Driving to Ocean City can be a race or a gentle exploration of back roads

After crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, drivers can race straight ahead to Ocean City. But another option is to explore the many delights to be found not far off the main route.
After crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, drivers can race straight ahead to Ocean City. But another option is to explore the many delights to be found not far off the main route. (Michael Lutzky/The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Carol Sottili
Friday, May 21, 2010

Several years ago, when I abandoned the relative serenity of North Carolina's Outer Banks for the proximity of Maryland's ocean beaches, getting there was not half the fun.

With sixth gear engaged and Tom Petty set loud, I'd point my car onto the Beltway's fast lane thinking pedal to the metal and please no roadwork or overturned tractor-trailers. Once happily ensconced within the 65 mph speed limit on the top half of Route 50, I'd kick it back a little in Annapolis and then feel just a little smug while passing the fools without E-ZPass across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Some quick maneuvering around the shopping traffic on Kent Island, an artfully set cruise control on the Eastern Shore's radar-trap-infested four-lane road, and the skyline of Ocean City was soon in sight. Arrival time became a game: 2 hours 48 minutes, a new record! Crack open a beer, sit on the balcony, ready for another weekend at the beach.

The transformation from focus and speed to observation and contemplation came in fits and starts over a period of years. Now, a relationship born of familiarity has developed with the places and scenes along the way. I've come to see the road to Ocean City as a manifestation of changing fortunes, and to value the hours spent driving the back roads and exploring small wonders.

From the seat of a car, the passing scenes along Route 50 reflect recent disappointments. A tattoo parlor that served as the halfway-point marker closed last year, and the young couple who used to smoke cigarettes outside have moved on. Pop-Pop's produce stand is now gated and the land is for sale. I wonder whether there is a real Pop-Pop and whether he, too, is gone. The batting cage and miniature golf complex built so enthusiastically soon grew weeds and has since been razed. Del Webb promised senior housing there, but a new sign says simply, "Lakeside Homes." Billboards that had been replastered monthly with escalating beach condo prices have been replaced with those touting homes in Bethany Beach starting at $199,900.

But through the car window, one also sees progress in the thousands of acres of farmland lining the road. Some parcels sport new signs extolling organic practices. Pollution-preventing cover crops have become commonplace when fields are fallow. The corn stubble and open land are attracting vultures, snow geese and deer. Once uncommon bald eagles are now everywhere. I marvel at the Kent Island ospreys that continue to raise their young each year atop a highway sign, oblivious to the thousands of cars streaming by beneath them. The inattention appears mutual.

Roads once taken only as shortcuts around traffic jams have surprised with hidden delights.

In an attempt to evade traffic on the Beltway, I wind up getting marvelously lost for more than an hour among the horse farms of Anne Arundel County, the beauty of the land tempering my impatience.

Stuck bumper-to-bumper on Kent Island, I get off to take a breather and am soon eating crab cake sandwiches and listening to music with the locals at the Jetty Restaurant & Dock Bar.

Veering off Route 50 to the parallel Route 662, I notice a marker on the right: The Wye Oak, once recognized as the largest white oak in the nation, succumbed to a 2002 thunderstorm at about age 450. Now, a new cloned oak grows from its stump.

But detours are no longer just happenstance, and the usual three-hour trip often intentionally stretches much longer.

A short walk for the dog turns into a long stroll on the lovely grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. A meander through the historic district of Easton reveals scores of shops, restaurants, farmers markets and other distractions that easily fill half a day. A stop at the visitors center in Cambridge leads me to an exhibit honoring Harriet Tubman, followed by the nearby Harriet Tubman Museum and many local points along the Underground Railroad. A diversion to St. Michaels is rewarded with an afternoon at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where I spend time in the lighthouse, easily imagining what it was like to be a lonely keeper more than a century ago.

But my favorite is Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a wild place unchanged from days when escaped slaves traversed the mosquito-infested swamps in a quest for freedom.

The visitors center offers a place to picnic and learn more about the refuge's 27,000 acres, established in 1933 as a haven for migratory birds. Several hiking trails, a wildlife-viewing road, canoeing routes and miles of back roads for bikers are part of the mix. But just driving is a great reward.

In one traverse from Cambridge through the refuge, before returning to the highway in Vienna, Md., I see six soaring bald eagles, dozens of turkey and black vultures, a nutria and a skunk foraging on the side of the road, a flock of uncommon American white pelicans on the water, nest-building ospreys, a confident wild turkey that forces my car to a crawl, an unfortunate dead black rat snake and a quicker black racer slithering into the brush, a great blue heron exploding from the marsh and the carcass of a farm animal picked clean to the bones.

Back on Route 50, I think of the still-unexplored roadside venues and experiences between Ocean City and the Virginia border. The ferry from Bellevue to Oxford, Rabbit Hill Music Store, Herb 'n Craft, more than a few psychic readers, Unicorn Bookshop and the delicious-smelling Linkwood-Salem Volunteer Fire Company chicken BBQ stand all still beckon.

But on warm summer mornings, as I get ready for the ride, my Type-A tendencies are often reignited with anticipation of crime novels read beachside, a coconut chocolate chip ice cream cone from Dumser's, an early-morning run on the boardwalk and a cold beer at Fager's Island as the sun sets.

Put the pedal to the metal and flip on the radar detector. Ocean City, here I come.

Sottili is a columnist for the Travel section who has been making the drive to Ocean City for seven years.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company