The Summer Islands

The Summer Islands By Diane Strecker Thousands of years ago, beneath massive ice plates, the earth grinds and shifts and inevitably tears free. Tracks of land spill out into the Atlantic becoming entities unto themselves, giving birth to a unique archipelago stretching up off the Northeast coast. They are rich in botanicals and vegetation that thrive in the open sea air and their shores, a respite to hundreds of species of birds. The surrounding waters are abundant and wildlife flourishes. From this fierce destruction, life miraculously renews itself in the form of peace, beauty and tranquility creating a the remarkable string of islands we now know as Nantucket, Marathas Vineyard, Block Island and finally, Long Island and its outlying islands; the summer islands. It is no coincidence why one who loves Montauk would fall in love with Block Island or Aquinna on Marthas Vineyard or the many others that dot the coastline. The jagged cliffs at Montauk Point stare at the craggy coast of Mohegan Bluffs on Block, where they rest just miles apart. The cliffs on Aquinna, to the north, are steeper and have taken on a deeper color. The colors so rich and red one can paint with the clay. The flora and fauna, much the same in each place, over time have taken on a life and identity of their own just as the people, local culture and lifestyles have. Geographical sisters the lot of them, some more closely related and some more estranged, yet sharing a lineage that cannot be denied. Each, have similar ragged cliffs to one side and stretches of white sand beaches on the other. They are filled with wetlands that could take one’s breath away. Like floating pieces to a geological puzzle they are spread out on the surface of the sea. And just as the birds who migrated here, I too am one of the countless souls that flock each season to the beaches; harbors and remote coastal retreats on the isles of the Outer Lands region, to get their summer fill. The dock here smells much like Montauk. No, it smells exactly like Montauk. Like, Gosmans after the boats come in. Like seaweed and fish guts. Even the characters are the same only with different names and New England accents. If you want to bring a car to Block Island you stressfully back on the only vehicle transport, booked months in advance if you’re wise, and realize that if your making this trip, you’ll do it the Point Judith way. My early voyages, always from Montauk, were much simpler, beginning with the Viking when it was not much more than a fishing trawler turned ferry whose refreshments included soda or beer pulled out of a large cooler chest by a deck hand once underway. Today, my daughter brings me a Margarita from the bar. As the ferry pushes closer to the island the old wooden New England structures begin to take shape through the mist. Joy, they are the same as they always have been, freshly painted in new summer white, draped in red, white and blue and completely in tact. I am rarely happier then when I see this sight and I already know I will miss it as soon as I go. We are giddy with anticipation. I love everything about it. The old homes turned B& B that line the hills through town, the decks of the National and Harborside thriving with diners, and the Adirondacks sitting high atop the Spring House lawn. I think, yes, this is summer. This staple trip as much a part of an East End summer as lunch at the Chequit on Shelter Island, beaching it at Ditch Plains, or a good glass on wine at a North Fork vineyard. The remote 1880s farmhouse on the far west side of the island is miles from town, where a vast lawn and adjoining preserve looks out to sea. On a clear day you may see Montauk. The birds here start singing just before daybreak and I can hear the ocean’s echo wash though the meadows. These sea drenched mornings bring me back to my summers in Montauk as a girl, where the sheets are damp and the sugar sticks, but I know soon the strong summer sun will be burning off the mist, drying the beaches and opening the lilies on the pond. My walks here are much like the ones on the Montauk Moorelands where I picked flowers and berries as a child. Now I do the same. It is all so familiar from the Rosa Rigosa and beach plums to the egrets standing in the high grasses of a salt marsh; all the aspects of my East End memories are amplified. The long dusty dirt road, lined with wild roses and thick with blackberries leads out onto the cliffs where old summer cottages fit snug in secluded hollows as if they grew from the landscape. I am reminded again of how akin these places are and how they lend to one another. To love a place, to remember and savor a memory, to live in moment in time or transport yourself to another time is involuntary. Built in me somehow is my need to feel and remember the tiniest of nuances and the smallest of moments in places that seem to have laced my heart with joy. As I leave Block Island, I take it with me. I will remember it when I am on Shelter Island and the gingerbread cottages come into view or when I hike through the Mashomack preserve. Shelter Island is like a mini- Block with parts of New England socked inside. For generations people there have lived the island life. To experience and dig into island life is to know a place on a deeper level and be that much farther removed from everyday life, as most know it. It is a patient life that waits for ferries and supplies from the mainland and sometimes means not getting to the mainland. When the weather is bad, you wait. And, when you can’t have exactly what you want, it’s being pleasantly surprised with the alternatives. A few years ago while on Block Island after my daughters wedding, a friend was enraged when the ferry was cancelled. “So how do you get out of here now? “ she sneered as if someone would immediately send another boat for her. I said simply, “you wait”. She was a city girl but had a wonderful bonus afternoon at my sister’s rental house overlooking Mohegan Bluffs. Here, there are no elevators, in most places, air conditioning consists of a cool sea breeze and sometimes there is no way home and that’s what I love about it. Island life is settling in, or sometimes just plain settling and doing as the Romans do. It’s a life with simple rewards. Like having no elevators. It’s a lifestyle. Before the summer is out I will have filled my soul with summer and spend as much island time as I can. I will make it stretch and last with long beach days and late summer nights. I will hike out though the long sand trails on Marthas Vineyard that lead to the cliffs of Aquinna. I will let sheets of hot deep purple sand crumble in my fingers and build rock sculptures like everyone else. I will immerse myself in its colors and tuck them away for a lesser time. I will take long bike rides down long back roads. I will strain to see glimpses of Gardiners Island from the Springs on the clearest of days. Often, I will head out to Montauk and take the old highway as I always do, because I know that where Long Island ends, is where all my stories always begin. In winter, when the snow is falls outside my window, I will start planning my first trip to Nantucket. I’ll dream of the islands and all of their allure. I’ll see the colors of Aquinna and taste cool drinks on the Spring House lawn. I let my island memories drift in, where white sails glide over a denim blue bay and birds sing at just before dawn. If I am quiet, I can hear the oceans song in the meadow. Through lone dirt roads and sandy paths, I let myself sink into summer and long for the summer islands. I envision the tip of the big island, my gateway, where so many years ago I first discovered the East End and later, all the gifts that lie beyond.