Evie Neville, left, and her cousin, Beckett Neville, take the leap into the warm, saltwater of Kings Creek Marina near the mouth of the Chesapeake in Cape Charles, Va.
Evie Neville, left, and her cousin, Beckett Neville, take the leap into the warm, saltwater of Kings Creek Marina near the mouth of the Chesapeake in Cape Charles, Va.
Launching into summer: Evie Neville, left, and her cousin Beckett Neville take the leap into the warm salt water of Kings Creek Marina near the mouth of the Chesapeake in Cape Charles, Virginia. (Photo: Tim Neville)

A Magical Realm of Crabs and Chickens

When President Biden needs a break from Putin and Mitch McConnell, he vacations on the Delmarva Peninsula, a blend of mid-Atlantic beauty, quirky accents, and tasty treasures from soil and sea. I grew up in the heart of it. Hear my song to this glorious land.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Long before I found my place in the West, I grew up in Salisbury, Maryland, a town so perfectly boring and flat that a highway overpass near Bubba’s Breakaway offered the airiest views around. (Bubba’s, now sadly gone, served excellent tacos.) Salisbury had maybe 17,000 people when I lived there in the 1980s; it sat at the junction of U.S. Route 13 and U.S. Route 50, about two and a half hours southeast of Washington, D.C., on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Salisbury was and still is a largely rural place, ringed by fields and poultry farms that feed a processing plant run by the town’s most famous celebrity: the late Frank Perdue, the “tough man, tender chicken” king. His downtown operation, a hulking leaden-blue building with giant fans, could be so exquisitely stinky that we kids would hold our breath and pray that the stoplight stayed green whenever we had to pass it.

How to Eat Delmarvelously

Here are a few favorite dishes from longtime Delmarva families

Read More

To us, being at the junction of these highways made Salisbury something like the fluttering heart of Delmarva, the tri-state peninsula where “slower, lower” southern Delaware and the eastern portions of Maryland and Virginia bunch together in a critter-shaped landmass that divides the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean and its barrier islands, with the skinny Virginia part forming the tail. To most outsiders, Delmarva was little more than a place you suffered through on your way to the beach in Ocean City, dismissed by most as a 170-by-70-mile swamp of speed traps and Shore Stops and very old hamlets with names like Wetipquin, Pocomoke, and Onancock.

Compared with those settlements, Salisbury was cosmopolitan. We had a hospital, a small college, and a mall with an Orange Julius—later there was a second, newer mall that even had a Chick-fil-A—but outside of roller skating at Skateland or pounding ill-gotten Boone’s Farm in the woods off Fooks Road, there wasn’t much for guys like me to see or do. We joked that a sign at the western city limits should read, “Welcome to Salisbury! Only 30 minutes from the beach!”

For most of the 20 years I lived on Delmarva—first in the Del, then the Va, and lastly the Mar—my life revolved around those highways. On 13, as we’d say in the accent that Delmarvans often pick up, we would drive “down the rewd” to Cape Charles, Virginia, which was too small to offer any fast food at all. Or we’d go “up the rewd” to Laurel, Delaware, home to the huge, tax-free Bargain Bill flea market, where people sold awesome pizza and muscle shirts. On 50, you could go “across the bay” to Baltimore to watch Eddie Murray and the Orioles, or east to the beach, which could easily become “down to the beach” once you were actually there. As in: “He ain’t home t’day. He’s down to the beach.”

Christine Mallinson, a linguist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who studies the way Marylanders speak, says the origins of these sounds and phrases have to do with Delmarva’s English settlers, its historic isolation and identity, and the fact that Maryland sits just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which led to a blend of both northern and southern dialects. This is not the white, working-class Baltimore accent sometimes called Bawlmerese. Never, ever—and I mean ever—would a beach-bound Delmarvan say, “Let’s go downy ocean,” as a “Baltimoron” famously would.

Delmarva is a presidential retreat now, what with Joe Biden having long owned a summer home there: a six-bed, 5.5-bath Cape Cod with a two-story deck and an elevator. This breezy retreat sits outside Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a small resort town just 25 miles from where I was born. In Rehoboth, an upscale place that’s popular with the region’s gay community, the president can ride his bike along Gordons Pond Trail near Cape Henlopen State Park, or he can walk the boardwalk to buy taffy—or perhaps a tiny hermit crab skittering around inside a little wire cage.

