Piaggio X-9:  Eastern Shore Maryland

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Chris Myers

It's amazing how a few years of separation can inspire a whole new outlook on things previously unnoticed. Having grown up in Annapolis, Maryland, I was aware of the region's deep historic roots. But, like most teenagers, my coming of age concerns centered on girls, parties, and bikes. The Eastern Shore was that place across the bay you had to ride through to get to Ocean City and the beach for the girls, parties, and bikes.

My, how things have changed in the 15 years I've been absent from my old stomping grounds. One irreplaceable woman, Kathy, my wife, has replaced all of the "girls." The parties are family functions and, on this day, the bike is a scooter. I can't help chuckling as I motor across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on the ultra-comfy Piaggio X-9. This is probably the first time I've crossed the bay when scenery, not the promise of a kegger in a trashed motel room, is on the agenda.

The morning begins in Annapolis on a rather dreary note. Low clouds and damp, chilly breezes conspire to make my Eastern Shore expedition a bust. Added to that, the annual powerboat show has invaded the downtown area and the normally scenic city's dock area looks more like an expensive euro-car convention that's being crashed by a band of marauding beer trucks. This is not my Annapolis and I certainly discourage you from making it yours. I'm outta here.

As I head east on Route 50, I keep reminding myself that the weather on each side of the bay is not always the same. In the meantime, I'm happy to be behind the ample windscreen of the Piaggio. Halfway across the 4.3-mile-long Bay Bridge, the skies suddenly begin clearing, the sun pops out, and the temperature makes an impressive recovery. Things are looking up.

The urban sprawl plaguing the Annapolis area has not been stopped by the Chesapeake Bay. Although a formidable obstacle, it's been but a minor inconvenience to the tentacles of progress that have crept into the Eastern Shore. Chain stores, outlets, and strip malls have come to occupy this once lonely stretch of freeway. In search of the "real" Shore, I peel off onto Route 662 and leave the Ocean City-or-bust crowds to their own speedy devices.

In the blink of an eye, the incessant blur of SUVs hung with bicycles and coolers and doing 90 mph is replaced with delicious solitude. This winding ribbon of pavement is the perfect elixir to melt away the past two days of tension-filled, elbow-to-elbow, DC-area traffic. Out here, the X-9 and I are the traffic. Not too long after being sprung from the Route 50 maelstrom, we ease into the historic community of Wye Mills where the Wye Grist Mill stands as a defiant reminder of days gone by.

Maryland's oldest working mill, the water-powered Wye Mill grindstone has been turning out flour since 1682. Almost a hundred years after, a certain General Washington and his Continental Army were beneficiaries of the mill's output during the American Revolution. Just up the street, a sad reminder waits. A jagged stump is all that remains of the Wye Oak. Once recognized as the largest white oak in the nation, the Wye Oak is thought to have taken root during the 1500s. Measuring over 31 feet in circumference, the mighty oak finally bowed to time and nature, collapsing during a thunderstorm in the summer of 2002. Staring at the massive stump, I think of all the times I sped by on the freeway, never stopping to stroll in the shade of this monument to my home state's rich history. As we all know, teenaged guys have so many more important things to do.

Routes 662 and 370 continue the easy traverse of the Eastern Shore countryside, past homes and small farms that indicate a lifestyle long forgotten by the freeway travelers just a few miles away. These easy riding roads prove perfect fodder for the Piaggio, combining perfectly with the posh seat and the effortless ride. Sightseeing on a big scooter is truly a joy - aggression goes out the window and relaxation rules the day.

West along Route 33, the town of St. Michaels and a rendezvous with something composed of crab looms large on the lunch radar. Several folks, including my mom, recommend the Crab Claw. Works for me. If there's one thing I miss about Maryland, it's the crabs. I've had them elsewhere, but they're just not the same. Hot crabs, cold National Bohemian beer and an Os game on the radio - now that's living large Maryland style. Unfortunately, the Os and the Natty Boh aren't what they used to be, but the crabs still deliver the goods. Don't plan on getting out of the Crab Claw on the cheap, however, but the crab soup and crab cake sandwich are too delicious for that to matter.

St. Michaels, a charming town, displays its nautical heritage proudly. Boats of all types are everywhere, and Talbot Street is lined with all sorts of shops catering to tourists and locals alike. For those inclined to shop, spending a day and a few bucks is an easy proposition. But I'll just ride on, thank you.

