It's 5:30 AM on a Saturday morning. The sky is clear, and the sun is just about to rise, creating a faint glow on the horizon visible from the platform of the 7 train. This part of Queens is pretty quiet early in the morning, but New York City never completely shuts down. Taxis are cruising up and down Queens Blvd in search of a fare, and the quiet is occasionally punctuated by the metallic rattle of a shopkeeper rolling up his window gates. It's a great time to experience the city because nobody is caffeinated enough to be in a hurry yet.
We are on the far western end of Long Island just across the East River from Manhattan. It's a cold January morning, and we’re on our way to Montauk. The 7 train is one of the busiest in the city, but it is nearly empty this early in the morning. A quick transfer at Woodside to The Long Island Railroad, and we are on our way. We watch out the window, comfortably tucked away on the upper level of the car, as the city gives way to the suburbs, and the suburbs fade into forests. The city is so self contained that it's easy to forget how close you are to the beauty of the natural world. The island begins to narrow as we keep rolling east along the tracks. You can occasionally catch glimpses of the Sound to the north and the Atlantic to the south. The four hour trip takes you to the opposite end of the same island, but you step off the train into a different world filled with the clean, salt air and the decidedly mellow atmosphere of Montauk in January.
Montauk has the seasonal feeling of a resort community. There seems to be a tenuous balancing act between choosing to live in a beautiful, natural place and the economic imperative to share it with others in order to survive. In January that tension seems to have dissipated. The winters belong to Montaukers. It's as if the town is taking a collective breath of fresh air. Fishermen can watch the game in a quiet bar, and a cup of coffee and a conversation can be had at the cafe without having to wait for a seat.
The history of locals being bombarded by outsiders attracted to Montauk's beauty and resources goes back a long way. The Montauket tribe struggled against European settlers. In the early 20th century, developers descended on the area in order to build the "Miami of the North". Remnants of that time can be seen all over town at places like Montauk Manor and the Montauk Yacht Club. The developers' plans were interrupted by the Great Depression, but the area remained a popular destination ever since. After the depression, a thriving community sprang up amongst the unfinished remnants of the early developers' resort. Today Montauk seems to be experiencing a resurgence of its early gilded ambitions.
In the summer months, the beaches here are overrun with visitors, but this day we nearly had it to ourselves. Occasionally we would pass a group of seagulls fishing in the surf. We also saw some brave souls paddle boarding despite the cold. Cliffs, carved by the tide, gradually rose up beside us as we walked along the beach. The sand under our feet was steadily supplanted by a rocky shore. We stepped off onto a side road, running through a neighborhood of old beach houses, in search of the highway that we could follow to the very end of the island. We decided to make the nearly 6 mile walk out to Montauk Point to visit the lighthouse and watch the sunset. The walk took us through a state park and over a beautiful pass, which overlooked the inlet of the Long Island Sound, as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island beyond. By the time we reached the lighthouse the sun was beginning to set. The red and white tower was illuminated by the intense orange light from the low hanging sun.
Montauk Point Lighthouse was built during the presidency of George Washington. It was the first lighthouse built in New York, and it's one of the oldest active lighthouses in the country. Apparently the pirate, Captain Kidd, was said to have buried treasure near where the lighthouse was built. Treasure hunting wasn’t in the cards for us as it was getting late in the day, and the ground was frozen solid. It is a truly an inhospitable place in the winter. The rocks were covered by thick layers of ice that reflected the colors of the setting sun burning through the low hanging clouds. The wind was picking up and stirring large waves that were breaking heavily thirty or forty feet off shore. Eventually, as the sky darkened, the lighthouse lit up. Sitting in that spot, with the sounds and smells of the ocean, it was easy to see why people fall in love with Montauk.
Pretty soon we were lured away by the promise of a hot meal at the end of the six mile walk back to the hotel. The sun was long gone by this point, and the road was just a silver ribbon of reflected starlight running through a pitch black landscape. It had been years since we had seen stars like that. Sometimes it's easy to forget the light show going on over head every night.
There were very few cars on the road, but a couple of kind people pulled over to offer us a ride back to town. We thanked them, but turned them down. We were still taking in that light show and didn’t want to cut it short. Eventually the faint glow of sodium vapor appeared on the horizon, and conversation turned towards food now that it was safe to give into our hunger. Gradually street lights started to appear more frequently, and before too long we were walking through the quiet streets of Montauk proper again. Most of the stores were closed up for the day, or even the whole season, but thankfully the pub windows were still burning bright. We can't remember the last time food tasted so good or sleep felt so sweet.