As Debbie Myers drives Rte. 50 to Ocean City, Md., each weekend, she is always on the lookout for her favorite landmarks.
There's the Tidewater Inn in Easton. There's Last Chance Liquors near the Choptank River bridge. And east of Cambridge, there's the church that welcomes passers-by with a painted rainbow and the giant sign, "Jesus Is Lord."
"I always have to defend Rte. 50 to people who find it miserable," said Myers, an employe with the Prince George's County government who drives to the shore every weekend to visit a friend. "But I'm really fond of it. I use it to clear my mind."
These are the busy days along Rte. 50 -- the Sunburst Highway, the Ocean Gateway, the road that leads to the beach. During the summer, the volume of traffic on the flat, 98-mile stretch from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Ocean City more than doubles to an average of 50,000 cars a day. And while many beachgoers scorn Rte. 50 in favor of obscure back roads, it remains the most heavily traveled route.
Landmarks seem to play a particularly important role in the driving of Rte. 50.
They are used to mark off time. (Cambridge means Ocean City's an hour away; once you reach Salisbury, a half hour's left.) They become favorite stopping places for no real reason. ("Every Friday night and Sunday night, I'm at the McDonald's in Cambridge," Myers said. "That's my rest break.") And they are often something curious or interesting that have caught the eye once and become a special symbol to look for each time you pass again. (The white igloo east of Easton that advertises a frozen-food plant.)
Rte. 50 is actually a continent-spanning highway, extending more than 3,000 miles from Ocean City to Sacramento, Calif. In the District, it is better known as New York Avenue; in Virginia, Arlington Boulevard.
But on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it has a separate identity: once vacationers cross the bay bridge, they feel they are already in a different world. The scenery, spread out over five counties, is schizophrenic -- part country, part tourist invention. Even the convenience stores sell live bait.
Easton, otherwise known as an affluent resort town, is probably more clearly fixed in the minds of beachgoers as the first fast food strip encountered on the route. There, in rapid succession, they pass a McDonald's, a Wendy's, a Burger King, a Golden Corral, a Pizza Hut, a Dairy Queen, a Tastee-Freez and a Mister Donut. And the parking lot is always full at Chesapeake Pottery, a new warehouse near Queenstown featuring brass, linen, housewares, silk flowers, Oriental rugs and a year-round Christmas shop.
"I think of 50 as country blight," said Allan Stypeck, who owns several Washington area secondhand bookstores and vacations each weekend at Dewey Beach, Del. "It's lost its aesthetic quality. I glaze completely over."
Raymond Mills would disagree. For 27 years, Mills Antiques on the edge of Cambridge, south of Easton, has been a landmark of sorts for some beach travelers.
A small, quick-moving, talkative man who always wears a cap, Mills numbers Bette Davis, Sophia Loren and comedian Jerry Lewis' first wife among his famous customers. His wares include baby food jars filled with old buttons and dinner plates celebrating the 1964 World's Fair and the State of Texas.
But his specialty is books. They range from 1810 French literature to Pat Boone's 1958 teen advice book, "Twixt Twelve and Twenty."
"If we haven't got it, you don't need it," Mills said.
He pointed to the license tags plastering one wall of his shop. "Seven more and I'll have one from every state," he said, "and I know where to get them as soon as the man comes in."
Diane Prettyman and Teresa Coburn also view the Rte. 50 throngs with favor. Their "T's Produce," 15 miles east of Salisbury, is another popular stop -- not just a produce stand, but also a produce complex with red-and-white-striped buildings and carts. Big signs advertise hot dogs, soft ice cream, chair-caning, corn on the cob and " 'Lopes."
"I like the vacationers," Prettyman said recently. "They're always in a real good mood, unless they're too sunburned."
Other places tourists notice and use as points of reference in their travels include The Thinking Man's Market outside Salisbury, the store on the country stretch near Cambridge that advertises "100 percent pure buffalo meat," and the outdoor market near Easton that sells flamingos, birdbaths and small yard statues.
Even Stypeck, who avoids most of Rte. 50 in his drives, admits to one favorite landmark -- Mrs. B's Truck Stop near Queenstown, past the bay bridge before Rte. 50 extends south. He likes the pies and the crab soup and the virtual absence of other tourists.
"I stop once going up and once going down, and the trip is ruined if I don't," he said recently. "The only danger on Rte. 50 is that I'll forget where I am and lose my bearings and miss Mrs. B's."