Tilghman Island, farther west on Route 33, is the next destination; and if you're looking for Eastern Shore uniqueness, this is your place. Crossing the drawbridge over Knapps Narrows, there seems to be a decidedly different air about this place. The folks who live and work here are watermen in the classic sense of the word. Regardless of weather, these hard-as-nails fishermen harvest the bounty of the bay to provide hungry seafood connoisseurs with the best the Chesapeake has to offer. In any seafood restaurant here you're guaranteed the freshest of the fresh. Swing into Dogwood Harbor to catch a glimpse of the skipjacks, wooden sailing vessels that still dredge oysters, and the last commercial sailing fleet in North America. I continue riding on Route 33 out to Blackwalnut Point, where the views of the bay are fantastic. Once there, another treat is in store when I spot a bald eagle in its natural habitat.

Backtracking through St. Michaels, I peel off toward Royal Oak, following the road to its end in Belleview to catch the Oxford-Belleview ferry across the Tred Avon River. This service was established in 1683 to ferry "horses and men" and no one bats an eye at transporting "a guy and a scooter" today.

Riding off the ferry into Oxford, I pass a replica of the original Custom House. During colonial times, Oxford was one of only two ports of entry in the Maryland province for British trade vessels. I'm sure there were many a tea-for-tobacco swaps discussed over a tankard of grog or two at the local tavern. Riding through town, this image becomes easier to picture as the colonial roots of Oxford obviously run deep. The well-kept homes and the quiet waterfront offer great scenery along with a genuine slice of the past. With Oxford inked in on my "places to visit when I have more time" list, I spur my ride and press on. Time is not on my side today. One of the unfortunate aspects of late year touring is the perpetual race with the sun. The beautiful fall temperatures have been exceptionally cooperative, but I'm sure the night will not be as understanding.

Route 333 out of Oxford and Route 331 to Preston is another relaxing ride. These roads get into serious farm country. Large harvested fields and the sliding afternoon temperatures indicate winter is just around the corner. As I look across the barren expanses so recently green with summer's crop, the distant farmhouses - some have been here for centuries - seem almost defenseless, protected from the furious bay-driven winters by only a smattering of ancient trees and outbuildings.

North on Route16, the feel of the shore has changed completely. While the areas around the water are literally saturated with history and a delight to sightseers, the further inland the road stretches, the more in touch with the land the ride becomes. The waterman's workboat and stacks of crab pots are replaced by the farmer's tractor and corncribs. Be it harvesting the water or the land, both industries coexist side by side, the common thread being generations of family tradition and hard work. While some may consider this region of endless farmland rather unexciting, those of us who appreciate the joys of solitude are well rewarded. Few cars interrupt the hypnotic purr of the X9 as the miles tick away. Thoughts of earlier generations working this land by hand are punctuated by the fact that abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born a slave nearby in the town of Denton. Not all who toiled here were rewarded for their labors. Douglass escaped bondage and went on to become one of the major voices for civil rights during Reconstruction.

Several small towns spring up on Routes 313 and 480 to break the spell of isolation cast by lonely roads likely familiar only to those who live here. Places like Greensboro, Bridgetown, and Ruthsburg offer authentic small-town atmosphere. I can't help feeling a certain odd-man-out sensation as I roll through. Despite the cool twilight temperature, outdoor socializing seems to be the order of the evening. Kids playing in the street stop and move aside as I motor by. Some offer half-hearted waves; others stare. The gaggle of teenagers assembled by the firehouse try to act too cool to care but can't resist glancing. I'm guessing a large, Italian-made scooter is not an everyday sight in this neck of the woods.

Though remarkably similar, each of these places has a distinct ambience. Some of the populace seems friendlier than others, yet all seem curious why I am where I am. I would love to stop and learn more local lore, but the specter of crossing the Bay Bridge after dark has me on the run. Having gotten a better taste of the Shore, I'm sure I'll be back to explore. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder and it was great fun returning to play in my old backyard. While I may not have allowed enough time, I'm glad I had the time I did.

The Eastern Shore of Maryland is an intriguing place. Its small towns seem to stand in defiance of time, no doubt isolated from run-of-the-mill modernity by the endless hordes speeding by to the resort towns of Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach for that elusive kegger. Whatever the reason, the Eastern Shore is a great destination notable for some of the most relaxed riding I've experienced in a long time. Don't make the same mistake I made for years that countless travelers still make today: Get off of the highway and discover the real Shore. Take some time to smell the roses, and if you can't go when any are blooming, the crab cakes always smell pretty darned good, too.