Beyond the horizon, hours away to the east, the ocean slaps against the sand. The traveler can almost hear the surf, like a whisper or a wish. He imagines himself at the end of the day, alone, standing at the shore, staring hard into the inky evening waters, the primeval murk, his origins.

What draws the traveler to the ocean is nothing so simple as a suntan, a vodka lunch, an extended nap. All of that can be accomplished on a rooftop, in a backyard, on the Mall. No, the lure of the sea is the mystery of biology and history. The traveler looks into the water and sees all his myriad forms. He sees himself as a strip of kelp, a horseshoe crab, a gibbon, an old man, wrinkled and worn, his face like a wedding cake left out in the rain.

It is no mere vacation for the traveler. It is a Darwinian voyage, accomplished only at the ocean.

Why else would anyone brave the horror of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge?

In the weeks before the bridge opened on July 30, 1952, and quickly became a symbol of escape for millions in the mid-Atlantic region, William Preston Lane Jr. stood before the winding, rising steel stretching from Sandy Point to Kent Island and said, "I have taken my last ferry ride."

It was the moment he had been dreaming of. Lane ran for the governorship of Maryland in 1946 promising, once and for all, to artificially connect the state's mainland to the Delmarva peninsula. He had been a newspaper publisher in Hagerstown and an attorney. Now he was celebrated as a visionary, said one newspaper report, "who dared to tilt at windmills."

For decades the bridge, the very idea of it, had been a central issue of Maryland politics. There were countless objections. It would cost too much. It would ruin a way of life. It would kill the shipping industry. One Republican pol, John H. McFaul Jr., even suggested a bridge was a bad idea since the Russians could easily wipe it out with an atom bomb. Imagine what that would do to the traffic in the port of Baltimore? he telegrammed the secretary of defense. To this day there are Americans (motorists especially) who would be willing to do the job the Russians have neglected.

Lane won the election, took office in January 1947, and immediately began to supervise the planning and construction of the 4.3-mile, $44 million project. Herschel M. Allen, the chief engineer, designed a bridge that could withstand strong currents, shifting mud and winds of up to 125 mph. Pile drivers with an 18-ton "thump" rammed supports deep into the mud. The result is by no means magnificent; it lacks the charm of the Brooklyn, the drama of the Golden Gate. But the magic is there: the promise of the sea.

By the time the bridge was ready for traffic, Lane had been unseated by Theodore McKeldin. A state sales tax was the big issue this time; Lane was for it, McKeldin opposed it. Even a visionary could not win pushing more taxes.

Opening day on the bridge was hot and sultry. McKeldin rose to speak before a crowd of 10,000, the men in shirtsleeves, the women in cotton print dresses. The governor compared William Preston Lane to George Washington, praising his former opponent's persistence, his vision, his courage. "Of course, that was after the election," recalls Judge Lloyd (Hot Dog) Simpkins of Somerset County. "Before the election, McKeldin was comparing Lane to Benedict Arnold."

But the day went splendidly. After the speeches Lane and McKeldin rode across the bridge in an open car, leading a caravan of state legislators and honored guests to Kent Island, where they were greeted by a welcoming reception. The B&O Glee Club sang "Testament of Freedom," a band tooted "Maryland, My Maryland" and everyone looked out at the gleaming bridge, 42,000 tons of steel, 118,000 cubic yards of concrete and a cloudy future.

History was made that day. The Chesapeake Bay, 195 miles long and anywhere from 3 to 22 miles wide, had always been, in the words of a state planning commissioner, "a major psychological barrier . . . largely responsible for the isolation of the Eastern Shore from the rest of the state." The peninsula had always been dominated by farms, by fishing, by a sort of sweet dullness that only geography can provide. A trip across the bay required a ferry ride and time, lots of time. But now Delmarva, comprising all of Delaware and bits of Maryland and Virginia, was suddenly accessible.

On that day 32 years ago, all seemed right with the bridge. There were no traffic jams. There were no developers barging toward Rehoboth Beach with backhoes at the ready and greed in their eyes.

There were, in fact, no reports of acrophobia, the terror of heights that occasionally bites at modern-day travelers of the bridge. Indeed, after he drove across it, McKeldin said, "It's a magnificent bridge. You don't notice the height as you drive across it. You feel complete security."

He had no idea.

Friday afternoon in Sandy Point.

Ninety-two in the shade.

Hell on wheels, hell under the hood, hell for as far as the eye can see.

Signs along Rte. 50 announce that traffic information is available on car radios. The signs must be joking. Any lout can see that this is going to take 13 seconds short of forever. Before reaching the Shore, babies will be born and waddle, unadvisedly, from childhood into adolescence. World leaders will die. Joyce Carol Oates will publish a couple of books. In the time it takes the car to inch forward a dozen yards, developers in Ocean City will push a dozen more yards north toward Bethany, building, building, building. You can hear the jackhammers in the distance, like a whisper or a wish.

"In traffic like this," says "Hot Dog" Simpkins, "you can get lost forever. If you try to cross the bridge for a loaf of bread you might not get back till next Tuesday." A second span, of course, has been working side-by-side with the original since 1973. Spiro Agnew made the plans and Marvin Mandel cut the ribbon. But every year the traffic gets worse. In its first year, nearly 2 million vehicles crossed the bridge. The number is up to 13 million now. In the single square mile of Rehoboth Beach, city manager Greg Ferrese says the number of summer visitors has climbed from about 10,000 to 50,000 since the bridge was built.

Just before the bridge comes into view there are subtle intimations of marine life, advertisements for LIVE BAIT and OUTBOARD MOTORS. Busch's Chesapeake Inn, a windowless way station designed in haute World War II pillbox, decorates its concrete self with a pair of barnacle-encrusted anchors. Traffic is a linear gridlock. There is plenty of time to study the barnacles. Many are green.

