Montauk

Long Island lives up to its name. The peninsula that juts from New York City and takes off for the Atlantic Ocean is freakishly long and narrow, something that leaps at you when you decide to drive to ‘The End’ that is Montauk, at the easternmost tip of the island. The drive appears to spans several eras and that is not a piffling matter if you happen to take a few detours. Such as a Costco with a fuel station in the Long Island town of Amityville. And since your ears perked up at the sound of Amityville, like a dog at the patter of his human’s feet outside the door, you threw in a mile-long diversion to the iconic haunted house in the same town. At the end of it, you found a house that looked awfully different, an alter-ego you had not been prepared for. You left it behind, feeling foolish about this deviation from the original plan especially because it was chased by a flat tire on the highway.

Self-pity being a worthy cultivated art, you would tend to feel sorry for yourself, till you overheard two mustachioed bikers who had parked their superbikes upon the same highway as you. One of them had lost his phone somewhere on the highway.

What are the chances of someone being worse off than you? Misery loves company.

It took us around five hours, including this hairy turn of events, and another diversion to the Long Island airport to exchange the car at the rental agency there.

We had greyed before reaching Montauk.

The day that had started on a liquid sunny, and indeed hot note, suddenly turned upon us. The skies were sullen by the time we chanced upon a quiet beach tucked into a surprisingly unpretentious hamlet called Amangansett. A surprise because the rest of Long Island, for the most part, is sprinkled with these pish-posh towns. Amangansett means ‘the place of good water’, as it was deemed by the Montaukett Indian tribes who founded it. A pair of Dutch brothers and the descendants of English settlers bought the land from the Montauketts in the late 1600s and developed the genteel place that we saw that day.

The ocean breeze was frigid as Adi, his sister, and I, walked past pale teenage boys just returned to their cars with their surfboards. The white sands of Amangansett were pristine and powdery. Sinking my feet into the luxuriously soft sands felt therapeutic as the cold breeze teased the hair into a glorious abandon. Only a handful of people sat around lounging on beach chairs. And a Bernedoodle who sat on his haunches, with his bum to the sea. Rows of low lying houses looked down upon the beach.

The landscape beyond the beach threw up sand dunes, some out-of-place modern estates tucked into wooded quarters, and farmland. We soon left behind this old whaling town where in 1942 four German spies had been dropped off by a submarine to stage a Nazi attack on the US.

We were back on the Old Montauk Highway that is supposed to be a scenic route. Naturally, we expected to cruise along the coast, but that way lay disappointment. Sure we passed through photogenic towns such as Southampton, Bridgehampton and Water Mill but most properties were tucked in behind tall hedgerows and all you got was an eyeful of the buzzing little town centres with their line-up of all the chic bars and restaurants you could be noshing at.

Right at the end of it all was Montauk. Finally. The former home of the Montauketts, and later, the settlers who drove sheep and cattle along the bluffs that crawl into the Atlantic. Then the fishermen. And now, the folks from Manhattan who like to spend their evenings drinking local brews at the intensely alive Gig Shack in town. While the town centre is rife with places to eat, drink, and shop, with some fine boutiques selling quality souvenirs and clothing, the real feel of it was to be had at the tip of the land. An isolated place with its 18th century white and red lighthouse standing guard over the hump of a cliff that sweeps into the ocean – seemingly far from the trample of fashionable people who have adopted the rest of the island for their own.

You could almost find yourself whisked to another time, walking along the edge of that 200-year-old lighthouse, to a Walt Whitman-esque time when according to the native Long Islander, the eastern end of Long Island was a “relief from the trammels of fashion”. It was here at Montauk Point where Whitman had daydreamed and been consumed by the wildness of his surroundings that later spilled into a short poem.

“I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak,
Eastward the sea absorbing, viewing, (nothing
but sea and sky)
The tossing waves, the foam, the ships in the
distance,
The wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps—that
inbound urge and urge of waves,
Seeking the shores forever.”

