In Wildwood, my final summertime fling

If there’s one place to reclaim the season, it’s on the Jersey Shore

August 28

Summer officially starts on Memorial Day weekend, but for me, it didn’t truly begin until last Monday, a week before its official end.

We have about 14 weeks to seize summer — to frolic on the beach, ride bikes in flip-flops and embrace the freedoms we earned after a long and unkind winter. The calendar grants us three months to get our fill of sun, sand, ocean, tanned arms and no socks. So what happened to my allotted time? Last I remember, I was greeting the incoming season on a beach in Rhode Island, but after that it’s all a blur. And now the summer of 2014 is a few sunsets away from being gone forever.

In all fairness, I’m not totally to blame for squandering summer. Grover Cleveland, who signed the Labor Day holiday into law, is at fault, too. This year, it comes ridiculously early. Moreover, the weather wasn’t its normal sweltering self. Nationwide, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported more than twice as many record cool temperatures as warm temps in July. The last time we experienced such a throw-on-a-sweater July was in 2009. And the final nail in the deflated beach ball: We never settled on the ultimate Song of Summer ’14. Here’s a suggestion: “Summertime Sadness.”

If you go: Wildwood, N.J.

But summer isn’t over yet, and I had a plan to salvage it. I’d pack an entire season into one day. My summer of 2014 would start and end in Wildwood.

Midnight fun

Wildwood, on the Jersey Shore, contains all the love potion ingredients for a summertime fling. The area has a two-mile-long boardwalk teeming with arcade games, theme park rides, fried foods and brain-freeze frozen treats. The beach, which repeatedly wins bestie awards, is so wide that ATVs run people to the shoreline and back. It’s also free, a rarity in New Jersey. The sand is as smooth as chocolate pudding. The ocean satisfies all water-activity levels: You can float like an otter in the calmer first section; beach yourself like a whale on the sandbar; or get tossed around like seaweed in the wilder waves a few yards beyond.


An ice cream vendor on the beach at Wildwood, N.J. The author was on a mission to savor the blink-and-it’s-gone summer — in just one day. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

Most important, especially since I had only 24 hours of summer: The beach stays open till 10 p.m., and the attractions don’t go dark till midnight.

My summer started off ominously. On my way to the boardwalk the evening of my arrival, I passed a father and his teenage son, who was wrestling on a sweatshirt. The dad, full of paternal concern, asked, “Do you want to bring a pair of sweatpants? You might get cold.” The dog days are more like polar bears, it seems.

At 10 p.m., the boardwalk was still bouncing with energy. I walked the entire length from the southern entrance at Wildwood Crest to the northern arch at North Wildwood. Every few minutes, I would hear a soft rumble and a voice calling out: “Watch the tram, please.” Then a line of mustard-yellow cars would roll by, packed with visitors and their stuffed-animal prizes.

During my stroll back, I wandered into some of the shops, browsing through cheap sundresses, brash T-shirts and painted hermit crabs. I swung into a cooking store and picked up a jar of mango-and-pineapple salsa to satisfy a quarter-to-midnight craving. At a jewelry and clothing store called Casino, the owner shouted a three-minute warning. Yes, he was talking to me.


People visit shops open late on the famous boardwalk of Wildwood. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

Wheeling around

Despite my late night, I rose early, feeling the pull of the sun’s warm rays through the motel room window. The pool glistened as if dusted with silver beads. But pools are aseasonal; I needed the time-specific beach.

Four times a week, Charla Lewis holds $5 yoga classes on the stretch of sand behind the convention center. I met her at the end of the ramp, where she stood with a sign-up sheet and instructions: Face the water and set down your towel on a parcel without glass or shells. Easy enough, since the beach is seemingly cleaned with a giant sieve.

I positioned my “mat” next to a daughter and her mother, who were vacationing here for the week. The daughter was a teacher in Princeton, and the first day of school hovered like the gulls overhead.

“I always say summer goes too fast,” she said, “but this year, it really did.”

Sadly, recess was almost over.

Charla, however, set my mind at ease and helped me sink into summer — or at least the lumpy sand beneath my towel.

“Tap into the rhythm of the ocean. Let it pull you in and out,” she instructed as we folded our bodies into origami shapes. “Listen to the sounds — the birds, the wind. Feel the sun warm your skin.”

