Monday, June 18, 2012

Meet Me in Montauk

There are many things to despise about the glacial backwash that I call my home and native Island.  Jutting 118 miles and boasting a remarkably nautical themed profile, Long Island is home to some of the most awful stereotypes in the United States.  If foreigners don't immediately make fun of the way a native Long Islander correctly pronounces such words as wautuh, cauffee, and even Lawn Guylind, they instead immediately assume you drink J├Ągerbombs, care more for your car's rims than for the livelihood of your relatives, and always ask Sal, your barber, to coif your hair in a perfectly frosted blowout.

And believe me, having grown up on Long Island, I can say that I've met many people who fit that stereotype.  But there is another Long Island - one that is often lost in a sea of blowout guidos.  In the past month I've experienced something of a Long Island renaissance.  It began when my family took a trip to the North Fork for produce from Lewin's Farm and baked goods from Briermere Farms.  I have fond memories of sunshine soaked weekends in the summer.  We'd go out to these same places for corn and dessert, pick up some reasonably priced lobsters from the Bayport Fish Store, and have just about the most fantastic meal conceivable.  At Briermere's we purchased a strawberry rhubarb pie, some rhubarb squares and a jar of rare local beach plum jam.  Even given how awesomely tasty our new purchases were, my sister insisted that we MAKE THE MOST OF WHERE WE WERE.  For you see, Long Island's east end has a beautiful microclimate.  Its sandy soil, cool crepuscular sea breezes and sunny summer days create a perfect climate for the production of wine grapes.
Under Jessica's dictatorship, we arrived at Martha Clara's vineyard.  What may be said of this place other than it has neatly trimmed lawns, wooden picnic tables, and quaint petting areas featuring pigs and goats?  I mean, you could try and talk about their wine.  But honestly, it isn't very impressive.  It's your SURROUNDINGS that makes the whole thing.  There you are on the North fork, on a perfect day - a sapphire sky dotted with clouds more perfect than anything Monet or VanGogh painted - sipping wine whilst surrounding by the grapes that'll become next year's vintage.  I was struck with my Long Island renaissance.
Our next stop pretty much sealed the deal: Long Island Spirits.  There we sampled their LiV (rhymes with five, but obviously an acronym for Long Island Vodka) and something that was absolutely goddamned magical.  The bartender placed a bottle of Blue Point Brewery's Old Howling Bastard barleywine and pointed to the enormous distilling column housed in glass behind me.
"This," he poured a measure of some delicious smelling amber liquid into a small shot glass etched with a pinecone, "is what happens when you distill this," indicating the Old Howling Bastard.  And how can it be described?  Using a craft beer to create a craft whisky?  Even my sister and wife, both of whom dislike straight whisky admitted that they could TELL there was something special about that whiskey.
I immediately bought a bottle - and not only because it was hand-numbered by batch... no.  Because it was an EXPERIENCE.  Oh, and I bought a bottle of vodka as well - which I enjoyed enormously with Russian caviar on buttered bread.
And this weekend, I had a life experience that involved my very favorite place on Long Island.  Actually, it might be my favorite place on Earth.  At the very terminus of the south fork of Long Island, crowned with a jewel of a lighthouse commissioned by none other than President George Washington, lies Montauk.  And now Montauk carries even more significance for me.
For two years now my sister has been part of an annual bike to Montauk.  Cyclists may choose their starting point at various locations starting in Manhattan all the way up to Water Mill well into Long Island's east end.  She had begun her previous bike rides at Mastic-Shirley, which, given detours for safety and bike laws, amounts to roughly 70 miles from Montauk.  This year, I finally resolved to follow along with her.
This is no small feat for me.  I've always enjoyed bicycling and a few years ago many of my friends knew how I would often forgo car rides in favor of riding my bike places.  That happened to be a year that I mysteriously lost 30 pounds, all of which magically reappeared when I stopped cycling and started drinking soda again.  My steed back then was a painfully stylish 1-speed Schwinn Panther.


 Fig. 1: A bicycle so sexy, that a girl who rides on these handlebars will eventually marry you some 7 years later.

Our ruthless master, Time, eventually destroyed my beloved Panther.  Oh, the times that I rode back and forth from Patchogue trying to clear my head, pondering the death of my beloved French professor.  I had been without a bicycle until this Christmas after the death of the Red Panther, and the very girl who rode on my handlebars 7 years prior purchased me a beautiful new bicycle for Christmas.

Fig. 2: The Schwinn Link: a more sophisticated weapon from a more civilized BillChas.

