All that being the case, there is little more I love than being in the presence of the ocean, in all of its massive, surging, limitless glory. Coming from the Plains, I grew up in a landscape where the flat, empty land stretched out horizon to horizon underneath an impossibly huge sky. I miss that feeling of open-ness, of being able to sense the curve to the earth. I only get that nowadays when I go to the ocean.
The great thing about the Shore is that it easily accommodates my need to walk by the ocean while avoiding the beach with its greatest feature: the boardwalk. My favorite is probably Asbury Park's, a faded jewel with honest to goodness ruins but some hardy new businesses sprouting up, including a pinball arcade full of vintage machines. It is a broken place, but full of poetry and ghosts, a great muse to those willing to listen. Bruce Springsteen got his start there, as the title of his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey, attests. The bands no longer play in front of the gutted Casino referenced in his song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," but you can hear their faint echoes if you listen hard enough.
Of course, most people go to the Shore for fun in the sun, not to meditate on mortality. If you want the living spirit of the shoreline boardwalk, then go to Wildwood, a boardwalk so wide and long that tram cars take people up and down it, since walking the whole distance is not advised in the summer heat. When Springsteen sings of Asbury Park, it is wistful and full of longing. Those emotions are practically banned in Wildwood, where the representative song is the exuberant, poppy "Wildwood Days" by Bobby Rydell. Here, as in other spots, like Point Pleasant or Seaside Heights, there are innumerable arcades, tattoo parlors, cheap t-shirt shops, and sideshow attractions. Of course, there's also the amusement park rides on the pier, rising above the water in the crisp ocean air. It's no mistake that the submerged roller coaster in Seaside Heights after Sandy brought it crashing into the briny deep became the iconic symbol in this state of what the storm hath wrought.
Wildwood is the place to be for cheap, tacky entertainment and fun, and in that respect mirrors New Jersey's ability to maintain some of life's smaller pleasures that have faded away elsewhere. The Garden State has a bad reputation, stemming mostly from its proximity to a major media capital whose residents are some of the most smugly self-satisfied folks on the planet earth. Of course New Jersey is not Manhattan, but what is? In any case, Manhattan is quickly becoming a giant strip of Duane Reade stores, Starbucks, Bank of America outlets, and prohibitively expensive apartments. New Jersey has managed to maintain a culture of small-time enterprises, despite corporate America's best efforts. The highways are dotted with local diners, like they used to be in the Nebraska of my youth. Only idiots order pizza from one of the chains, rather than one of the panoply of amazing local places. That spirit is visible in Wildwood, from the rinky-dink arcades with skee balls as old as your grandparents to the famous range of small, mid-century hotels in all their neon-encrusted glory.
While I like cheap thrills as much as the next person, when we went to the shore this time we visited Wildwood while staying at a hotel in the much statelier Cape May, which had its origins first in whaling, and next as a seaside retreat for the Victorian bourgeoisie. Here the ghosts are of a different sort than in Asbury Park, donning corsets and tweed rather than leather jackets and engineer boots. The restored, lushly decorated homes from the 1880s sure are nice, but nothing beats my favorite part of being there: sitting on a hotel balcony, feeling the full, cool force of a nighttime sea breeze after a long hot day of family fun. Maybe it's because I grew up feeling the prairie winds blast down the Rockies across the arid Plains, but that ocean breeze puts my mind at ease like nothing else, and I can't wait to get back.