Twice-Lit Horizions

Written By: Julia  Thalen


If you asked me to recount the most magical memory from my childhood, I would smile and tell you about Sundays in Montauk, camping with my family.  During my youth, the final week of June was always blissfully passed at Hither Hills State Park. Regardless of whether we slept in a tent, a pop-up camper, or a luxury RV, Sunday mornings were the setting of the best moments in my life. Montauk is where I learned to ride a bicycle, explore independence from grownups, and avoid poison ivy. But most importantly, on the last day of our week-long stay, I got to travel through time, and my late father piloted the teleportation machine.

The time machine was shaped like an old blue Volkswagen Vanagon. Its inside smelled of a faint mustiness mingled with diesel, and my father’s unique patchouli scent. Although it was still dark outside, I could not fall back to sleep during our journey east. My little sister could, of course. I remember the small spot of drool that would slither smoothly from the corner of her sweetly sleeping mouth. As the charmed vehicle hummed along Old Montauk Highway, the intoxicating aroma of sweet beach roses blew in through the open window. With the cool mist, I felt my skin betray the goose bumps of anticipation. We were almost there!

In just a few minutes, I would be standing beside my father on the sand below the black jetty from which the historical Montauk Lighthouse dominated the shore. From this position, I truly knew my place in the world. Basking in the protection of a tall, strong sentry, I was safe, happy, and overflowing with excitement. I felt myself a just-uncorked bottle of champagne. There is something so surreal about standing firmly on the edge of the world. Some people call Montauk “The end,” others refer to it as “The beginning.” For me, it is simultaneously both. On those Sunday mornings I experienced an almost spiritual duality, waiting, and at the same time hoping the few heartbeats before sunrise would last forever. While we turned our faces to the east, staring at the horizon, the gently crashing waves sang a hymn to my soul. And then—all in a moment—the sun, runny and smooth like an egg yolk, spilled into view.

We drank in the scene for a few brief minutes. Every ounce of me wanted to reach out and touch the shimmering gleam of sunlight dancing like a nymph on the water. Too soon, it was time to race nature. I can still feel the grasp of my father’s hand in my small palm. He hasn’t held my hand in over ten years. He’s resting peacefully in Calverton. But now, once annually I feel him by my side again, as I continue the tradition he established in my joyous childhood.

Just after sunrise, the three of us clambered back into the blue van and drove west to the campsite. Walking down clumsily on the beach, the morning sand was yet unwarned by the sun’s rays. It was still silky soft between my toes. Daddy hoisted my sister and me upon the towering white lifeguard chair and joined us atop it. Together we watched the sun come up for the second time that day. The mystically repeated sunrise enchanted my whole being. I felt as if the island on which I lived belonged in a story that started “Once upon a time…”

This summer I will retell this tale in person, in my father’s honored memory, sharing the scene with my future family. I feel it is my duty to perpetuate the tradition so near to my heart. Try as I might to express the memory on paper, it is impossible to convey that enchanting duality—the magical recurrence without experiencing it in person. Try I will, though, and this time around, the opening words shall read “twice upon a sunrise.”