The Nostalgic Traveler: Your Ocean City Memory Starts Here

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I didn’t really intend to go to Ocean City.

I had been in New York City for the summer, and I was driving home to North Carolina. I often stop in Maryland when I make this drive because it’s a perfect midway point, a place neither south nor north. On my drive up in June, I had stayed in Annapolis, in a hotel room overlooking a military cemetery. Orderly lines of white headstones and impeccably maintained grass. And now I was at the beach.

Few motels had vacancies. Eventually, I found one: the Safari Motel. The lobby was decorated with African masks and potted palm trees. A taxidermy lioness stared down at me from the mezzanine, as if wondering how she had found herself in this place.

Lined with white lampposts, the boardwalk ran behind the motel, dividing it from a beach covered in striped umbrellas and sunbathers on towels. The sand was the color of toast. Seagulls dove at my head, scavenging dropped nachos and globs of Velveeta. And in the distance, beyond the kites, the parasailors were dragged across the sky.

The key to my room was an actual key with a plastic tag marked 11. Room 11 hadn’t changed in a half a century. I set my bag down on the pale yellow polyester bedspread printed with tropical flowers and palm fronds.

I decided to drive out to a resort called Fager’s Island on the Assawoman Bay for dinner. It was nestled into wetlands, its buildings connected by wooden footpaths.

The main bar and deck were crowded, so I asked for a table in the “fine dining” restaurant, and the host sat me close to the glass wall that overlooked the bay. All around me, couples and families in semi-formal attire sipped colorful cocktails and ate steak, lobster tails, and crab cakes. In the corner, a table of middle-aged women drank chardonnay, their hair frosted and set from rollers. One tugged at her beaded necklace.

In the background, Frank Sinatra crooned. I sipped my wine and looked out at the bridge that stretched low across the bay. Car headlights streamed towards town. I scanned the menu, searching for an overpriced burger.

Then Sinatra was cut off. A waitress rushed up to my table.

“The sun is about to set!” she said. All around me, people took out their iPhones.

When Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture came over the loudspeakers at high volume, it made me jump, but I seemed to be the only person who was surprised. A few people clapped and cried out, and then the room fell silent. Everyone held their phones (and a few iPads) up in front of their faces, pressed record, and watched the sun drop below the horizon, glancing back and forth between the real thing and its glowing image on their devices.

The moment the sun disappeared, the Overture stopped, Sinatra came back on, and everyone set down their phones and burst into applause. A man at the table next to mine nodded approvingly: the sun had put on a magnificent performance. His dining companion scrolled through her photos as she ate her pork chop and baked potato. For some time afterward, I could hear distant and tinny recordings of the Overture emanate from devices all over the room as the scene was replayed.

Driving back to the motel, I passed a sign that read:


I wondered what my Ocean City memory was and whether all memories started in a physical place. Perhaps we trace our memories back to places in order to root them in something visible and concrete – a location to which we can return. The diners at Fager’s Island knew that the sunset was their Ocean City memory, and trusting that it would be a good one, they had come to claim it. But I wondered if memories could be guaranteed by a sign, or by a photograph, or by anything else.

Before I went to bed, I walked out on the beach and sat close to the edge of the water, where the sand was still wet and pockmarked with holes from the umbrellas. Behind me, along the boardwalk, stacks of lounge chairs awaited tomorrow’s crowds. I took off my shoes and gazed out at the black distance until I was tired.

I knew it was the end of summer, and when I got back to my Safari-themed room, I knew what the sign meant, too. It wasn’t telling me that memories were about to start, here or anywhere else. It was telling me that everything was already a memory, that it was all already past.


Featured photo by Patrick Nouhailler.


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