A small crowd gathered by the boats where MD Route 413 dumps in to the Chesapeake Bay. Proclaimed by locals as the “Crab Capital of the World”, Crisfield, Maryland sits at the southern most point of Maryland and is where our sojourn starts. Sandwiched between a gray-faced Golden Retriever and a stack of banana boxes filled with groceries for the locals, my husband and I grasped the peeling white ledge of the ferry as it lurched out into open mouth of the bay towards Smith Island, Maryland’s only remaining inhabited offshore island. We skirted past dry land overwhelmed with tall grasses being swallowed by the surrounding salt marshes. Remaining relics made of brick and splintered oak, now provide perches for gulls and pelicans, remind witnesses of the bay’s more prosperous past.
White-knuckled and sticky with salt, Smith Island slowly emerged; A steeple sliced into the skyline, the thin cross towering above the decaying docks and humble homes of locals. Crab shells crunched underneath our feet as we made our way down the long dock that stretched to the center of town. Drawn out docks radiate off the 4.4 square mile island, weathered tawny woodgrain stained by towering stacks of crab pots. The modest size of the island limits land transportation to walking or gold cart; waving at passerbys isn’t optional – hospitality is a requirement for a community that boasts a population of 167 households. Congeniality isn’t reserved just for the locals we learn, as we stop to pet every welcoming cat that wraps around our ankles as we walk to the cottage we will call home for the evening. We let ourselves into the Fishermen’s Rest Cottage, locks being a foreign concept in this friendly community. A note on the fridge reminds us that the Bayside Inn, the only year-round restaurant in Smith Island, closes at 6PM encouraging us to an early dinner.
Quarter to five is prime supper time, the small dining room is filled with three large families, many of their faces already recognizable from our brief time on the island. We sit at a small table with a stunning view of the bay and order everything that featured crab on the menu: crab balls, crab dip, cream of crab soup, Maryland crab soup, crab cakes, and a softshell crab sandwich. As we waited for an ocean’s worth of crab items, we listened to the locals talk. Their sonorous brogue filled the room, a 400 year old heirloom from Smith Island’s Welsh and English settlers. Their liguistical lilt seems impossible to pigeonhole: slow and syrupy like a southern inflection with a mumbled cadence that pays homage to their ancestors. It takes two waiters to bring over our seafood spread, each dish containing generous lumps of crabmeat. As my husband begins to take a bite of a softshell crab sandwich, one man seated by the kitchen tells us that “that sandwich was swimming in the ocean yesterday.” Despite being stuffed to the gills with crabmeat we completed the meal with a slice of Smith Island cake, an obligation given that this 9-layer delicacy is the state cake of Maryland.
The show began shortly after supper ended, the big yolk sun dipped down the skyline. Pastel pinks and purples gave way to saturated goldenrod and fuchia that echoed off the water onto the faces of folks seated on the docks soaking in the solace. The last notes of pink clung to the clouds right before nightfall, and we finally took our eyes off the horizon to make our way back to the cottage. Mosquitos greeted us along with the moon, the tiny bloodsuckers hung in the air in large clumps attacking with voracity as the stars twinkled and shone with vigor.
The ferry leaves late on Sundays, as every local (including our boat captain) spend the morning in church. We hung on to every small detail as we prepared to leave the island. We said our goodbyes to the gulls, and the cats, and every local who strolled or rolled by slowly in their golf cart. Characters weren’t limited to human or feline, each boat was lovingly named and touted its own chipped charm and dented details; so we bid adieu to Miss. Mickey, Carol Ann, Miss. Mikayla, Miss. Sherry, and Debra Lou Lynn. The last goodbye was saved for our boat captain, who we had the pleasure of spending the beginning of this journey with on the ride over, the satisfying seafood dinner that night, and the last few hours as he took us home. I left that island feeling so honored that I was able to spend some time immersed in the rich rural history surrounded by affable and authentic people. This journey on that island frozen in time has changed my view of community as a whole, the Chesapeake Bay, and how to make a good crab cake; and I can find solace knowing that on Smith Island things will never change.