Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Connecticut to New Jersey, via Long Island

On the ferry crossing form New London, CT to Point Orient, Long Island. A glimpse of a different world.

Jenny Jump State Forest, New Jersey

9:00 a.m.

Throughout the night, the truck traffic from the interstate was incredibly loud though I drove for 15 or 20 minutes, through the countryside and up into the mountains, to arrive here.

Woke early this morning, a squirrel on my tent outside, the peanuts lying next to me beyond his reach. I went out later and noticed the puncture marks in the tent from his claws.


A long day yesterday (Tuesday), beginning in Connecticut. The insects that were so loud the previous night, by morning were silent. In daylight, I could see the large pond that is the focal point of this popular campground.

Drove down to New London and checked on the Long Island ferry schedule. The next ones were at 11:00 and 11:30. I wanted to have a look at the U.S. Navy Sub Base across the river in Groton before crossing to Long Island.

Driving over to the base, I found everything is now hidden from view, unlike when I visited here with Drew in 1971, I think. On the bay, big black floating booms surround the sub base, to thwart terrorist attacks. The U.S.S. Nautilus, the World's first nuclear submarine is docked at a museum just off the base, but it was closed to the public today.

Returned to the ferry terminal, purchased a $22.00 ticket, and was directed to the head of the line with my bike. It's an hour and a half cruise over to the harbor at Orient, on the northern tip of Long Island. Out here along the waterways, I glimpsed a different world, with its beach homes and yachts. As private boats, some quite large, sped by the ferry, I reflected in amazement at how much we require to "recreate."

Arriving at Orient, there's a sign along the road "welcome to the Long Island Wine Country." I'm tempted to visit a local winery or two. Fresh produce stands abound, as small farms market to the passing motorists. But I can’t bring myself to stop.

Sag Harbor is nearby; I decided to see what makes this such a familiar name. My route took me via Shelter Island, which is accessed by ferries at the north and south ends, a $6.00 fare for each. To reach the north end, I was squeezed onto the back of the small boat along with a couple riding another motorcycle.

They told me singer Billy Joel has a shipbuilding shop on Shelter Island. Apparently, he's a motorcycle enthusiast and can occasionally be seen out here, riding his Russian-made "Ural" motorcycle with side car. These folks were from Glen Cove, in close to NYC. When I mentioned I wanted to visit Walt Whitman's birthplace, they looked surprised. "The Vanderbilt Estate is more interesting." Not in my estimation.

Sag Harbor is a very up-scale seaside resort, with a few really BIG yachts dwarfing most of the boats in the harbor. Driving around the streets of Sag Harbor, past restaurants, boutiques and rows of expensive cars, I see affluence worn like a badge.

Despite the heat, it seemed important to take some time to explore these places I've heard about throughout my life. "The Hamptons" were next on the trail, a land of massive estates, but navigating through the chain of towns in horrendous traffic was grueling. And gas was selling out here for $2.85 per gallon, the highest price I've seen in the States. The residents pay in more ways than one for the privilege of living here.

Somehow, I find the designation "POW/MIA Memorial Highway" for this route through some of the most affluent communities in the World a bit cynical. Is this what these soldiers fought and died for, to preserve the wealth of a few?

Extreme wealth creates many service-sector jobs, and in The Hamptons, one sees armies of Hispanic workers maintaining landscapes and building new mansions. The residents here are probably the same elites who argue for sealing our borders against illegal immigration. Their cost of living would be even greater, if they actually had to pay fair wages, including social costs.

I went for a drive out West Hampton Dunes Road, where obscenely extravagant homes crowd out any view of the shore. There is absolutely no street parking permitted on this ten- to twelve-mile-long strand. So, even though the public is entitled to beach access, and there are numerous access paths between the homes, there is nowhere to park a car. The community has technically provided beach access, while in reality, excluding everyone except homeowners and their guests parking in their driveways.

I stopped at a couple parking lots that provided beach access, but they were reserved for residents. I asked a young lady attending one of the lots “so you can’t go out and see the ocean unless you live here?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“That sucks.”

I know it's not her fault, but maybe my reaction would help her see the injustice (but probably not.)

Near the end of the drive, I found a "public" lot charging $15.00 per day. Increasingly angered by the afternoon's aggregate impressions, I approached the young, very tanned fellow, sitting in the security booth. "So, I can't even walk out on the beach without paying $15.00???"

To my surprise, he said "you can go out there. The $15 is just if you're going to park for the day."

Walked out onto the sand and had a look behind "the velvet curtain," at the sea, the families playing, women sunning themselves in their bikinis, lifeguards lounging together, and as far as I could see, massive homes rising behind the dunes with private walkways leading out onto the beach. "This is the privilege so many are driven to acquire."

Relieved to be leaving this Fantasyland, I headed for the town of Stony Brook, where our family was all set to move in the late 1950's, when an auto accident changed our plans. My father had been hired by a company in the area, but during a visit to search for a home, his car was broadsided, resulting in a hospital stay. His new employer was forced to fill the position with another manager. And so we ended up moving to California.

