Five miles from Ocean City, Md., squats Frontier Town, an RV campground comprising the stuff of children’s dreams: water park, minigolf course, arcade with blinking lights, junk prizes. Everything is themed to the Wild West.
We’re supposed to be on a backcountry hiking trip, the thirteen of us. We’ve plotted a brief escape from our ordered lives to wield hunting knives and paddle canoes east into the wild. But we queued too late at the Ranger Station on Assateague Island, and the remote outposts are already neatly parceled out to first-comers mindful of rules and the clock. In retrospect, “the wild” was a misleading dream. So was “east” — the Wild West campgrounds are the last available spots in the region. We take a gamble and pack back in for the mainland.
Frontier Town, as misnomers go, is comprehensively satisfying. A gigantic plaster statue of cowboy and horse leap toward the highway in welcome. Down the drive, horses wander around their paddock, blissfully unaware of the freedom and celebrity of their wild cousins running rampant on Assateague Island just across the bridge. Inexplicably, a replica shark touted as the genuine model for Jaws sits alone in a parking lot, straining to devour a model boat always just beyond its reach. (“Danger — No climbing” reads the sign, currently blocked by the limbs of climbing children.)
At the front desk — pardon me, the Pony Express check-in — they book everyone’s name under another sign, this one advertising for a “good woman” who can cook, clean, and shoot.
We're on myth's territory now. Frontier Town was built in the early 1960s as homage to itinerant cowhands in the late 1800s, who carried American commerce, optimism, and greed in the form of slow cattle across miles of unforgiving plains. The Wild West as we imagine it is a bit of a sham, of course — constructed in part by people living there even at the time, who would stage train robberies and trick out saloons to thrill adventure-seeking, money-dropping East Coasters.
It’s a cartoonized myth, the kind perfectly suited to the sort of theme park that America today leads the world in delivering. This could cause even greater skepticism about our present surroundings — but really, is there great romantic difference between a bygone West of restaurants and wagon paraphernalia and a tribute West of all that plus a water park? We agree that this is the story we’re telling and we go with it; to delight ourselves and each other, to give ourselves an origin story, a reason for what it’s all for.
I should mention it is Memorial Day weekend. National holidays share a similarly constructed myth in our collective nostalgia, I think, and Memorial Day has come further than most from its original purpose. It began as Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for all who died in the Civil War.
It’s strange to think about now, not having known much war on our own soil, but most communities lost someone, or lots of someones, in the fight with their neighbors. Decoration Day was a moment of reckoning for every town, for the bodies that lay in every city. It was a recognition of the things that tore us apart on our own soil, of the grave cost of divisions left unattended until there is no choice but to address them with violence.
But in practice, even coming together over Decoration Day was contentious. The South refused to celebrate alongside the North for decades. And though President Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the birthplace of the practice, several other towns still claim true birthright.
In the years since, Memorial Day has changed to face a very different wind. After World War I, the day turned to honoring the U.S. military dead from all wars — wars whose enemies, and collateral damage, are almost entirely overseas. Our memories are short, perhaps — or maybe we’ve become more avoidant of our own complicity and fragility in the face of war. We remember you, we still say, but it mostly happens to other people, it’s mostly over there, it’s mostly about defending a unified narrative of freedom and safety for all of us over here.
“Where were you last Memorial Day?” asks a woman in our group, as we wait outside the office to register our campsite. No one remembers.
In the glade marked for us we struggle to pull around into a coherent convoy of cars. “Circle the wagons!” everybody jokes, once.
Our enterprising campground neighbors, like the cowhands before them, are making it work. To our left, three men call for a cab pickup, get pizza delivered to their tent. Behind us, a fake duck bobs on the lazy river. A boy is attempting to fish with a piece of beef rib.
“I work for uh, the Koch Brothers,” says a man in our group, a little nervously. He and I are talking shop — incidentally, on the challenges and freedoms of writing to an assumed political ideology or moral framework — and I’ve prattled on for quite a while before realizing he’s slipped into polite silence.
“Oh. Well. Ha-ha.” I say. “Thanks for letting me incriminate myself.”
We’re both a little startled to actually be meeting the enemy. We’re in unexpected territory here, and acutely aware that whatever we say is going to stick in our confined quarters until we leave on Monday. So instead we talk about our early years in D.C., and also about the book I’m reading, which is about magic and definitely not about deep political differences. Ha-ha. We cheers our beers together, instinctually agreeing to share a superficial commonality, not quite willing to sacrifice the comfort of the weekend for a direct look at each other across the gulf between our operating frameworks.
There’s a common belief that peace is the absence of struggle. But peace demands its own sacrifices. Are we who work for it willing to engage with as much fervor as those who fight wars do? I wasn’t. It was my long weekend and I was enjoying the sand and the sun, thanks.
He and I don’t really talk the rest of the trip.
Night has fallen in Frontier Town, and the thrill of semi-lawless excitement starts to take over. A pack of 11-year-olds have commandeered a golf cart and are careening through the night, American flag waving on the breeze. Disco lights from a mysterious source are winking through the trees.
An unintelligible voice starts to warble from the karaoke barn. Another golf cart zips up and dislodges a man in neon spandex holding an armful of empty solo cups. It’s contained anarchy out here on the frontier. It’s amazing.
We wander over to the dance floor. A DJ is spinning “YMCA” to the lazy cheers of a pack of tweens. A woman is dancing arm-in-paw with her dog. We form our own dance circle in friendly camaraderie, laughing and bopping along to the whole incongruous weekend, just as the DJ cranks up “God Bless the USA.”