Iwasn't far past Salisbury on Route 50 (the Ocean Gateway, the small green signs told me) when the billboards loomed into view. Huge messengers come to greet me. They were highlighted against the dark green pines that flank the road and form a neat corridor interrupted now and then by turn-offs for Parsonsburg, Pittsville and Whaleysville. I drove on between these characters from Don Quixote's mind.
To the right a gargantuan palm tree beckoned me to stay for $39 a night; to the left a shapely 50-foot woman in a 20-foot bikini coaxed me to play golf with her. Farther ahead I could see a plywood hot-air balloon rising up from its steel-truss tether. All that was missing were a few Burma Shave ads. I drove on learning more about where I could play, where I could eat, where I could drink, where I could sleep.
Gradually my education was replaced by doubts. Did I really need this advertising blitz on my way to a relaxing vacation? Wouldn't I prefer the rustic beauty of the Shore's pines over the rusty shouts of the billboards? After all, the 27-mile cruise from Salisbury to Ocean City is a pleasant shot through flat farmland dotted with dense copses of oak and maple amid windbreaks of white pine.
An indication of how beautiful the ride could be is available on Route 90, a few miles to the north of Route 50. This alternate RTC path to the ocean is so free of advertising that, had travelers no idea where they were, they'd gasp at the sight of Ocean City as it appeared suddenly across Assawoman Bay like the Miami skyline on the opening shot from ''The Honeymooners.''
That's not so on the Ocean Gateway. Here, motorists find themselves besieged with Madison Avenue monsters. Here they receive ample warning that they are fast approaching the second-largest city in Maryland on a summer weekend.
I guess it's a simple case of the businesses advertising on these billboards counting on a lot of vacillating vacationers heading to blue-collar south Ocean City. Certainly enough is spent on the signs. Leases range from $200 a month for a poster-panel billboard to several thousand dollars a month for the large, high-exposure painted signs.
Judging from the extremely small turnover rate in the leases, businesses put stock in this advertising. One radio station has advertised on its billboard since it came on the air in 1978.
No doubt, then, the billboards do their share in fueling back-seat squabbles about where to tune the dial or what rib joint to visit. To the advertisers it's competition, American-style.
Philosophically speaking, the billboards aren't much about business at all. The true impact of the signs is not in their message but in their symbolism. For the travelers on Route 50, they represent the completion of a journey which took them from one Maryland bay to another.
As a small child in the early 1960s, lying down in the back seat, I had no other way of knowing if my family and I were ''there yet'' except for the sight of the billboards outside the skylight of my Dad's Buick cruiser.
With their size, color, and gaudiness, they also mirror the approaching city. In ancient Rome, citizens of the empire judged they were nearing the Eternal City when they began seeing garbage and junk beside the road. So does this profusion of advertising clinging to a strip of roadway announce the town ahead.
Maybe they are like the giant glasses of Doctor T. J. Eckelburg in ''The Great Gatsby,'' looking down on the passing travelers headed for New York City, viewing little lives pass by. Or maybe, like the skeeball parlors and gigantic stuffed animals, boardwalk Elvis and sand sculpture of Jesus, they are merely role players in a ritualized drama acted out every summer weekend by tens of thousands of Marylanders.
Or perhaps they're simply friendly messengers come to greet us, heralding fun and pleasant living ahead. In that case let the billboards stay. No sense in killing the messenger.
David H. Britton writes from Baltimore.