Today we begin a weekly series by reporter John Woestendiek that portrays the people, places and rituals that define summer at the beach.

Maybe you met your true love on it, or perhaps a false one. Maybe you rode your first Ferris wheel, drank your first beer or whacked your first mole. Likely, you've paused on its benches to gnaw on taffy, gobble fries by the bucketful or simply rest your feet. And quite possibly, you left with memories that - boosterish as it sounds - really have lasted a lifetime.

Even so, no one has taken more away from Ocean City's boardwalk than Yolanda Griffin.

She's been cleaning it for 17 years, sweeping up and disposing of the cigarette butts, plastic spoons, straws, french fries, caramel corn, half-eaten hot dogs and abandoned flip flops that end up fluttering across it, or wedged in the pencil-thin gaps between its boards.

Ocean City's boardwalk is not America's longest, nor its most famous, but it is quite possibly the cleanest, and the woman responsible for keeping it that way is as fondly protective of the 36-block-long expanse of wood as anyone.

"You like a clean house, right?" said the mother of five daughters as she rode her sweeping machine onto the boardwalk at 6 a.m., as she does every weekday in summer. "Just imagine this boardwalk being your house."

For the next three hours, Griffin criss-crossed the boardwalk's entire length, a block or two at a time, as the machine's bristle brushes whisked debris into a large bin that, in the thick of summer, has to be emptied twice or more before she completes her rounds.

On top of that, about once a week, the boardwalk gets a steamy scrub to remove more stubborn stains - used chewing gum, syrupy spills and dried gull and pigeon droppings among them.

It's a lot of bother for something that, physically, is nothing more than wood and nails - 823,000 board feet of the former, 26 tons of the latter.

But Ocean City's boardwalk - originally a few planks laid out to help tourists navigate the sand - has become much more than that, as the crowds that swarmed over it this weekend attest.

Part pathway, part symbol, it gets you where you want to go and reminds you that you're where you want to be; that school is out, that the party is on, that the rat race, at least for a few days, is over.

If you're young, it reminds you that life, much like the boardwalk - from its games of chance, to its all-you-can-eat smorgasbords, to the trail of planks unwinding into the distance - is spread out before you.

If you're young no more, there is no better place than the boardwalk to remind you that you once were - to jog a memory or spark a vicarious thrill.

If you're a shop owner, it's a lifeline, funneling thousands of shoppers with time on their hands and money in their pockets past stores whose merchandise spills out onto it - T-shirts, pizza slices, arcade games, kites, beach towels, jewelry, taffy, towels, tattoos or tanning lotion.

And if you're Ocean City, the boardwalk is your showpiece - the thing that, maybe even more than the ocean, defines you.

The boardwalk is Memory Lane, Easy Street, Road to Ruin and Highway to Heaven - all rolled into one, then laid out, plank by pressure-treated plank, along 2.5 miles of Maryland's oceanfront.

It is made of pine; enough, were it still in tree form, to cover about 30 acres of forest. The town spends about $100,000 a year replacing 16-foot lengths of pressure-treated 2-by-6s.

Given the foot, tram, bicycle and roller-skate traffic, the sea salt, high winds and blowing sand, each plank has a life span of about 15 years.

"It takes a rough beating," said Bruce Gibbs, head of maintenance for the town's public works department, which once experimented with staining the wood to prolong its life, but quickly decided it wouldn't be cost-effective.