By WILLIAM SHANNON
We headed from Astoria, Queens toward the point at which you can drive no farther east in New York State.
My friend Travis and I couldn’t help but reminisce about our last road trip in October 2015 (http://bit.ly/1LYIZM1), when we tried to go to Nova Scotia, but were redirected to explore Maine’s coastlines and to stroll into front-row seats at a 7 a.m. Donald Trump rally in New Hampshire, a few months before the primaries began. It was already clear by then that Trump was onto something, tapping into a populist vein, and seemed immune to rules that had sunk myriad other presidential aspirants, though his chances to get through the primaries, let alone the general election, by almost everyone’s estimations at that point, were next to nothing.
Now I’ve seen two presidents talk.
We were to Montauk by Noon.
We stopped at Hither Hills State Park and scoped out the campsites there and stretched our legs along the beach for a while.
Then we drove to Montauk Point Lighthouse and set out to be the eastern-most two out of twenty million New Yorkers, however briefly. We leaped from boulder to boulder along the rocky beach, waited patiently for picture-takers to move on, claimed the coveted spot and basked in the glory of the crashing waves and winds reserved for the most eastern of New York royalty.
We set out by car again to go over to the Sound side of Long Island (a quick drive in Montauk) and found another beach to explore and then drove to Lake Montauk and parked overlooking the inlet. It was approaching 3 p.m. at that point, which in late November means the day was beginning to close. We watched as two large fishing trawlers—one rusted and weathered and leading; the other newer and following—chugged into the lake from the sea.
From this point we could see in the distance Gardiner’s Island, a private island that, almost 400 years since it was granted by the English Crown, is still in the Gardiner family. It’s said to have the oldest wooden structure in New York—a carpenter’s shed built in the 1630s. And it’s also where the famous privateer (or pirate) Captain William Kidd in 1699 buried a cache of gold dust, bars of silver, Spanish dollars, rubies, diamonds and candlesticks on his way to face trial in New York. It’s said the treasure was all dug up and sent as evidence for a later trial in England. But that’s not including the second cache nobody but Captain Kidd knew about—.
There’s a long tradition of fantasizing about where Captain Kidd might’ve stashed secret deposits of treasure, on his way back from expeditions. If you knew the un-calloused hands of financial backers would be reaching out for a percentage of the winnings of the open sea once you returned to civilization, wouldn’t you hide some of it somewhere? The vast wilds of the New World, perhaps? The hypothetical caches of course would’ve been recovered at some point down the road by Kidd, but he hadn’t been planning on dying at the end of a rope in 1701 at age 56.
We in the Hudson Valley have our fair share of fodder for such fantasies. Captain Kidd had a close and an eventually troubled business relationship (http://bit.ly/2aeDDDL) with one Robert Livingston, who by 1699 was living in a manor house where the Roeliff Jansen Kill flows into the Hudson between the towns of Germantown and Livingston.
Anyway, from our vantage point Gardiner’s Island was distant and hazy and inaccessible—except in the recesses of daydreams.
We bought a six-pack of Sierra Nevadas and drove to Shadmoor State Park, on the open-ocean side of Montauk.
Travis and I climbed down from the steep, sandy bluffs of the park—where Theodore Roosevelt camped with his Rough Riders after the Spanish-American War for a stretch, to avoid spreading tropical diseases upon their return—to get up close and personal with the Atlantic’s calm waters as the sun slipped away.
The taste of a pale ale while breathing in sea air does wonders for the soul. It’s proven.
After dark, we set back toward New York City and the next day I loafed around Coney Island.
I was thinking I might find it quiet and abandoned, but the Sunday after Thanksgiving (and maybe the last fifty-degree day of the year) had hundreds of people there walking the boardwalk and along the shore. It was the tail end of November and I saw five people throughout the afternoon taking full-body dips in the water, one with a drysuit, the rest in bathing suits.
I find Coney Island to be an irresistible pocket of Americana—a moving target of strangeness that’s well worth taking the pulse of from time to time.
In summer, I’ve walked out on the pier and seen local fishermen haul in a small shark while they talked to tourists about the best parts of it to eat; heard the creak of the wooden Cyclone coaster racing to its drops and the associated people-screams; watched as an absurdist performance artist made the rounds singing and asking ignoring tourists whether they like bananas; heard the cracks of baseball bats from the minor league stadium just off the boardwalk; seen elderly couples waltzing to Russian music on the boardwalk near the border with Brighton Beach; and seen a woman pull up her skirt to urinate by the boardwalk in a drunken rush.
And the twisted, smiling face logo of Luna Park captures and celebrates the weirdness of the place.
I walked the boardwalk to its end in Brighton Beach and walked back along the beach and out to the pier. Then onto the streets and to buy a can of Dos Equis.
I found a spot on the beach where no one came too close and watched another sunset.
While this narrative has me sipping away a Mexican beer in a brown paper bag, let me take the opportunity to share an excerpt from a bit of literature I read recently. After reading Cup of Gold—John Steinbeck’s first book, which didn’t sell well upon publication, about the pirate Captain Henry Morgan—I shot through Call of the Wild by Jack London during one double-shift. I’ve now started Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck’s late-in-life sequel to the beloved little novel Cannery Row.
Here’s a paragraph from Sweet Thursday, aiming to explore the complexities of one character in particular but also people in general:
“Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the bastard Time. The end of life is now not so terribly far away—you can see it the way you see the finish line when you come into the stretch—and your mind says, ‘Have I worked enough? Have I eaten enough? Have I loved enough?’ All of these, of course, are the foundation of man’s greatest curse, and perhaps his greatest glory. ‘What has my life meant so far, and what can it mean in the time left to me?’ And now we’re coming to the wicked, poisoned dart: ‘What have I contributed in the Great Ledger? What am I worth?’ And this isn’t vanity or ambition. Men seem to be born with a debt they can never pay no matter how hard they try. It piles up ahead of them. Man owes something to man. If he ignores the debt it poisons him, and if he tries to make payments, the debt only increases, and the quality of his gift is the measure of the man.”
I finished the 24-ounce can, put on my winter hat, walked on the boardwalk past crowds of people speaking Russian toward the pier that extends a thousand feet or more into the sea for one last stroll.
Two dead and dried-out skate fish, which look like little stingrays, rested on a concrete support outside the pier’s rail. People speaking Spanish, Russian and New-York-English watched their lines in the water and talked shop. And a young New Yorker wound with his hands the white string attached to a metal crab trap. He took out one small crab and tossed the cage far out and then checked his other three cages on either side of the pier.
The title of this column, “Flash,” is short for “Flash of life: a chronicle of efforts to slow life down.” William Shannon runs the website hudsonriverzeitgeist.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. His book 'Hudson River Zeitgeist: Interviews from 2015,' is available at the Artisan Shop at Camphill Hudson Solaris at 360 Warren Street in Hudson and through hrzeitgeist.com.