Does Biden’s presence mean Delmarva is about to get a huge boost in cachet, like Kennebunkport, Maine? I don’t think so. For one thing, despite the generally warm welcome Biden receives in Rehoboth—a blue spot in a very red part of the East Coast—no one will mistake him for a true Delmarvan. He’s spent too many years wheeling and dealing in Washington, or in Wilmington, Delaware, which is north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, the de facto northern boundary between Delmarva and the Rest of the Planet. Can he explain what you do with “the specials” when picking a crab? (You eat them.) Does he know the plural of bunk, a word we use for friend? (It’s bunkies.) Has he ever tasted Delmarva’s most lovingly stewed spirit animal, the muskrat? (No. But, well… neither have I.)

Even so, I’d also bet that 46 knows, as all Delmarvans of a certain age do, how to recite the Bargain Bill flea-market slogan from local TV ads in the 1980s. In fact, I demand that someone in the White House press corps test him on this.

Fox News correspondent: “Mr. President, where would you go if it’s bargains you be seekin’?”

Biden: “I’d visit my daddy’s flea market, this weeken’.”

Map of Delmarva
Map of Delmarva (PeterHermesFurian/iStock)

My family’s Delmarva roots go back a century, starting with lighthouse tenders and railroad workers and proceeding up through engineers, teachers, and a part-time oysterman. What plenty of my people have known all along, but what I didn’t realize until decades after I left, is just how unique and wonderful and awesome this cul-de-sac of geography really is.

That’s especially true in summertime, when gauzy sunsets turn the rivers as orange as circus peanuts and the humidity gets so thick that you swear you can hear it hit the windshield. This is the land of skipjacks and wet corn bread and an annual Miss Crustacean beauty pageant. Sure, there are ticks and chiggers and mosquitos big enough to use forks, but you can swim in the warm “wooder” (water) of a moonlit pond, eat the best damn corn on the cob of your life, and get dizzy among the legions of lightning bugs firing from the sides of turtle-backed roads. Look closely in the roadside ditches and you’ll see where the wild asparagus grows.

I think the transformation in my relationship with Delmarva probably started during my last year at Wicomico Senior High School. We took a field trip 40 miles west to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a 45-square-mile expanse of marsh and forest that makes up a full third of Maryland’s wetlands and offers some of the richest breeding grounds for bald eagles in the East. The chaperones paired us up and put us in canoes, a first for me. Then they led us through inky water to a spot where they told us to float in silence among the cordgrass.

It was as if they were trying to teach us that all the nothing around here was more than enough.

In the summer of 1988, I got my first car, a 1964 Corvair convertible stick shift that burned about a quart of oil per tank of gas, which was supposed to be leaded. Mine was a Monza, the lesser of the trims, and though it was a bit banged up, to me the car was still prettier than a new eel pot. She had a white body, a black top, and a plastic rear window that you could zip open to better hear the throaty warble of the rear-mounted engine.

That $500 car meant the world to me. My parents—Dawn, a schoolteacher, and Bill, an engineer—had brought both me and my younger brother, Jonathan, home from the hospital in Milford, Delaware, in the front seat of dad’s 1964 Corvair convertible. My mother drove a silver 1963 Corvair convertible. My uncle, Junius Jackson Neville Jr. (my father’s twin, who worked on a Virginia barrier island at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility) also drove a 1963 Corvair convertible, but his was blue. The Nevilles had Corvair trucks and spare Corvair engines and Corvair calendars and Clark’s Corvair Parts catalogs stacked up in the garage.

Of all of those ’Vairs, dad’s was the coolest: a fire-engine-red cream puff piped in blinding chrome, with a white cloth top and a bitchin’ instrument panel that included a round tachometer. Later dad would let me drive his prize in a homecoming parade, with the queen perched like a taffeta peacock in the back. I’m not sure who was prouder.

With my own wheels, the back roads of Delmarva became my domain. We lived about five miles east of Salisbury off Walston Switch Road, in a leafy neighborhood with big watery ditches that Jonathan would patrol for snakes, one of which, a garter snake, traumatized my mother when she found it alive and writhing in his shorts while checking pockets before washing them.

