OCEAN CITY, Md. -- Ah, summertime, and the boardwalk is bustling. The boardwalk tram, its horn tooting nonstop, threads its way through the great mass of sunburned humanity, packed as thick as a subway at rush hour. The breeze carries sweet scents of summer: saltwater and suntan lotion, funnel cakes and famous Thrasher's french fries, cotton candy and caramel popcorn.
Along the 36-block boardwalk, named America's third best by the Travel Channel this spring (behind first-place Santa Cruz, Calif., and Atlantic City, N.J.), carnival barkers deliver their endless pitches, competing with music blaring from arcades and bars and the shrieks of children spinning, twisting, and tumbling on rides.
The boardwalk comes to life just after sunrise on summer mornings when thousands of vacationers pedal rented bicycles past the shops selling doughnuts and T-shirts and temporary tattoos. A parade of gawkers, oglers, and strollers continues well into the neon-soaked night when the gigantic Ferris wheel spins its magical kaleidoscope of flashing colors.
Here, Granville Trimper has had a front-row seat for most of his 75 years. Just about every summer night, he's out until midnight, presiding over the family-owned boardwalk amusement park his grandparents opened in 1890. He's seen Ocean City transformed from a sleepy fishing village to a sprawling resort that lures 8 million people a year.
So much has changed, and yet so much defies change. At Trimper Rides and Amusements, you marvel at the restored 1902 carousel with hand-carved wooden horses and a whole lot more: a giraffe, a frog, a chicken, an ostrich, a pig, a tiger, a zebra, a camel, a deer, a billy goat, a dragon. Children ring the bells on the same miniature red fire engines and cling to the steering wheels of the same little boats that have delighted tots since the 1920s.
''Generation after generation has come to do the same things, and it seems they never tire of it," Trimper says. ''Grandparents will come in with their children and say, 'I rode this carousel when I was a kid.' "
Like his children and grandchildren (who also work in the amusement park), Trimper is in his element here.
''I'd be miserable if I weren't down here," he says. ''I like the excitement of the boardwalk and the nostalgia. I get pleasure out of seeing the little kids laughing and happy, and it's just an air of having a good time, having fun."
Everybody, it seems, scoffs at the garish spectacle of the boardwalk. Yet almost everybody, it seems, ends up here at least once during his beach vacation on this narrow, 10-mile-long barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean.
Old-timers remember the days when people wore suits and ties or evening dresses to stroll the slats of southern pine, and they wistfully recall when a working-class family could afford a little piece of heaven by the sea. (Now, some oceanfront condos on the boards fetch $1 million.) ''June bugs" savor a trip ''downy ocean" as a rite of passage after graduating from high school. Generations of families have driven through the patchwork of farms on Maryland's Eastern Shore to get here.
Perhaps they keep coming back because the boardwalk represents a throwback to childhood, a time when the horizon of possibilities seemed to stretch as far as the ocean itself, a place that still looks like the old snapshots.
Ocean City prides itself on preserving tradition, especially along the downtown boardwalk, where the resort began in the late 19th century. To keep visitors from burning their feet, hotel owners began laying boards on the hot sand, which led to construction of a permanent boardwalk between 1900 and 1915. The Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum, inside a white Victorian-looking gem with a red roof, offers fascinating glimpses of the history of the boardwalk and the resort. Peer inside the dollhouses that depict grand old hotels in remarkable detail. Check out the wool bathing suits (were people ever that modest?) and inspect artifacts from shipwrecks along the Ocean City coastline. Take a close look at the photos of the ferocious 1933 hurricane that ripped through the land between the ocean and Sinepuxent Bay. Then step outside and look through the binoculars at the boardwalk's southern edge and try to spot wild ponies across the inlet on Assateague Island.
Today, the boardwalk retains its classic look. But about a decade ago, the town considered radical ideas like razing entire blocks of the downtown for a themed, mega-resort hotel or bringing in costly, high-profile attractions like an
Bill Ochse, a former high school teacher who owns The Kite Loft on the boardwalk, recalls traveling with other business owners five years ago to check out Disney World's re-creation of a great American boardwalk. It looked a whole lot like Ocean City.
''Disney re-created it, but we had it right in our own backyard," Ochse says. ''We don't have to go anywhere to bring something in. It's here."
What's not here, among the shops, restaurants, hotels, arcades, bars, and amusements lining the boards, are big-name national chains (except for a Burger King at the south end). Who needs IMAX when the free entertainment goes nonstop up and down the boardwalk? When your feet give out, you can take it all in from the boardwalk tram.
A crowd gathers to gaze at the stunning biblical sand sculptures artist Randy Hofman has been building next to the boardwalk for two decades. Children huddle around a beach bonfire for story time, featuring tales by members of the beach patrol on this night. Somebody's doing a show with an alligator puppet, while nearby, a child performs backflips from the boardwalk onto the beach. Musicians create impromptu stages up and down the boards. A gray-haired man with wire rims strums an acoustic guitar and sings ''Not Fade Away." A duo does a Led Zeppelin song. A girl looks as if she's singing a sad song, but you can't hear her amid the crowd. A violinist plays to a tape of music from ''The Titanic," and a mandolin player plucks a sweet melody.
Dozens of kites flutter high above the beach, where a volleyball game is still going strong at 10 p.m. Ocean Gallery, a boardwalk fixture made largely from parts of 68 buildings from around the world, looks a bit like the hastily reassembled wreckage of a hurricane. Owner Joe Kroart, who calls himself the ''P.T. Barnum of Fine Art," works the art gallery wearing his trademark tuxedo and red tie.
James N. Mathias Jr. used to revel in the boardwalk spectacle when he vacationed in Ocean City as a child. Now he lives here, owns a boardwalk T-shirt shop, and is the mayor (who has been known to sing ''Start Me Up" with bands that play in town). Mathias sums up the appeal of the place: ''We're still a caramel popcorn, crab cake, french fry, and pizza kind of town. If there's a last vestige of Americana, this is it."
Gary Gately is a freelance writer in Baltimore.