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).

 

 

 

Snippets From Wears Valley

The road below the cabin dipped alarmingly. So sudden was this drop that it felt like rolling down a playground slide in tar. This road then led us on a serpentine drive up and down the mountains, past burnt-out trees, skeletal and stripped enough that it was a surprise they were standing at all. Half-built cabins too. A reminder that all it takes is a wildfire for every effort of man to be laid to waste (but here we are, creatures of toil and industry). The green was so very green, the hills with their stubbles of bluish-green startling, the sky thick with batches of clouds who could not make up their mind if they wanted to stay or go. Some settled atop the peaks to catch a breath before they dissolved into tears. The fancy of the clouds. In the Smoky Mountains, you will find that there is no guarantee. The rain clouds, they gather upon your heads in a jiffy. Before you think of the shortest swear, they let loose, and when they do, you’d better find a roof of some sort.

Before I get ahead of myself, we found ourselves in Wears Valley that runs parallel to the Smoky Mountains. Once a theater of squabbles between the Cherokee tribes and the first European settlers, and named for a Revolutionary War veteran, Samuel Wear.

It was an idyllic place. Isolated farms composed of old log houses and barns and sheds, mom-and-pop groceries with old biddies behind the till pointing out to basic tuck shops for tasty sandwiches and local fare, modest chapels and churches, mountain stores where they sell local concoctions of jams and jellies. Just an outpost of the old Appalachian culture with autumnal hoards of pumpkins and squashes as harbingers of this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ that is finally upon us.

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Phoenicia in the Catskills

The day we drove into the Catskills, the freshness of the foliage was a balm to the senses. It is the kind of lushness that you see as summer sets in, a vibrant shade of green that makes you hum with barely contained joy, when the sun might beat down upon you with all its strength, but humidity is still at bay, so you slap on some sunscreen and shades, and gaze upon the world with benevolence. A world that is ripe with possibilities because you are off to explore parts of it that you have not seen before. And you know the kind of thrill I am talking about, for you’ve been there. It’s just this feeling called travel.

My mind was a blank slate, and I let it be. By which I mean that I did not go ballistic googling up places to see. I am guilty of doing that often. At times, I let go. Last month I was not feeling too well, maybe this lethargy was a result of it. Yet as we got closer and closer to the bucolic surroundings, all discomfort fell away like a load of unwanted baggage.

The clouds were curdling away gently above our happy heads to make way for buttermilk patterns that stretched and stretched before disappearing behind rows of trees framing the roads. We passed by rolling hills and pastures, silos and barns with peeling paint, country houses and porches, till via Route 28 we arrived in Phoenicia. I had fixated upon this strange name after reading about it in an NYT travel piece because well, who wouldn’t be curious about its Greek origins, redolent of faded civilisations and mythic birds. I wonder why the founders named it Phoenicia, this town that was thrown up on the traveller’s route thanks to the Ulster and Delaware Railroad. In the early 20th century, it was the only rail route to the Catskills, the name of which is said to be derived from the Dutch ‘Kaaterskill’, meaning Wildcat Creek, and probably a reference to the resident bobcats.

These mountains of southeastern New York represented a gentile way of life for city folk who sought a quick getaway for fresh air and good food. The Catskills were the summer place to be, especially for Jewish immigrants who were turned away from popular holiday resorts.

Phoenicia turned out to be a hamlet on the Esopus Creek, down the mossy green waters of which girls and boys floated lazily on tubes while fly anglers fished for trout. The Town Tinker Tube Rental, operating out of a rust red barn, was the first post of business that registered in my mind as we walked into town beneath its leafy bowers. And the first scene, that of clusters of teenagers in swimsuits, holding onto ginormous black tubes. The tube rental’s repurposed old school buses were eye-catching. Painted white, they roamed the streets of Phoenicia, providing rides to tube enthusiasts.

There is one main street in this small town that is said to have remained quite unchanged since the 1850s when it was laid out. On this thoroughfare, you find everyone. They would either be lounging around in the cantina on a sultry noon, tinkering around its country store, or walking their single-eyed, slobbery Great Danes about town. And all around are the lush hills. The Catskills.

Towards the other end of town — to get to which we walked past a parish church in grey stone with red pipings and an old rectory — stood a few ramshackle trailers and houses worse for the wear. The creek gurgled alongside. Here there were no kids, just an old man fly fishing. It was a place drowsy with slumber. Wisps of cottonwood floating around us in the quiet of the noon beneath tall trees, acquiring an ethereal air in dappled sunshine. Wisps that clung together in batches of white fluff as they reached the ground. It was a moment of intense beauty that made time stand still. And I thought to myself, you can really ‘hold Infinity in the palm of your hand’.

My craziness scaled new heights when I found myself outside a rambling house. It was awfully dilapidated. Broken window panes, shards of glass, busts and figurines matted with dust and cobwebs in a dark shed, a trench in the grounds covered by grass as if to create a kind of a trap for the snoop who fancies a peep into its interiors. Just as I had finished playing the self-appointed prole of Ms. Meddle, and crossed the lane to get back to Adi and our friend who were by the creek, a window on the upper floor, translucent with grime, was thrown open.

Out of it emerged a head. A bespectacled man with a remarkably white head of hair and a bushy, long white beard. In an overtly bright yellow sweatshirt. We squinted at each other.

In a few minutes, the three of us were retracing our steps to the modest hubbub of the hamlet, leaving the house behind. I turned around a few times (curiosity always gets the better of me) for I could not fathom anyone living in that battered house. And every time I looked back, I caught the man pop back furtively. This happened more than a few times till an exasperated Adi asked me to put a lid on this strange obsession. That’s how we left Phoenicia behind, me wondering aloud if we had indeed sighted the last of the Great American Hobos in the heart of the Catskills.

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World’s largest kaleidoscope at Mt. Tremper on Route 28
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At Emerson Spa
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Now, you are in Phoenicia

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Black Bear Campground

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Esopus Creek
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Husky in the hood

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Phoenicia’s main street

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Catholic parish church of Phoenicia
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Our Lady of La Salette (an apparition seen by two children in a small village of La Salette in the Alps in the 1800s)
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Old Rectory
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Meanwhile at the other end of town…
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…are contented campers
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And abandoned barns
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Trailers and cottonwood

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Esopus Creek
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Abandoned or not?

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Fly fishing in the creek
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Seeking trout
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Phoenicia, where the Esopus runs through in a shimmer of silver