Long Island Surprise: My Trip to Montauk Point
My friend insisted that the same island which held Brooklyn and Queens had remote and sunny beaches and a romantic, windswept lighthouse on its opposite side. I said that was crazy.
“If there’s a romantic lighthouse on Long Island,” I said, “it’s an abandoned smokestack with a cell phone tower planted on top of it.”
My friend then assumed a look of defiant determination.
“If I’m right,” she told me, “I want you to promise to kiss my….”
“I’ll kiss it,” I said before she even finished the sentence. Of course I knew I wouldn’t be kissing anything. It didn’t matter what sort of creative anatomical ending she put there. My lips were safe with me.
At LaGuardia airport a clerk at a cheap rental car counter took thirty minutes to locate a car. Then there was a fire across the street on 23rd Avenue and several buildings were quickly turning into piles of ash. The road was shut down and news of a massive wreck on the Long Island Expressway necessitated a long head-scratching study of the maps on my phone. I turned on several avenues in Queens until I came to an expressway that actually had moving traffic on it, and I moved in exactly the opposite direction from the one I needed to go in until traffic came to a standstill. A highway overpass had been shut down and there were sirens. Apparently a body had just been chucked out of the side of a van, over the bridge and gotten splattered on several windshields.
“I won’t be kissing anything any time soon,” I informed my defeated friend.
Two hours later, I had finally reversed course and was going east on I-495. For at least forty-five minutes there had been no evidence of arson, bombings, wrecks, murders, suicides, police-chases or ambulances. It was mid-morning and the land everywhere around was wooded and green. At a village called Manorville I left the main highway and was soon in one of the seaside villages making up the “Hamptons”, a cluster of settlements in and around the incorporated towns of Southhampton and East Hampton.
Already I knew I had left New York City far behind me and passed into a unique region not quite rural, not quite suburban, not quite New England, and not quite European: a green patchwork of pastoral estates fringed by neatly trimmed hedges, large oak trees and quiet town squares. I stopped in a place to ask where was the best place to see a beach.
“The town beach is fine,” a lady in a small ice cream stand told me. “Ignore all the signs which say if you park there you’ll pay a million dollar fine, surrender your firstborn, and swing from a bar in Sing Sing. That’s only during the season.”
It was the end of October and the “season” was long over. Though that Saturday was sunny and mild, only one other vehicle was parked by the dunes of the Westhampton Beach. I wasn’t so dense and culturally backward that I didn’t realize “The Hamptons” would be loaded with massive glitzy mansions frequented by filthy rich Caucasians from the city: however, before I clambered over a dune to see the shoreline I didn’t expect to feel any sense of remoteness or isolation. I was amazed by what I saw.
A long stretch of cream colored sand buffeted by a sparkling blue Atlantic ocean met my gaze. Almost no human soul was visible from one end of the horizon to the other. I walked for an hour and met only a single woman. Fresh from recent plastic surgery, the woman seemed happy someone was around to admire her investment in bathing attire. “Nice weather we’re having today!” she said in passing, pausing to let me see what the surgeon had wrought.
The homes along the shoreline, of the “Saltbox” variety, were patterned after one of the mainstays of Colonial American architecture. The Saltbox house has a long sloping roof on one side, tapering from a two-story structure on the top to a single-story on the lower part of the slope. The sight of the occasional wooden empress overlooking the dunes of the beach was a quaint complement to the natural scenery, which led me to believe I might need to practice puckering my lips.
“Are you ready to kiss my…”
“No, not yet,” I said. “I still haven’t seen the ‘romantic’ lighthouse yet!”
“Let’s go there now.”
Once we returned to the main road I began to see the alluring destination of our journey: MONTAUK. The Montauk Highway, extending to the furthermost reach of Long Island’s eastern finger, passed through vineyards, oat fields, potato fields and, yes, a large Pumpkin Patch, “Hank’s Pumpkintown”. Traffic slowed to a standstill. The population of several villages and hamlets crowded by a cluster of barns, barrels, carts, playground equipment and souvenir stands next to thousands of pumpkins rolling in mud. Because my car wasn’t moving anywhere, I decided to park and wait for Hank. When Hank didn’t show up, I walked into a spent cornfield by the pumpkins, plucked off a couple of ears and chewed on them until the traffic on the Montauk Road began to slacken.
“I won’t be kissing anything,” I told my friend. “That beach was a big exception.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
We took a detour to Sag Harbor, a fishing village situated on the north side of the southern “finger” of Long Island. Protected from the stormy Atlantic, it was once a great whaling village and during the time of the American Revolutionary war was a busier port than New York. It was often the first landing port for vessels inbound from Europe, and a great customs house was established there. Walking along the harbor filled with sails and yachts, the shady streets flanked by 300-year old mansions, and the old stores slid into narrow crevices between inns and pubs, I began to think I needed to practice puckering again. This was a two-hour drive from New York, but I imagined that I had been on a spaceship and gone to another galaxy.
Back on the Montauk Highway again, I began to be haunted by the word: MONTAUK. I admit, it did look fascinating on a map: a little dot on the pensinsula, the land’s end, the spot where New York looked out eternally toward its motherlands on the opposite shore of the Atlantic. The trees grew spotty, the road hilly, and in places the sea was visible on both sides of the sandy finger of land as it grew narrower. The road swerved, bucked, twisted and fell again to the treeless moors of sand around Montauk. The village came and went, along with a sign that the Long Island Rail Road actually had a station here. A train still runs to this remote outpost from the nerve center of creation on the other side of the island.
At last we could go no further. The road ended and there was indeed a great lighthouse on the point, dating from the time of George Washington: the Montauk Point Light. The wild sea lashed madly against the rocks around it: a near kin to the remote shore of Maine. Erosion is a severe problem in these violent elements, and the lighthouse has been threatened with demolition or removal to a safer position further inland, before the sea is allowed to topple it.
I looked at the lighthouse and saw no evidence of a cell phone tower or a factory anywhere around. There was only water, the rocks, the primal force of the sea, the brine and muck of maritime life. It was, indeed, as romantic a spot as I had ever seen: more romantic than a Roman ruin or a Paris cathedral.
“OK, you win,” I conceded to my friend. “At the next opportunity I will kiss your…”
© 2015 James Crawford