The vital artery that brings Ocean City to life is a wooden Boardwalk that traces 2 1/2 miles of Atlantic Ocean beach, ushering throngs of vacationers past an array of T-shirts, treats and amusements.
It is home to joggers and bikers, to sun worshippers and to the boardwalk tram. It carries visitors to the arcades, the cotton candy and the sea.
By most accounts, the Boardwalk is the town's most important economic asset - after the ocean.
"The Boardwalk is the first or second main attraction here," said Bill Gibbs, owner of the Dough Roller restaurants. "Everyone likes to walk the Boardwalk. I think so many people have come to Ocean City and enjoyed the Boardwalk that they want to bring their children back. That's why we thrive."
The town spends about $500,000 a year to keep its treasure clean and maintained.
Recently, Ocean City received an unexpected reward for its efforts when the attraction was featured on the Travel Channel program America's Favorite Boardwalks, which also covered those of Coney Island, N.Y., Venice Beach/Santa Monica, Calif., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Atlantic City, N.J. The program praised Ocean City for having a beautiful beach and a rich tradition, and for offering fun for the whole family.
"As soon as that aired, we were getting calls and e-mails from people who either never had been here and wanted to visit or who hadn't been in years," said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the town's tourism office.
Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association and author of two books on amusement parks, says Ocean City's Boardwalk is one of his favorites.
"There's a nice balance in Ocean City," Futrell said of the Boardwalk, which was extended to its current length in 1962. "It has that carnival, honky-tonk atmosphere, but it's not overwhelming."
Trimper Rides and Amusements is a key part of the Boardwalk's appeal, he said.
"It's like a living museum of antique kiddie rides," Futrell said. "They all look like they were uncrated yesterday. They're so well maintained."
Every boardwalk has its personality, with intangibles that defy simple explanation, he said.
"It has a really nice atmosphere," Futrell said of Ocean City's Boardwalk. "It's one of the cleaner boardwalks I've seen. It's well maintained."
At the forefront of the town's first line of defense against trash are maintenance personnel such as Kendall Briddell and Cliff Stuart. They've seen it all, from clothes to jewelry to knives to the Halloween skull that someone discarded.
"Our job is when people make a mess to clean it up," said Briddell, who has worked for the town for about five years. "It's supposed to be a family resort, and we try to do our best to keep it clean."
Nearly all of the cleaning is done early each morning, long before vacationers hit the beach.
"We treat this as if it's our home," said Stuart. "Then we try to get out of the way so they can enjoy it. They really don't know what goes into this."
Sometimes crewmembers wonder whether items were discarded by mistake.
Within a few minutes one recent morning, they had found a wedding band with multiple diamonds, an ornate, ceramic dragon and unopened sunglasses.
High school and college rings often turn up on the beach or in the trash. When they do, an attempt is generally made to send the ring back to the school in hopes of finding its owner, said Bruce Gibbs, superintendent of Ocean City's maintenance department.
About 10 years ago, his department searched unsuccessfully for an $8,000 diamond that had been lost near the carousel, he said.
"We've popped boards and found rings for people," said Gibbs, whose brother, Bill, owns the Dough Roller restaurants. "They have a feel for where it slipped off. I blame suntan lotion. They mark the spot and call us. We've been pretty successful."
Such mini-dramas play out at least a half dozen times a summer, he said.
Keeping the boardwalk clean is a seven-day-a-week job. Crews start at 5 a.m. , whisking trash away with mini-brooms. An hour later, a crew fine-cleans the Boardwalk where equipment can't reach. Trashcans are emptied, and specialized scrubbers clean the wooded section and the tram lane.
From 7:30 p.m. until the early morning hours, the beach is raked to make sure the sand is ready for the next day's sunbathers. Sanitizing machines pick up 2 to 4 inches of sand and sift it back onto the beach free of any solid items.
Twice a week, crews pressure wash and steam clean benches, trashcans and other areas that machines can't reach.
Gibbs' department - responsible for the Boardwalk, the nearby streets, the beach, bathrooms and parking lot - operates with a crew of 36 full-time employees and grows by 60 employees in the summer.
Bob Stipe, another fulltime employee, is in charge of the hundreds of signs that adorn the Boardwalk, installing banners for events and checking the climbable wooden beach toys each morning to make sure they are safe for children.
As a sign technician, Stipe must be ready to replace signs that people swipe for souvenirs.
Sign thefts are more rampant in some years than in others, he said. Sometimes he can't make them fast enough.
"In the summertime it gets pretty crazy," he said. "They come down, and they like to take a piece of Ocean City with them."
Keeping up with the events - which now number 70 - is another huge part of his job. Stipe and his co-workers must be ready for surfing contests, pet walks, car shows, Springfest, holiday light shows and other activities.
"Now it's busy 12 months out of the year," Gibbs said. "That's the biggest change I've seen from what used to be."
Keeping the Boardwalk intact is a never-ending project. The 2 by 6 diagonal decking boards are continually in need of replacement.
This year, Gibbs has asked for $1 million budget - double the usual $500,000 - to replace trash cans, benches and streets lights on a third of the Boardwalk. He said 497 benches, 252 trashcans and three clocks line the boardwalk.
For the town's maintenance crew, caring for the Boardwalk is a lifestyle choice.
"They realize that summer is summer, and they have to adjust their home lives," Gibbs said. "They miss a lot of cookouts. On the Fourth of July, we work just about around-the-clock."
Most vacationers would be amazed if they saw the Boardwalk before its daily grooming, he said.
"If you look at it early in the morning before we get there, you wouldn't believe there could be that much trash," he said.
Gibbs would know. He often cruises the Boardwalk at 3 a.m. on weekdays and weekends.
"I ride down every morning, and if there's something wrong it sticks out, whether it's a crooked bench or a trashcan facing the wrong way," he said.
Although Gibbs gets about a dozen complaints a year, he likes to focus on the thank you notes his office receives from visitors complimenting the beach and Boardwalk.
"If it's clean and it's maintained, that's what brings people back, and that's our goal," he said.
There is something timeless about Ocean City's Boardwalk that keeps people coming back, many who care for it agree.
"It's the smells," said Abbott of the town's tourism office. "It's the sights. It's the sounds. I think it just brings out the kid in everyone. I'm never sad when I'm on that Boardwalk. It makes you smile."