And in ‘The End’
And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to
The love you make.
The word “Montauk” evokes great memories and feelings of freedom from all things hot, sticky, and city. Knowing that it is “The End” of Long Island is appealing because there is something essentially satisfying about being on the edge of the island where there is nothing left but sea stretching all the way to Europe.
I recall first going to Montauk as a boy with my parents. My father, a NYC cop, had a friend and fellow officer who had a place out there. It felt as if we were in the car forever. As the trappings of urban life faded behind me and the panorama of the beautiful East End of Long Island spread out in all directions towards the horizon, it seemed as if I had reached an undiscovered country that only I knew about.
As we kept going and saw the green rolling fields and farmlands, I felt my mouth open in awe and I remember saying, “Look, Mom, real cows!” Until that point in my life I had only seen cows on television and milk cartons, but now there they were sticking their heads through fences and staring at us passing in the car.
Dad helped his friend flipping burgers at the barbecue grill as I played with other kids in the yard; the beach and the deep blue sea beyond it stretched far and wide and were only footsteps from the house. There was music playing on a radio, and I recall my mother singing “Those lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer” while making a batch of lemonade and cutting lemons that she dropped into the pitcher like wedges of sunshine.
After we ate I remember going down a wooden walkway to the ocean holding my father’s strong hand. I was five years old at the time, and I felt smaller than usual standing under that wide sky and before that expansive ocean. As we walked toward the surf, the thunder of the waves crashing shook me a bit because it penetrated my chest like parade drums. I couldn’t believe the power of the sea, which before this moment had seemed timid based on the small waves I’d experienced at Coney Island.
I never forgot that first time I went to Montauk, but I would not come back until fifteen years later when I attended a friend’s party in Amagansett. I drove there with excitement because I felt the same way as I had as a boy – I had left the hot city far behind. During the party I went out on the deck and reveled in the inhaling of salty, enticing sea air and appreciated the view of the powerful sea I remembered from long ago.
The next day my friend suggested that we drive out to see the Montauk Point Lighthouse, which I’d not visited last time. While Amagansett was a long drive from the city, I couldn’t believe how long it took to get to Montauk from Amagansett. The island seemed to go on forever.
Montauk Point Lighthouse is located on a hill overlooking the sea, and as I stood there I liked that edge of the world feeling. There was a map that showed where we were standing in relation to other places like Block Island. I felt that powerful ocean swelling against the shore, closed my eyes, and imagined how the lighthouse had been a beacon for so many sailors over the years, no doubt a welcome sight after coming in from far out at sea.
On the way back we stopped in town and went to Pizza Village, a small, unassuming shack on the main street. It was filled with locals and tourists like me all laughing and enjoying the good food. I had a slice and a Coke and told my friend that he was right – this pizza was as good as any we could get back in the city.
After that visit, I planned on returning to Montauk, but it would take another 15 years until I attended a conference at Gurney’s Resort. Driving out in October was a completely different experience. The fall colors brightened the landscape and pumpkins of all sizes could be seen lying in fields and featured prominently at roadside stands where they were being sold alongside the other bounty from farmers’ fields.
As when I was a child seeing cows for the first time, I felt like I was experiencing another unknown world where people could actually eat wholesome food and get closer to the earth from whence it came. I stopped at one stand and purchased a few pumpkins for Halloween; at another one I ate roasted corn, and I still think it was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten up to that point in my life.
As I read my old fashioned handwritten directions and checked my map, I realized that I had to go onto Old Montauk Highway and would not be going through the town. I drove into the parking lot at Gurney’s and felt awestruck by its position adjacent to the sea. I rushed to check in, ran to my room – complete with balcony and ocean view – and quickly got myself out on that soft and delightful sand.
The three days spent at the conference featured meetings and obligatory lunches and dinners, but I had time to walk along the surf and linger on the beach, enjoying that smell of air and sea that seemed unlike anything I had encountered elsewhere. I liked seeing the surfers in wetsuits walking along the beach toting their boards, ready to seek out those great waves – of which there was no shortage along Montauk’s shoreline.
On my last day I drove into town and passed the old pizza place, but there had been an explosion of growth since my last visit. New stores had popped up in places where I didn’t remember anything being before, and the sidewalks were filled with people on this lovely October afternoon. My childhood thoughts about Montauk being an undiscovered country were done – everyone knew about it now!
Still that did not prevent me from wanting to return because the place retained that magic mix of ocean, beach, and the notion of being on “the end” of the island. Once I got married and had my first child, we came back and did so again and again.
Over the years we’ve stayed in the Ocean Beach Resort, Ronjo, Royal Atlantic, and Hartmann’s Briney Breezes. The thought of each place evokes memories of good times and my past Montauk experiences. Of course, I had to take my daughter to Pizza Village just to savor the great pizza I’d enjoyed many years before – and just as in the past it was the best slice imaginable.
We have visited other beach places – Ogunquit, Maine; Virgina Beach, the Outer Banks, and Wildwood, New Jersey – and they are all wonderful destinations, but none of them are Montauk. They have beautiful beaches, amusements, and restaurants that are family-friendly, but they lack the allure that makes Montauk rare among vacation spots – a home away from home, where locals treat you like you’re their lifelong friend and you kind of feel as if you are.
Montauk continues to remind me of days long ago – my mother singing along with Nat King Cole, holding my Dad’s strong hand as I watched the powerful ocean, and feeling such freedom when I kicked off my shoes and ran across that pristine sand.
Now Montauk is a place where past meets the present, and all the wonderful memories are met with the anticipation of what will happen next time I go there. Whether it’s a day spent being lazy in a lounge chair on the beach, a round of miniature golf with my kids at Puff-n-Putt, a visit to the magnificent lighthouse, or the thought of a delicious dinner at Shagwong, there is always something to make me want to return.
I think of myself coming to Montauk even when I am an old man, by then retired and perhaps fulfilling a dream to buy a small place with an ocean view. I will sit there with a hot cup of coffee, breathing in that air and hearing the crash of those waves. Even then I will feel my father’s firm grip and the lovely sound of Mom singing. Hopefully, my kids will visit me there with their children, and I will watch them running along the beach and experiencing the power of the sea as I once did.
The Beatles were right about “the love you take” and “the love you make,” and they may as well have been singing about Montauk because it is a place I love and its natural beauty is there for the taking. And in the end, Montauk is the place for me – a home, not just a destination.