After class, I approached Charla for some guidance, both as a yogi and as a longtime Wildwoodian. As a guru, she advised me to appreciate every moment, soak up my surroundings and embrace change. As a local, she told me to rent a bike, gaze at the ocean and go eat some junk food. Agile visitors can do all three at once.

Bikers are allowed to cycle along the boardwalk until noon (ignore the signs that say till 11 a.m.). The morning is a clumsy parade of solo riders on beach cruisers and families pedaling surrey bikes, their babies sitting out front like soft bumpers. I rented a bike for two hours and headed straight for the boards. I had 30 minutes before curfew.

When I was a kid, summertime was about challenges. Who can hold their breath underwater the longest, or swim to the floating dock first, or pick the fattest blackberry? I felt that same kick of competition at the starting line: How many laps could I complete before noon?

My sky-blue bike with a basket and no gears was hardly a racing machine. I sat upright like a Victorian lady on a metal pony. I rode up and down and up again, switching between the paved tram lane and the rickety boards. I avoided collisions with children carrying dripping ice cream cones and adults who walked in diagonals. Halfway through my second return trip, I noticed fewer bikers. Then a uniformed official in a cart puttered over to me and shouted, “Walk the bike.” I checked my clock: 12:13. I felt like the impish child who’d eaten her sister’s funnel cake when she wasn’t looking and gotten away with it.

I spent the remaining time riding around the quiet streets. I followed Atlantic Avenue until it petered out at Seapointe Village at Diamond Beach. Then I turned around, dipping in and out of stumpy lanes that dead-ended at the beach. Near the boardwalk, I heard a tinkling sound. The bell came from a pickup truck loaded with fruit. I scanned the produce and settled on a thick wedge of watermelon. The vendor offered to slice it up for me, but such formalities seemed too proper for the occasion. Instead, I placed the fruit in my basket and cycled to my car, where I retrieved a plastic knife. I cut pieces off the rind and popped them into my mouth. I didn’t have a napkin, but that’s what the ocean is for — rinsing off the sweet stickiness of summer.

Beach and board

Normally, I seek out a secluded part of the beach so I can have a quiet conversation with nature. But for the real summer experience, I needed to be surrounded by pods of summery people. I spotted them by their signature accessory: the clusters of umbrellas that, from afar, resembled colorfully frosted cupcakes.


Katherine Murray, left, runs through the surf with her brother Rob, 11, at Wildwood, N.J. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

I entered the beach via the convention center ramp, pausing to watch a man respond to the urgent beeps of his metal detector. (False alarm: It was a silver wrapper.) The beach was a small kingdom of sand castles, with some of the royals employing fairly talented contractors. On my way to the water’s edge, I fell into a deep hole and may have accidentally crushed a fortune cookie.

The ocean was as warm as tepid tea. I waded out to the sandbar and wished for a chair. When none materialized, I moved on. I walked the strip for a few yards in each direction, the beach scene unrolling like an animated scroll. Behind me, the waves frothed and crashed. Now I wanted a boogie board, but again . . .

In the late afternoon, I returned to the boardwalk, surrendering to the irrational urge to play arcade games. I tried the claw machine, a smirking penguin slipping out of the metal fingers. I tossed quarters at plates and aimed darts at small balloons. A little boy with a mess of blond hair hit; I missed. Finally, I found a booth with balloons the size of cabbages. I threw the sharp missile and pop went the target. The attendant let me choose among the stuffed marine life: red fish or blue, angel or tang.


Wildwood’s famous boardwalk loses no energy after dark, with amusement park rides that stay open late. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

The air was turning cool, and the bright light was dimming into night. My fish and I lined up for the Giant Wheel behind a trio of teenagers. They invited me into their car, and as we circled up, we shared theme park horror stories. The ride paused at the highest point. Below, the beach stretched long and wide, with a sprinkling of people who, from this vertiginous vantage point, appeared as tiny as peppercorns.

“Hey, I can see the metal detector guy down there,” said one of the girls, peering over the left side.

To the west, the sun appeared red and round, and slowly melted down the sides of the horizon. Within minutes, another day of summer would slip away, but I was now ready to say goodbye.

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