Finding my way on this island proved frustrating, even though many of the highways run parallel toward NYC. It seemed crazy that it was so difficult, but traffic was a major factor. Stony Brook is still a quaint, attractive community, though hardly as remote as it probably was in 1958.

Next on the tour was Walt Whitman's birthplace, in Huntington Station. The search for this historical landmark was even more nuts. I used a map to get me close, then relied on locals to help me find the house. A mistake. First, I stopped at a coffee shop and asked the two girls behind the counter. I felt like I was "Jay Walking". They were as clueless as the people Jay Leno interviews on the streets of L.A.

I then tried inquiring at a gas station. The man there had no idea, but wisely asked his wife. She gave excellent directions that got me very close, right up to Walt Whitman Drive. But I couldn't find the house on the short street. At the gas station at the end of the block, I asked the manager. He had never heard of Walt Whitman's house. Then I stumbled onto it, about a hundred yards away. The gate was open, though it was about 7:30 p.m. I parked and walked in through a tall wooden fence, and stood looking at the old two-story house. A large portrait of Whitman hangs in the interior yard.

A fellow about my age emerged from a cottage in the compound.

"Can I help you?"

“I was just looking at the house.”

“You can’t be in here. You’ll have to leave.”

"I just drove 17,000 miles. I can't even look around for a little bit?"

"I'm sorry. You'll have to leave."

Interacting with people in the Eastern urban corridors, I've sensed what I can only describe as a weariness people have; the toll from dealing with the sheer mass of humanity. There seems to be an indifference or numbness in people here.

Outside the compound, inscribed on the visitors center wall, one of my favorite Walt Whitman quotes:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

The house sits on a side street, backing up a strip mall. Across a main thoroughfare is the Walt Whitman Mall. I stopped to snap a picture. I don’t think he would mind that a plaza was named for him; he so loved people.

I spent an hour or more trying to find Walt Whitman's birthplace. When I saw the mall, I knew I was close! He loved people so much, I doubt he'd mind having a mall named in his honor (though I could hardly picture him having someone's car towed.)

The sun setting, I made a run for the city, the amazing skyline growing ever larger. Soon I was competing with taxi drivers who felt entitled to share my lane. Took the Mid-Town Tunnel to Second Avenue, then over to FDR Drive, down through the Battery Park tunnel and up to the World Trade Center site.

Rode round and round the brightly-lighted construction zone, sweating in the mid-80° heat. Parked on Liberty Street next to a fire house and the 40-story, former Deutsche Bank building, still shrouded in black mesh, concealing the damage inflicted by the World Trade Center collapse. According to a sign on the surrounding barricade, the building is being cleaned and dismantled, from the top down.

It took a while for me to work up the courage to walk away and leave the bike. I watched people walking by for about ten minutes. Eventually, I felt comfortable (though I returned several times to check on the bike.)

Behind the construction site is The World Financial Center

Around the perimeter, there are still a few traces that something horrendous happened here. Mementos left hanging on fences, inscriptions written on barricades - dedications to the city of New York, or to a loved one who disappeared that day; photos stuck to plywood walls, U.S. flags. Even at this hour, many visitors slowly moved along the steel viewing fence which the Mayor ordered erected around much of the gaping pit.

At the site of the World Trade Center is a timeline of the events of September 11, 2001

Very slowly, life is returning to this part of town. The subway stations demolished in the Trade Center collapse have been rebuilt, fresh, shining and brightly-lighted, and for now, exposed to the open sky.

Outside the World Trade Center Viewing Fence, a tribute to the fallen

From the WTC, drove uptown to the one “Ray’s Pizza” I could easily find. I couldn’t leave the city without a slice of pizza. Ordered one with “everything.” It turned out to be the strangest pizza I’ve ever had (I think it included clam strips and maybe even octopus!) But it was good, and huge! For $6, that and a tall ginger ale was quite satisfying. Asked cops about 30 to 40 police cars I saw heading down Westside Highway to lower Manhattan, lights flashing.

“It’s a new detail. They do it every day,” I was told.

Beyond seeing the World Trade Center site, I had no plan, but obviously I would have to get well beyond the city limits to find camping. The map showed a couple of campgrounds in Western New Jersey, so it would be a long night.

Took the Henry Hudson Parkway up the west side of Manhattan and crossed the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. My wrists were getting tired from all the clutching, through endless signals and traffic. Across in "Jersey", I stopped for gas and to clarify some directions. The station attendant didn't even know what highway the gas station is on. “I’m new here.” I was on my own.

Driving west into the countryside, it was dark, chilly and signs warned of deer along the highway. "I shouldn’t be riding."

Taking the turn-off for this rural park last night, I saw that the road leads to Blairville as well. Of course, I'm thinking "Blair Witch Project" (which was set in New Jersey) while I drive out the dark winding road, through thick forest.

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