You Must Pay to Ride
“The road where the crash occurred is dotted with vineyards in a part of Long Island where tourists frequently travel in limousines as part of winery tours.” –The New York Times, July 18, 2015
I was in the front seat—buzzed and bleary-eyed from too much wine—when we drove past the first few police sirens tending to an accident on Route 48. On this otherwise normal but touristy weekend on the North Fork in July 2015, a stretch limo making a legal U-turn collided with a pickup truck going west; four of the eight women in the limo, who were celebrating a bachelorette party, were killed.
While this marked a tragedy in any sense of the word, it felt creepily profound to those of us from the North Fork: Never had an accident of this caliber occurred, especially not to a group of young women who, by all measures, were doing the responsible thing by taking a limo in between their junket of wine stops. The freak chance of the event ironically called into question the not-so-freak explanations that led to it, as well as the supposition, which was mine then and remains mine now, that telling ourselves we are safe does not mitigate the reality that we are not.
I’m not talking about car crashes. Unfortunately, for those of us who have been in one or know someone who has been or has rubbernecked on the highway after one has occurred, it’s no surprise that the frequency of crashes isn’t a new phenomenon. Sadly, I don’t have to relay to you the probability of one happening somewhere close to you. If the event that day describes anything, it’s not that a freak accident occurred; it’s that we are all willing participants in a culture that is risk-prone yet alluring.
Locals and tourists alike endure long lines and crowds and lack of parking spaces to get their wine buzz, and that’s saying nothing of paying top-dollar at the most expensive venues on Long Island for a taste of this culture. Not that that is a bad thing, of course: the food and beverage industry in the summer is necessary for the region’s vitality, and for its employees who wish to make good livings. On the flip side, there is nothing inherently wrong with people going out and taking advantage of wine’s epicurean properties, as evidenced by the fact that guests often travel with others—thus promoting the group bonding experience—and that they will return or encourage others to, as seen by the surge in the record number of people who visit year after year.
But it is not just tourists who come; it’s locals, too, who return and stay, proudly willing to show off their region’s fruitfulness. This brings us to where I was that fateful afternoon: drunk in a front seat while the last few sunspots reflected on the windshield. My small group, consisting of myself, another local, and my newcomer girlfriend, had been to a few wineries that day, and I had openly scoffed at the crowds of tourists ogling at the wine lists and snapping selfies, while simultaneously reflecting that we, too, were there for the same reason they were. Perhaps we offset this mental comparison by saying hellos to our friends who owned the wineries or worked at them, or by making offhand remarks about how “so many of these wines are great, but have you tried the Malbec here? Michael, could we have a taste?” You see, one’s particular experience with a place matters less when the result is the same, and it is safe to say that the two of us who weren’t driving got drunk. Very drunk.
Time and place is a relative concept while drinking. If the wine works to your advantage, you might feel cerebrally outside yourself, ebullient and loose in your nerve endings; if gone by way of its devilish counterpart, you might feel as if you’re not in full control of your body: hence, our propensity for leaning or stumbling sideways. Meanwhile, the mind in a drunken state is like a car’s speedometer: it starts slowly, picks up speed, and often hits a limit. But travel it does. Could that be why chasing the next drink is not only fulfilling the addictive part of brain chemistry that begs for “another round” while also asking us to, literally, experience the next drink at a different place altogether? Is that what people mean when they say that it’s not about the destination but the journey? So, we flock from town to town, from winery to winery, seeking our favorite old spirits or curious for new haunts, aware that the price we pay for sitting in traffic or paying premium on bottle service is an adventure anew each and every time. A friend, who was visiting the east end a few summers ago, remarked that The North Fork was “like an amusement park, where you pay to ride.” If you’re over twenty-one years of age, there’s no ride too fast for anyone.
Thinking too deeply about any of this could mean that I am applying unnecessary significance to something that might be as obviously simple as finding the next best restaurant. But the fact that a deadly accident occurred two years ago means that the stakes by which we look at such a culture are heightened. This essay is not meant to be an exposé of whose fault the accident was, filled with finger pointing and legalese. On the contrary, it should make us consider that a scenario involving an impaired driver operating a pickup truck that collided with a heedless limo full of women returning home from their wine tour belies the main reason people come to The North Fork in the first place: to safely and joyfully imbibe in a region that is as organically connected to the land and nature as the wine that comes from it, and to bring a happy story back home to their friends; it underscores the fact that our epicurean experience is potentially more dangerous than we think; and, finally, or tragically, depending on how you look at it, it guarantees that a fatal accident doesn’t preclude us from continuing to visit this place again and again.
This may be because The North Fork is more than a series of dots of vineyards on the map, as alluded to by The New York Times article published several hours after the accident. For those of us from here, or who have visited long enough to call it a second home, it represents a community of people mindful of the serenity and peace of mind not so easily found on western Long Island, and equally aware that such a lifestyle is quickly fading. Ask any farmer or fisherman or schoolteacher who grew up here and they’ll tell you that the tour buses and limos and helicopter rides to wine and dine for a weekend are emblematic of a new, but quickly successive movement. Nevertheless, the close-knit family of North Forkers is also acutely aware of the pleasures that the wine experience brings, and many of them find both employment and occasional vocation in them.
On July 20th, 2015, I had felt pride in showing off the North Fork’s beautiful vineyards to my girlfriend, and selfishness in wanting to drink at them. When we pulled over on the side of the road to witness the result of the crash on Route 48—not yet knowing the details but only seeing the carnage that it had produced—I felt my body being pulled a hundred little directions while my mind tried to ease on its proverbial brakes. Perhaps the last straw was in realizing that as we had been heading to another winery the limo group had been heading home.
At my house later that evening, my family’s conversation revolving around testimonials about what we had seen and heard about the accident, I presented a fresh bottle of rosé on the dinner table like bounty from our day-long journey. “Drink up,” I said.