For most people the Ocean City boardwalk is a place they don’t see in winter, a cold and windy spot on the eastern end of the eastern shore. But for me, running on the coldest day so far this season, it was a breath of fresh air. The boardwalk seemed to come alive in ways that I don’t normally see when I run it during the summer season.
I start at the inlet, which in winter is where I always start because parking there is free and I can run the entire boardwalk with my son in the jogging stroller. The southern end of the boards is the part of Ocean City open all year ’round. Music sings from the arcade, Park Place Jewelers promotes a sale, and T-shirts sway in the breeze.
What’s missing is the usual bustle of people. No families on morning bicycle rentals, no young couples in bathing suits holding hands and hoping summer will stretch their romance another week. The beach is empty save for the fences put up to help prevent the blowing sand from piling up at the seawall. No one sits on the memorial benches decorated with wreaths and ribbons for the holidays. Musicians and artists aren’t battling over numbered spaces, and crowds aren’t gathered to watch them perform.
When I run the boards in summer I am distracted by all the people, by the goings on of visitors and tourists alike who come to this little slice of heaven. Which is why winter is such a fascinating time in Ocean City for me, because the town comes alive in ways it doesn’t in the summer. I notice things I don’t usually look at. Like the former Seascape Hotel being torn apart one wall at a time with the aid of a yellow Caterpillar excavator.
Five construction workers stand in the biting wind on the boardwalk watching the dismantling of the hotel. They stop me as I pass and I see one room still there, the door open, the curtain on the window swaying a little in the breeze. I can almost see a young boy there at the open door staring out at the ocean, begging his mother to let him go out to the beach, to jump in the ocean just one more time before they depart. His sister reads a book while his father helps his mother pack up their clothes. The week is over and now it’s time to go home, he tells his son. The boy sighs and already begins to look forward to next year.
There will be no more summers in that room.
Here’s something else I never noticed when running the boards in summer: a giant gorilla sits atop the Safari Motel on 12th Street staring out at the ocean like he’s dreaming of dipping his feet in the cool winter water. Maybe like so many others who visit the boards in winter he came in the summer but stayed because the beach was too beautiful to bid farewell.
Ocean City Public Works tractors plow the beach at the north end of the boards. Their diesel engines drown out the gently rocking surf. Up here there are no fences and winter storms pile dunes next to the blue sea wall. In order to keep Ocean City beaches smooth for summer visitors crews work all winter redistributing the sand.
At the end of the boards I hit the yellow dot on the sign that as a writer always annoys me. It’s either missing a preposition (with) or using the wrong contraction (you’ve). I touch the spot anyway and turn back. My running companion cheers from his stroller. The sun is in his face and from here we can see the beach and the ocean and winter’s quiet in Ocean City. A place that feels, on a cold day like this, to have been built just for us.