In the Corvair, I’d roll down woodsy roads to one-filling-station towns like Eden, where I’d park with a date until the cooling midnight air drenched the car’s interior with dew and left me driving home with a soggy butt. I’d cruise along Camden Avenue and Riverside Drive and stop at the docks, where I’d eat Bubba’s tacos on the hood near the ruins of the Jennie D. Bell, the Chesapeake’s last sailing freight schooner, run aground and left to rot in the 1960s.

In a flash of teenage genius, I got a job delivering pizzas just so I could get paid to drive down country lanes like Catchpenny Road or out to the big houses in Tony Tank, always with the top down during the day, the Salisbury sun scorching the vinyl seats to the point that they’d blister your legs if you didn’t cover them with a towel. Within a week, I had earned enough tip money to buy my first surfboard, a six-foot-seven Sundancer with dolphins jumping out of a sunset. It was the absolute worst board to buy when your summer swells are knee-high mush, but what did I know?

Assateague Island
Assateague Island (Zrfphoto/iStock)

I didn’t much care, either. Salisbury’s main redeeming quality, as I saw it, was being 30 minutes from the beach—which meant surfing was now well within my grasp.

Thus began my real love for nature and the outdoors. Soon my friend Pete and I were pulling off dawn patrols before school, when I’d ram the board through that zipper window, surf the Ocean City inlet at sunrise, and race back to my desk at Wicomico Senior High in time for first bell, sand sifting out of my shorts.

Summers last long on Delmarva, but even so they’d go by in a flurry. On Friday nights, we’d zoom over to Assateague Island National Seashore, pitch our unwieldy Coleman amid clouds of mosquitoes, then drift off dreaming of morning swells while the Sundays sang from a yellow Sony Sport boom box. Some evenings, the whole family would pile into dad’s Corvair and take the long way around the Wicomico River by crossing it near Princess Anne via the Whitehaven Ferry, which has been in service since 1685. The three-car boat would dump us off near the Red Roost, a seafood joint inside an old chicken coop, where we’d pick apart piles of steamed blue crabs dumped onto picnic tables covered in newspaper, eating until our fingers were stained red with Old Bay. On really hot days, dad would take us down to the Pocomoke River to water-ski among the northernmost reaches of Cypress Swamp.

Everything seemed to involve the water. Jonathan, who learned to fly before he could drive, once spotted a pond, from the air, that we never knew existed—it was tucked in a forest off Longridge Road. Under the cover of night, Pete, Jonathan, and I threw sleeping bags and a tent into garbage bags and ferried them atop our boogie boards to a sandy spot on the far side of the pond’s shore, where we camped. The Delmarva ground is always so warm and forgiving in the summer, softened either by sand or pine shats—our name for pine needles. I didn’t even know what a Therm-a-Rest was until years later, on my first backpacking trip in Montana. We called that pond Crystal Lake, after the Friday the 13th movies, but the place was heavenly and filled with such warm agricultural runoff that Pete took a bath in it.

Cooling off at the Peach Beach Shave Ice Shack in Cape Charles, Virginia
Cooling off at the Peach Beach Shave Ice Shack in Cape Charles, Virginia (Tim Neville)
Out of the bay and into the pot. Blue crabs on their way to becoming dinner.
Out of the bay and into the pot. Blue crabs on their way to becoming dinner. (Tim Neville)

All the while, though, I was looking outward—to the ocean, to the mountains of Pennsylvania, to the Grateful Dead concerts at RFK Stadium in D.C. I remained utterly disinterested, maybe even hostile, toward anything that whiffed of Delmarvan hickness. The place felt so cut off from the rest of the world, which it was. It wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s, after all, that new bridges over the Chesapeake made it easy for most of us to reach the mainland. Families rarely moved away.

That isolation, combined with a lack of new blood, allowed curiosities to grow, just like they might in a pond. Delmarvans were so wary of change that during the Revolutionary War some of them formed the First Battalion of Maryland Loyalists to fight for the crown. During the Civil War, Maryland joined the Union, but much of Delmarva remained sympathetic to the Confederacy, so much so that Harriet Tubman, who was born on the Eastern Shore in the county north of mine, had to keep her Underground Railroad underground even in the Free State, as Maryland was nicknamed in 1864.

