Anywhere else in the United States—or, really, the world— I would have thought twice about the offer I had just received: a stranger in the middle of nowhere, driving an old maroon Buick with no license plates, had just offered me a ride. But on Smith Island, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, time stands still; here, it didn’t seem quite so intimidating.
“Y’gwon t’yule?” the stranger asked, leaning out of his car.
“Sorry?” I replied.
He tried again. “I said, ‘Y’gwon t’yule?’ ”
After half a tick, it dawned on me that he wanted to know if I was “going to Ewell.” I said I was, and he asked if I wanted to join him. I weighed my options and gazed down the two-mile stretch of asphalt ahead of me, rippling in the afternoon heat. I looked at my Sunday best, nearly soaked through with sweat, and got in the car.
My Smith Island savior was 76-year-old Junior Evans. He has lived on Smith Island his entire life, a member of one of the many, many Evans families on the island. Most of the same families that landed on Smith Island when the first settlers came up the Chesapeake Bay during the mid-1600s still exist there today. The cemetery in the largest town, Ewell—pronounced “yule” by locals—is mostly populated by Evans’ and Tylers, giving the town’s graveyard the appearance of one giant family plot. Despite sitting less than 100 miles as the crow flies from the nation’s capitol, Smith Island and its dwindling population of less than 200 can only be accessed by a boat, a long drive, and a strong sense of adventure. Though I had grown up outside of Annapolis, an area with many actively working watermen, most of my experience on the Chesapeake Bay was driving over it. Just like any Marylander, I was also skilled with a crab knife and mallet, tearing apart messy steamed crabs on a makeshift newspaper tablecloth. But despite being near the Bay for almost my entire life, I had no concept of the lives of watermen. And I had no idea Smith Island existed.