As the bridge approaches, the road offers a flurry of fast repast: Wendy's, Denny's, Rustler, Roy Rogers and a curious McDonald's. Places to steel oneself for the climb to 190 feet above bay-level. These bistros are jammed with people dressed in the costumes of hope: bathing suits, Bermuda shorts, sailor caps, Topsiders. Some are already slathered with sun screen, as if the rays beating down on the Buick could somehow penetrate the tin and singe the skin. The place reeks with grease of all varieties.

And the hysteria! Children darting to the bathroom, quick as bees! Children chucking their pickles to the ground!

And the question that inspires murder in the hearts of parents:

Daaaaaaaddy! Mooooommy! When-are-we-gonna-get-there?

The adults resemble soldiers preparing for the Bataan Death March. They scarf triple-decker burgers as if there were no food on the Eastern Shore.

The McDonald's people have tapped the psychology with precision. On display are decorative pirate boats and strange statues of men who are part-pirate, part-hamburger, the oddest satyrs in existence.

There is one effect of true genius: An entire wall is papered with a photo of the shore. The waves are far more dramatic than anything seen in Rehoboth.

A tow-headed child stuffs french fries in his face and will not acknowledge his parents' reasonable request: "C'mon, Denny. Let's get in the car."

No, the child will not move. He is seized by the vision of the sea, the mantra of the surf. He will not avert his eyes. Soon he will be on water's edge, sitting like a baby Buddha in the sand.

But there are hours to go, and a bridge to cross.

In the beginning, there was the ferry. For nearly 200 years the ferries linked the Eastern Shore to the Western Shore. The list is extensive, and to some, as dramatic as a battle litany in "The Iliad": The Love Point Ferry, the Claiborne-Annapolis Ferry, the Annapolis-Matapeake Ferry, to name a few.

The Annapolis-Matapeake Ferry (which changed its western locus to Sandy Point in 1926) is the one most seem to remember vividly. When weather permitted, the ride took 40 minutes, says bridge aficionado and advertising executive Gilbert Sandler. There were a rudder and propeller on both sides, eliminating the need to turn around. There was room for about 70 cars. On the upper deck there was a lounge, a restaurant and a nickel candy machine.

Tom Ewing ran the concession stands at both the Annapolis and Sandy Point ferry slips. "You can bet I was sorry to see that bridge go up. People bought a lot of hot dogs and a lot of Cokes." Ewing's son, Tom Jr., remembers one summer Sunday when his father called the local distributor to hurry up and bring a dozen truckloads of soda.

"Yes, that bridge was the biggest change we've ever had and ever will have," Ewing pe re says. " 'Course, we're into the hotel and restaurant business now and things are very fine. You hear people say they wish the bridge had never gone up but I think that's mostly talk. It's gotten overcrowded and you hear crabbers complain that the tourists are crossing their lines and everything but I don't quite see how you can live in the old days forever."

The ferries died the day the ribbon fell.

The traffic jams at the bridge seem to inspire a weird sadism. Toll collectors, who strive to pluck around 400 payments an hour during peak times, are audience to a dark side of the human soul.

"We get a few oddballs, it's true," says Eloise King, the toll supervisor.

Some people pay their $1.25 in pennies, she says. Some stick the coins and bills together with gum or tar. Some throw the money at the collector, some "hand" it over between their toes. One Labor Day someone stuck a pin in a collector's outstretched palm.

Happily, many can endure a 10-mile "rolling backup" in the spirit of St. Francis. Toll collectors at the bridge have received carnations, bunches of bananas and watermelons. One regular, known as the "tin man," wraps his fare in foil.

If the jam induces fury, the bridge itself can sometimes lead to the highest of anxieties. When tires catch the metal grates in the center of the bridge, cars begin to thrum and buzz, and the whine is enough to drive the uninitiated to a roiling nausea. A police officer once had to pry a woman's fingers from the wheel, such was her phobia.

Gary Smith, executive secretary of the Maryland Transit Authority, says, "We get a lot of people who get about halfway up the bridge, right to the crest, and won't move. They freeze. We try to discourage it because it takes so much time to do, but we'll send a patrol car up and take them across. Drive overs, D.O.'s, we call them. One time we had a psychiatrist ask for free passage so he could keep riding back and forth over the bridge with his patient. 'Course we couldn't allow that. No one gets free passage."

At the end of the bridge there is a marina to the right, a cornfield to the left. Somewhere there is the briny smell, a hint of the sea.

Sunday, late afternoon on Kent Island.

Ninety-two in the shade.

In the distance the bridge is a dark filament across the water.

Agony in the car. The traveler's back and legs are charred, landscapes of exquisite pain. The children are reenacting the battle of Gallipoli in the back and the mate in the next seat is ceaselessly yapping. The traveler's fury is great. There is a sign: YOUR DEER CUT AND WRAPPED. The traveler considers a hunting expedition in his own Buick.

But there is much to be thankful for, much to soothe the soul. When the bridge first opened, the fare was $1.40 plus 25 cents for each additional passenger. Children are no longer asked to hide on the floor. If the tolls had gone the way of groceries, a motorist would need a loan guarantee before making passage. And there is, of course, the second span, providing five lustrous lanes in all. Maryland comptroller Louis Goldstein is even pushing for a parallel bridge to the south.

And so the traveler sags in his seat. The weekend has had its costs, certainly. A clogged propeller. A chipped tooth. An unspeakable incident concerning oysters. Two endless traffic snarls. That jellyfish.

The bridge is a symbol for all of that. But for all its terrors, for all the clamor it has brought to a quiet part of the world, for the all ugliness it has encouraged, the bridge has done a service to match all its ills. Another traveler has seen the secrets in the sea.