bela and Abigail have ties to the Washington of our youth. Bela and his band, the Flecktones, were standards in the DC club scene in the 1980s. Unlike Wade, though, Bela hasn’t stuck closely to the bluegrass script usually associated with the banjo.
Bela plays with the bravura of a classical guitarist, mixing elements of bluegrass, jazz, and the occasional whiff of something more esoteric (including a brief partnership with a Tuvan throat singer.) In other words, he doesn’t fit neatly into any categories.
Abigail, who also grew up in suburban D.C., plays clawhammer banjo. That makes her the rhythm section for the duo while Bela conducts his fast-picking flights of fancy. But Abigail is also the vocalist. Not only does she do most of the singing — sometimes accompanied by the falsetto by their six-year-old son — she also serves as the storyteller and comedienne-in-chief for her taciturn husband. It’s as much their on-stage relationship between the two performers as their banjo virtuosity that makes them so entertaining.
But Bela and Abigail were only the middle part of this overnighter triptych. The real charm of their Avalon performace was one of timing. That’s because the banjo playing didn’t start until 7:00 pm on Wednesday. But, by leaving home at 8:00 am, we could be confident we’d arrive in Easton before noon, even allowing the usual time to meander our backroads route.
That meant we would have five or six hours to poke around Easton and environs before showtime. And if we got a reasonably early start Thursday morning, we could toodle around the Eastern Shore for another seven or eight hours and still leave in time to get home before dark. That’s the essence of the overnight excursion — minus, perhaps, the bit about getting home before dark.
Except for a detour to Wye Island on the way to Easton, our excursion began with a long drive down Rte. 33 to the tip of Tilghman Island. Tilghman Island is separated from the mainland by Knapp’s Narrows. But it’s connected by both geology and a drawbridge to the slender neck of land that separates the fingers of Harris Creek and the Choptank River from Chesapeake Bay. Necks like this one are the principal features of the Eastern Shore and the main reason Dawn and I love driving around these parts.
The charm for old sailors like us is the prospect for water views on either side of the road. Our particular form of voyeurism involves gazing covetously at the sheltered creeks and coves that dissect this coastline and trying to imagine the lives of the watermen who call them home. These forays usually also involve the cardinal sin of boat envy.
Our next goal on this overnighter was to finally visit the charming little village of Oxford. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when we still owned a sailboat, we spent many weekends in nearby St. Michaels on the Miles River. Once, I even spent a week docked there at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum so I could take a wooden boat building class. But most of our cruising was in the northern part of the Bay, and somehow we never made our way up the Choptank to Oxford.
This time, we were determined to correct that mistake. So, on the return trip from Tilghman Island, we once again bypassed our old stomping grounds in St. Michaels and headed south to the little town of Bellevue. Our goal, of course, was to catch the famous Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, the oldest privately owned ferry in America.
Founded in 1683, the ferry has carried people and cargo back and forth across the Tred Avon river for 339 years. The current vessel, the Talbot, has been owned and operated since 2001 by husband and wife team Tom and Judy Bixler. The ferry can hold about nine cars, although Bixlers once squeezed a fleet of 18 Minis aboard. Nowadays, though, tourists account for most fares, and the ferry shuts down for the season in mid-October.
When it’s operating, the Talbot usually departs every 20 minutes or so, although when we pulled up to the landing, Tom spun the boat around mid-stream to come back and pick us up rather than cross the river empty.
The Tred Avon isn’t particularly wide here, but the ferry runs slow enough that there’s plenty of time to get out of the car and admire the view. And the waterfront community of Oxford, on the far bank, may be the one of the prettiest views on the Eastern Shore. Your best bet is to stand in the bows and watch as the fine homes along the Strand come into focus. This is also the perfect vantage point to watch the local yachts tack slowly upstream or furl their sails before heading into their marina.
Oxford is tiny, with just 611 fulltime residents in the 2020 census. But it’s chock-a-block with lovely Queen Anne and Victorian homes from its hey day at the end of the 19th Century. If you have time, park your car at the ferry landing and walk through town. Stroll along the Tred Avon waterfront, then head back into the neighborhood behind the Strand to admire the beautifully renovated homes. Make sure to stop and gape at the wooden boats in the warehouse of the legendary Cutts and Case Shipyard.
After ambling through the boatyards and marinas of Town Creek, make your way back to the ferry dock along Morris Street where the houses of the wealthiest people in this affluent little town line the Tred Avon riverfront.
It’s a beautiful walk.
If you’ve got the budget for it, Oxford also offers several inns and bed and breakfasts. Easton has an even larger selection. Dawn and I, though, chose to spend our one night on the Eastern Shore at Easton’s least expensive hotel, a perfectly acceptable Day’s Inn out on Rte. 50.
The next morning, still pumped from the concert the night before, we jumped in the car and headed off to our next adventure: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Birders and marsh enthusiasts could easily spend days at Blackwater. In particular, the water trails are a great way to get out on the water and explore the largest wetland north of the Great Dismal Swamp. Even if you don’t have your own, you can rent kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards.
For this visit, though, Dawn and I were after different game. We were headed to the little town of Elliott Island out on Fisher Point, another of those famous Eastern Shore necks. Here, a fabulous marsh road meanders between tall stands of cordgrass, cat tails and common reed. Now and then, it traverses the terra firma of a pine hammock or a low dike separating one marsh from another. Sometimes, gaps open in the grass curtain, on one side exposing the broad sweep of Blackwater, and on the other, the far shore of the Nanticoke River in the distance.
At the end of the road, the marsh ends suddenly in a small parking lot and an isolated public wharf. An old sharpie and a few grubby deadrises, the boats of idle oystermen, are tied up in their slips. From the end of this lonely pier, we gaze out the mouth of Fishing Bay south into the pewter waters of Tangier Sound.
And then it starts to rain.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.