As you know if you have ever talked to me for more than five minutes, I am almost fanatically in love with Northern California. I love Berkeley like other people love their sports teams, but without the numbered jerseys. Even so, there are many things I genuinely like about the East Coast. One of the things I have always admired is the annual pilgrimage to the beach. Or, what they call going “down the shore.” Going to the shore IS the summer vacation. You rent a house for a week and decamp to Jersey, or Delaware, or Maryland, or even as far north as Rhode Island (hey, Little Compton!). It’s fascinating.
It’s an intimidating process: the people, the traffic, the cost, the hassle. Everybody from all points west is trying to get to the main shore points, due east, on the same few handful of roads at about the same time of day on a Friday afternoon. But, once you make it, I have to admit it’s pretty awesome. You put on your suit, stuff your big canvas bag with towels and magazines and cold water that will quickly become warm and gritty with sand, and head out for the day. You roast in the sun, go brave the water, then roast in the sun, then go in the water, then go “walk the boards,” get a slice of pizza or some soft-serve, and go back to your towel which is now covered in kicked up sand from other people tromping by, and lay back down for another turn. That’s a day at the beach. A night at the beach is a whole other ball of wax which I actually don’t know much about. As a voyeur, I’m generally almost always a day-tripper.
Fortunately, I went down mid-week in late June — the calm before the storm. The gloves come off right around the Fourth of July, so I made sure I squeezed in a quick visit before the real mayhem of summer. Rehoboth Beach is about 100 miles from where I live in Maryland, so it’s a bit of a haul for a day-trip, but I happen to enjoy that drive. I usually find some odd, interesting scenery, even if it’s just to marvel that in a road lined with signs broadcasting roadside BBQ chicken, they have always, mysteriously, either happened just before I rolled through, or are about to happen right AFTER I roll back out. Hmmm. The ever-elusive BBQ chicken stand.
This time, since it’s been three years since I made the drive, I went (unintentionally but predictably) off the beaten path and found this truism:
Then I found this lovely little bit:
…which I then just found confusing and a bit ominous. The Eastern Shore has a long history of chicken farming, and Perdue Chicken plays a huge part in that history, for better or worse. And it’s mostly worse, from what I hear anecdotally. I’d like to look into this more in a later post, perhaps on another day-trip.
The tractor store I passed a few miles later was a very busy place which shows how big a part farming still plays in the economy of the Eastern Shore.
I only wish I could have taken a photograph of what I saw in my rear view mirror driving behind me as I passed this store — it was some sort of tractor, but up high off the ground with enough space underneath it through which a small car could pass! It looked like I was being pursued by some kind of tractor spider. This machine probably has a real name of which I, being urban — or, if not urban, at least not rural — know nothing about. That’s part of what I like about going to the shore: it’s weird to me. There’s always some funky store or funny road sign or strange man with a metal detector and head gear on to stimulate the imagination. You just never know what you’ll come across on these day trips.
Once you wander your way through these scenic photographic tangents and broach the Coastal Highway itself, you just need to find a good parking spot, so bring a roll of quarters — YES, QUARTERS, I kid you not, no credit card slots — for the parking meters — the TWO-HOUR parking meters, by the way, so don’t stray too far from your parking spot searching for the perfect quadrant of sandy heaven since you will be feeding the meter every 120 minutes.
For the uninitiated, the learning curve on the beach itself can be steep. The Atlantic waters are actually warm enough in summer that you can swim in them so, naturally, I thought the ocean was my friend. This is not necessarily so. I’ve gotten sucked underwater hard enough to lose my sunglasses on two separate occasions in water not much deeper than my knees (and that was 0 for 2, by the way: I did it the first time, then did the exact same thing the very next time). Lesson: don’t wear sunglasses into the ocean. Also, “undertow” is a real thing. Hmm.
But, if you can manage to keep yourself in one piece, you get rewarded by the sun beating down on you and the sound of the waves crashing into the sand, and the gentle call of shore birds circling above (or, un-gently, very, very close if some yahoo near you decides to feed them a piece of bread and suddenly you are surrounded by, no joke, three dozen gulls ready to peck your eyes out for a soggy piece of hoagie roll. DON’T FEED THE GULLS. You’ll start a bird war and they are really not as cute when they are all up in your face.).
And, sometimes you get lucky. You see things like a school of dolphins arcing by. Or, around happy hour, you’ll see extremely fit people lap-swimming — yes, lap-swimming! – freestyle through the ocean four times further out than anyone you were bobbing around blowing bubbles and doing dead-man’s floats with. Watching their smooth, efficient, horizontal strokes slice through one of the most powerful bodies of water on earth is really amazing, along with the respectful realization that it’s people like that who save people like me when we do foolish things like swim out too far or some other such nonsense.
That is the recompense for your drive: a sunny day, gulls wheeling overhead, and the fun, happy feeling that comes from people relaxing. And soft serve. You could argue for salt water taffy, pizza slices, caramel corn, fudge –there are lots of things that come to mind when you think of beach boardwalk food, but for me, it’s soft serve. And in Rehoboth, it’s Kohr Brothers.
It was a rather (understatement) hot day, so my strawberry rainbow sprinkle cone incarnated quickly from this:
Ooh la la! Now, that’s hot. No matter, it was dee-licious.
In any case, more on food later (see my upcoming post “Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun”).
So, if you live within a few hours of the shore and you need to get away and clear your head, consider Rehoboth Beach for charm, or Ocean City if you want to get real about walking the boards, with all the rides and arcade bells and whistles that go along with that. You’ll meld into the crowds and watch generations of cultural legacy unfold around you as you become part of the undulating wave of another summer day at the beach.
And, if you do it, do it right: get a low-slung beach chair that you can wear as a backpack, bring a boatload of quarters for the parking meters, leave your sunglasses on your beach towel, and enjoy.