I went through a period of being a snob about Delmarva, sneering at the way some folks said “trite” instead of “trout” and “grain rain” instead of “ground round.” I grudgingly went with my father to boat-docking contests and to the Great North American Turtle Races in a town called, oh dear lord, Bivalve, where people really did race their pet turtles with toy exhaust pipes glued to the animals’ shells.

I tended to wave off anything connected to Chesapeake Bay culture, which primarily involved crab boats, oyster boats, clam boats, and sailboats. Playing in the bay was for those who owned fancy homes in Easton and Saint Michaels, historic communities that were close enough to D.C. for muckety-mucks like Donald Rumsfeld to desire a getaway there. I never understood why anyone would go anywhere on the bay, which had no waves to surf and was so horribly polluted with toxins that it made the nation’s dirtiest-waters list for decades.

When summer finally did end, the real depression set in. It was back to school, back to 40-degree rain, back to hanging out at Burger King. Out of sheer desperation, we tried to go cow-tipping once, only to find no cows. How I wished to get in my car and see what I’d find at the far end of those roads.

Evie and Beckett at the mouth of the Wicomico River
Evie and Beckett at the mouth of the Wicomico River (Tim Neville)

I left Delmarva for good in the summer of 1991, when I decided to go find “real” culture and “real” nature by becoming an exchange student in Switzerland. I learned to windsurf and snowboard and mountain-bike. Everything about Switzerland was exactly what Delmarva wasn’t. The Swiss had huge peaks. They spoke multiple languages and went on vacations to places like Tunisia. They even drank wine with dinner. When I returned to the peninsula in the summer of 1992, I sobbed as if life was over.

Over the next decade or so, I returned to Delmarva during the holidays. By then I had found a new existence in the West that was full of climbing and skiing and hiking, and a culture so unfamiliar and fun that on my first day in Bozeman, Montana, when I saw a kid wearing cowboy boots, spurs, and a cowboy hat, I asked him if he was psyched for Halloween. I officially graduated from college in 1997, bounced around, and eventually landed in Oregon with the girl of my dreams.

Before we married, I took Heidi back to Delmarva to show her my roots, which I could now be proud of thanks to years of traveling that gave me perspective. By then my parents had left Salisbury for a new home 30 minutes south, in the deep sticks at the mouth of the Wicomico River. Heidi, a Montana girl, had never been anywhere so flat.

I had fun showing her all the things I knew but didn’t know I knew, like how you could tell if the tide was high by the amount of water on Oyster House Road, and how to pick a blue crab to get a fat, succulent bite of backfin. We sailed on a tiny sunfish out to Ellis Bay Wildlife Management Area and went to an oyster roast, where Heidi marveled at how everyone had their own “tool”—an oyster knife—for shucking. Later, one Fourth of July, we ran eight miles together across the skinniest bit of Delmarva, from the Atlantic to the Chesapeake, between the Virginia towns of Oyster and Cape Charles, where my father and cousins grew up. It was so stupidly hot and muggy that when we passed a self-serve produce stand, Heidi found a freezer in the back and stuck her head in it.

Now we’re parents ourselves, and I try to take our daughter back to Delmarva for two weeks every summer. I want her to know the marshes and the salt that courses through her veins, and what it’s like to play on a sandbar until the tide takes it away. Evie, who is 12, may still be deciding which kind of crab is better—Dungeness or blue—but I’m glad she knows her way around both. These days I never think of how Route 13 and Route 50 can take me elsewhere so much as the fact that they’ll always be there to guide me back.

The last time I went home, the pandemic had not yet hit. My cousin Scotty took me fishing in Plantation Creek, which sits at the mouth of the Chesapeake just a few miles from the open Atlantic. He worked his oyster beds, and I caught a nice speckled trout on a fly; we later devoured it with turnip greens that we cooked down to mush and doused in vinegar.

Before I flew back to Oregon, dad, who is now almost 80, fired up his Corvair and let her purr. We eased it out onto the back roads of Somerset County, the cattails and the loblollies flickering past. We stopped at a farm to see my Corvair, which now withers away in a chicken coop. I sat in her for a moment and noticed there was still sand on the floor. Then dad and I drove off into the humidity, happy to talk about nothing.