And this is the bike that I eventually used to ride 70 miles to Montauk just this past Saturday.  Oh, did I say 70 miles?  It turns out that the relentless cycling Gods saw fit to change their minds at the last minute.  You see, normally, the bike tour my sister took would terminate at the Montauk train station, a venue popularized by the mind-bendingly beautiful movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  The new terminus was changed to the Montauk Lighthouse, over 3 extra miles to the east.  This is actually a much more satisfying terminus when all things are considered, and I will demonstrate this in Figure 4 later.   
Now, savvy readers may have noticed that this bicycle, though gorgeous and strong, is not an ideal option for riding long distances on the road.  The tires are thick and the gearshift somewhat less than optimal.  Nonetheless, this marvel of modern design got me there.  It was no easy endeavor.  Several times along the way I thought I wouldn't make it.  Dune Road and the Ponquogue Bridge proved challenging, especially given the 10-mile per hour headwind we suffered.  And the top of the bridge is approximately 25 miles into the journey.  Along the said road, we witnessed a fellow cyclist completely ignore traffic and pull in front of a truck that nearly KILLED HER.  And still we pressed on.
After Dune Road, we found ourselves in the wicked heart of the Hamptons.  We breezed through gorgeous properties spoiled by hideous affronts to architecture at the hands of the nouvelle riche.  A mint condition silver 1958 Porsche driven by some ultra-affluent nobody whizzed by.  All the while we were surrounded by the salubrious scent of ocean air, and the gorgeous flora indigenous to this peculiar eastern Long Island climate.  Eventually we arrived in Water Mill.  Now, one of the perks of this particular bike trail is what awaits you in Water Mill.

Fig. 3: Blueberry pie from none other than Briermere Farms.

At this point, my Rooseveltian sister put things into perspective.
"We've gone like 41 miles now, right?"
"Right."
"So... there's only like a trip to Patchogue and back left, yeah?"
"Uh-huh," punctuated by me shoving another forkful of pie into my mouth.
"Let's DO this."
I really owe all of my success to my sister.  When the two of us fell from our family trees, Jessica hit EVERY good limb on the way down.  Athletics, brains, enduring blond hair.  She got ALL the good stuff.
I, however, missed ALL those athletic limbs, though my sister assured me that somewhere deep inside I still retained those genes.  It was her reassuring that eventually got me to the end.
Miles away from Water Mill, we turned back onto the long stretch of Montauk highway that runs between the dunes.  I could scarcely believe how close we were to our goal.  The only things that remained between us and total victory were the obnoxious hills beginning at Hither Hills and rolling all the way to the architectural triumph that is the Montauk Lighthouse.
Hill after hill, I kept going into lower gears.  Professionals on their $1500 bicycles whirred past.  Pedestrians clapped and exclaimed I was almost there.  Every road was so familiar, so I knew there were some awful feats of gravity defying hills ahead.  We rolled into the main part of Montauk.  Just a few more miles to go.  Along the way, there is a horse ranch just past a sign for Theodore Roosevelt State Park.  I have rechristened this BITCH San Juan Hill.  Jessica sped ahead.  I shifted to the lowest gear possible, put my head down, prayed, and waited.  And minutes later, I emerged at the top of that hill, my sister waiting for me.  Just another hill away from victory.
Jessica urged me.
"C'mon Will!  We're there!"
Red-faced.  Sweating.  Thighs on fire.  Knees sun-crisped.  I shouted all I could.
"I'm COMING!" voice dripping with spite.
We rolled over the very last hill and, dodging an obnoxious car that seemed oblivious to the multitude of bicycles rounding Montauk Point, approaching the finish line by the Lighthouse's parking lot.
"Don't worry about the cars!" an onlooker shouted.
My mother whooped and hollered.  I raised my hand and shouted, "Ja!"
I had made it.  Just two years ago I was too out of shape to run a mile.  My legs weren't conditioned enough to cycle 20 miles, much less 70.  And there I was, downing a victory brew courtesy of Blue Point Brewery and wondering at that marvelous lighthouse.
I really owe so much of this triumph to my sister.  Her persistence and belief in me helped me cross that finish line.  There were times when I was sure I couldn't have made it, but she bugged and prodded and pushed and demanded until I made it.  After 6:07 of cycling, over 7 hours with rest stops, I accomplished the greatest athletic achievement in my life.  And my beloved Montauk acted as the finish line.

Fig. 4: (as promised) No, as my shirt suggests, Montauk did not mysteriously "end" in 1660.  It still exists, though portions of Camp Hero were lost during time travel experiments in the 1940s.  But that's another blog entry altogether, isn't it?

If I ever leave the general area of Long Island, I can't really express how much I'd miss it.  When you look past the spray tans and J├Ągermeister and soccer families and entitlement, Long Island proves a really wonderful place.
Now I really want to go clamming again.

All right, now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll get back in the saddle.  In the next two entries, expect haikus created by my friends with an AMAZING card game and my own redesign of the New York State flag because of my love of the state flag of Hawai'i.