Here where the crowds were thin even on the eve of summer, for a brief while, my hair hopelessly tangled in the ocean breeze, I thought I was on Walt Whitman’s Long Island.
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The Amityville House on Ocean Avenue
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Amangansett
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Aforementioned Bernedoodle at Amangansett
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Montauk Point
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Eastern tip of Long Island
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The oldest lighthouse in NY State
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Siblings
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…and us (P.C.: Anuradha Varma).

 

 

 

Pottering About Long Island

On Veterans Day, November 11th, we drove to the Hamptons and passed beneath Old Glory, the humongous American free-flying flag — it happens to be the largest in the world — unfurled from the arch top of George Washington Bridge which happens to be the busiest bridge in the world connecting New York with New Jersey. It was an impressive sight – the flag that is unfurled on special occasions like Veterans Day when countrymen honour their military personnel in the US. In the UK on this day everyone wears red poppies to remember the sacrifices made by a few for the many. Remembrance Day. It is a special thing when a nation remembers for not every nation does.

Beds of rust & golden leaves lay thick upon woods that marked the way to The Hamptons, the exclusive playground of the upper echelons of society, where during summer the Serenas and Nates (ref: Gossip Girl) take a break from the hectic pace of the city, where rosé flows like water, and where an Emily Thorne stands upon quiet beaches contemplating the machinations of destruction (ref: Revenge). There is irony in equating Revenge with the Hamptons. For most of the estates were shot in North Carolina except for the exterior of the Graysons’ manor which is situated in the heart of East Hampton.

Now the Hamptons are a cluster of villages and towns. The names keep popping up as you keep upon one straight road, passing by orange fields of pumpkins, houses tucked into woods and a profusion of old churches. Hampton Bays, Southampton, Quogue, North Sea, Bridgehampton, Shinnecock Hills, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor are a roll-call of names that you come upon, some of them obviously Native American in origin. Here there are waterfront properties that start well above a few million dollars, boasting of gently aged modernism. Bakeries which sell loaves of bread that might cost 12 bucks but hey they are organic and conscious about what they put on the shelves. And here they do not encourage Uber. Instead there is a Hampton Hopper, mint green school buses that operate between Montauk and Sag Harbor.

It was frightfully cold when we came upon Sag Harbor, a tiny 18th-century village with a whaling tradition. It was home to John Steinbeck, at least two artists chose to end their life within its beautiful environs — one succeeded, the other did not — and then there are Moby Dick references. Queequeg had arrived in Sag Harbor to acquaint himself with the sailor’s life in the village. There are old whaling churches and broken mast tokens to remember the whalers lost to the sea. It reminded me a wee bit of Synge’s Riders to the Sea though the geographical location in that play ridden with overtones of fatalism was Inishmaan in the Aran Islands of Ireland. We shivered upon the pier of Sag Harbor with its lovely old windmill with plaques to recall the names associated with the village and then carried on to Southampton which was deserted on that phenomenally cold evening.

The oldest English settlement in Long Island, Southampton, had English folk arrive there from Massachusetts in the 1640s. They took over a few square miles in town from the Shinnecock Indian Nation, an Algonquin-speaking tribe, which received corn, coats, areas reserved for their use and the assurance that the English would defend them, ‘the sayed Indians from the unjust violence of whatever Indians shall illegally assaile us’.

We had a taste of Southampton’s old English vibes with the department store of Hildreth’s (the name says it all) which was started by one of the settler families from Massachusetts in the 1800s. Treading the old wooden floors of the store, we scanned the walls with their rows of old deeds and documents, sepia photos of men with sideburns and beards, chunks peeling off from the photos in ghostly whites, and images of horse driven wagons carrying goods from ships that docked at neighbouring Sag Harbor. A long time ago we might have come upon old whaling harpoons and buffalo hides, but today the oldest piece you would chance upon is a 5′ tall coffee grinder that is unlike any you have seen.

The other aspect of its past showed up on the two-lane Montauk Highway with a procession of cigarette shops glinting in the gathering dark, a sudden change of mood from the glamorous to a ramshackle existence. The Indian Reservation in Long Island. And then again the quiet poshness of the Hampton Bays. A runner pounding the pavements on a dark stretch braving the fierce bite of the evening. The contrast never more pronounced upon the eyes of the curious traveller – that life is but about living the gap between the promise and the reality.

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