Thank You Southampton

Written By: Michael Licamele

From the top of an apple orchard in a nature preserve in my hometown of Easton, Connecticut, I catch a small glimpse across Long Island Sound of what is probably Rocky Point or Wading River.  But I know that just beyond lie Peconic Bay, the Hamptons and Cooper’s Beach.  It is late June and that is where I am headed.

I jump onto a 9:30 ferry out of Bridgeport, knowing after arriving I will take 25A to Sound Avenue, cut over to the South Fork on Cross River Drive and pick up 27 to get to Southampton by 12:30.  With most Connecticut vacationers headed to Cape Cod and the islands, I am fairly certain I am one of the few people taking this route to an ocean beach.

Long Island Sound on the Connecticut side just doesn’t do it for me, especially when I know what lies just beyond.  Maybe it is a lack of waves, or maybe it was because I used to volunteer taking water samples of harbor areas and saw the discouraging hypoxia-level readings caused by nasty overflows.

The metaphor of riding the ferry away from work, home, spouse, kids and dog is not lost on me and I like that.  That relaxed feeling sets in during the ride. Family and friends rarely want to join me on these day trips, probably because I like to stay right through sunset.

As the ferry closes in on Port Jefferson harbor, I see some threatening clouds.  But I know that by the time I arrive the winds will have broken the clouds up or swept them in some other direction.  More likely than not, I will get to a sunny beach.

In years past and in a previous marriage, the stop was Laurel to visit in-laws and chase small children on a very pretty beach.  But that was almost as frustrating – back then I saw Peconic Bay as just a smaller version of the Sound. To be fair it is prettier and cleaner.  Now passing through the North Fork and crossing over to the South Fork is cathartic for me.

I arrive in Southampton. While I am sure there are a lot of really wonderful people around, I don’t know any of them.  I do not come for the social life, just passing through on the way to the beach.

I have made this trip before.  Sometimes I drive right to Cooper’s and pay the $40 to park for the day.  I often think about the fact that my $40 gets me onto this great beach for a day. I will walk by $40 million houses where the owners apparently paid that much to be near but not actually on the beach.  So I consider the $40 parking a relative bargain.

Other times I will drive into town, track down a parking space so I can then walk or run to Cooper’s.   But first I have to step into the sketchy town rest room where I will change into my bathing suit while trying to avoid falling over in the stall.   As I cross the park and hit Pond Lane I always pass that motley crew of ducks and geese with some serious attitude.  Then there is a great view of some very well kept hedges as I get closer.

When I hit the beach, I shed all possessions except a few (well ok a lot of) dollars for the snack bar, my car key and a towel, but no phone. After grabbing some food I take a right on the sand and head toward a spot just a little further than anyone else – which is not that far.  Then I drop my towel and keep heading west.  Within a few minutes, it is down to just a few walkers like me.  Then the walkers fade, the beach is empty of people and I have the sand, surf, sun, sky and breeze all to myself.

Yes there are lots of people at Cooper’s.  But very few of them extend out more than a few hundred yards from the lifeguard swimming boundaries.  And yes, there are a few people who show up in those breaks in the dunes with a few free parking spaces behind them.

A few more runners or walkers pass through, but they move on, leaving me alone with sea gulls and sanderlings. I keep walking almost entirely alone up and down a stretch with homes valued at tens of millions of dollars each and yet from what I can tell few owners are ever out there enjoying the beach.

Further down, I pass a beach umbrella shielding two empty chairs presumably placed there by house staff hoping to entice owners to spend at least a few minutes actually enjoying their endless views.

Walking back, I put my feet in the surf and I am still alone.  No one is on the beach or in the water and no one is visible in any house up and down the beach.  It is late afternoon.  Surely it is too early in the season or too late in the afternoon.  Or there is some major event happening somewhere in town.

It must be that I was wrong and that throngs of people dotted this beach at some time that I just keep missing.  But after 15 years of walking this beach in June, July, August and September, during mornings, afternoons and evenings, on weekdays and weekends, I have found just a tiny number of people enjoying this treasure of a beach.

Not that I mind.

Not sure what draws me to these beaches.  Perhaps stories of my grandfather motoring out with my mother to Jones Beach from their modest home in East Meadow in the early 1950s somehow planted a seed that I should be on a beach in Long Island.  Living with Parkinson’s, my mother does not travel much today but I can see how fondly she treasures the memories of those beach trips.  It always makes her happy when she knows I am at the ocean.  Sometimes I wonder if I go partly to honor her and her father.

I have been to most ocean beaches from Maine to Maryland and I do not see empty beaches like here.  As a child, my friend’s parents would take me to Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard for two or three weeks every summer.  Even in late June and early July, those beaches had a constant smattering of beach goers – including visitors to the unofficial nude beach nearby.  (Reminder: while sounding titillating, the reality of the nude beach skews one in favor of requesting a mandatory bathing suit policy.).

I stay well into the evening, after the lifeguards have left, the snack bar closed and the dog walkers have come and gone.  It gets cooler as the sun sets behind the beach.  I watch the sun disappear on one side and then turn around to see the dark night behind me.  I get to watch this mostly alone also, then head home driving around through the city as I slowly plug back in to my life.

So I say thank you to Southampton.  Thanks for the hospitality.  Thanks for that amazing stretch of beach from Cooper’s to the Shinnecock Break.  And a special thanks to the many people who ponied up what has to be more than $1 billion to buy houses on this beach and then leave it for me and a few beach friends.

It is late fall and I hike back to the apple orchard for that same view across the Sound.  I just want to see one more time to help last me through the winter.