By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 29, 2002
If you can make your way through the traffic of the Hamptons -- clogged day and night, even now in the off season, by SUVs with the size and attitude of armored personnel carriers -- you will be rewarded. Past the town of Amagansett, the road runs through scrub and dunes, the prevailing southwest wind brings a perfume of salt and pine. Every now and then shacks appear with signs that say only "Lunch" or "Clam Bar." A village of two streets passes and soon the road rises and drops among thick trees before proceeding through open moors giving views of the limitless sea. A tall lighthouse commands the last bluff.
This is Montauk, 120 miles from New York City, the extreme southeastern tail of the long fish-shaped island, where T-shirts say "The End" or "The Last Resort." But those who stay for even a few days find themselves referring to it, along with the locals, as simply and tellingly, "out here." The beaches rival the Caribbean's, the sport fishing is the equal to anyplace in the world, and the feeling, even in high summer, is of off-season, removed, away from it all.
Simplicity is Montauk's charm. The village business district is barely three blocks long and ultra-chic resort shops have not made it this far east. There are 10 public beaches, and you can get passes from your motel or inn for all of them. The New England tradition of renting beach cottages by the week or weekend is here, with Burcliffe by the Sea and Lenhart's Cottages sharing space along Old Montauk Highway, most with fireplaces and views of the sea.
The majority of visitors are from Long Island and New York, but the throttled-back pace of Montauk slows people down, and going native is easy and almost instantaneous. September through October is called "the beautiful season," as the light changes to windowpane clarity. Surf-casters, saltwater fly fishermen or anyone with tackle and dreams come for what is known as "the run," when striped bass with big shoulders and bad attitude are easy pickings. Winter can be bone-cold one day, sparkling and mild the next, and blowing half a gale the third. The land and sea take on the color of driftwood and gulls: gray, whiter than white, black. Beaches can be walked for miles without encountering footsteps, and long walks are perfect excuses for hot toddys in quiet bars.
In Montauk Village, the Shagwong Restaurant sits in the middle of one of the commercial blocks. The facade is half-timbered Tudor, built by Carl Fisher, who purchased most of Montauk in the 1920s. Fisher had become rich turning 3,500 acres of pestilential mangrove jungle into Miami Beach, and his dream for Montauk was to make it the "Miami of the north." Kindly, providence provided the Wall Street crash of '29 that wiped out Fisher and kept Montauk a backwater. All that's left of Fisher's fantasy is an incongruous office building, the palatial Montauk Manor, now condominiums, and the faux Tudor front of a couple of blocks of the main drag.
But the Shagwong Restaurant has survived as a lively gin mill of dark wood, stuffed fish, whale's teeth and men off the boats cracking lobsters and pounding down Budweiser. Lilting brogues come from everyone who serves you. At times, being in Montauk is like being in County Clare -- powerful land and seascapes all around you and mist-soft voices asking, "Are ye all right, then?" Years ago, cops and firefighters and other blue-collar Irish from the city discovered Montauk and built simple second homes. Kids from Ireland come every summer to wait tables, tend bar, clean motel rooms and live the beach life.
Author and journalist Russell Drumm stopped by at the crowded bar one night not long ago to talk about his home for the past 35 years. One of America's finest writers of the sea, he is the author of "In the Slick of the Cricket" and "The Barque of Saviors." The former is the story of a five-day shark-hunting sail out of Montauk with the legendary Frank Mundus, the model for Quint, the not-all-there captain in "Jaws." (Mundus is revered in Montauk for capturing the individualist spirit of the place. Drumm described him at one point as standing on a dead whale 40 miles out at sea feeding gingersnaps to circling Great White sharks.)
"I came out here in the late '60s to surf," Drumm said. "Montauk is in the top three places on the East Coast. When it gets big, it can be dangerous. The swells come out of very deep water and we have rock reefs. Between Ditch Plains and Montauk Point are some of the most beautiful surf spots in the world, with backdrops of those pristine moorlands. We're really fortunate -- almost three-fourths of Montauk is either state or county parks."
In his work, Drumm has described his home town as having the "feel of an outpost." He recalled his time working as a commercial fisherman. "Fishermen are a breed apart. There are reasons people want to leave the land and make their livings out there on the water. It's not quite sociopathic," he grinned, "but antisocial to a certain extent. Montauk has always been a defensive position, from the time the Montaukett Indians settled here. They viewed this place as a natural fortress, easily defended, and could see their blood enemies, the Narragansetts, from far off rowing across Block Island Sound to battle. In every one of our wars this has been a defensive position." He smiled again. "And so we're all a bit defensive."
The earliest white settlers used Montauk as grazing land for livestock from the 17th century to the 1920s. The good grassland needed only one fence, across the isthmus that begins east of Amagansett, to keep in up to 3,000 head of cattle and sheep. Montauk's tie to those times lives at Deep Hollow Ranch, the oldest working cattle ranch in the country.
Drumm described how some people go over the edge out here -- a perverse tribute to the, at times, overwhelming wildness of sea, shore and sky combined with the fact that there is no further place to go. "In the fall and especially winter, lost souls get on the train in New York and ride until the last stop, Montauk. They wander around for a few days and either find their way back to the station or kill themselves, a lot of them out near the lighthouse. It's probably because it's literally the end of the road."
Tom D'Ambrosio, executive director of Montauk Point Lighthouse, greeted a visitor recently saying that lighthouses "are magnets for everyone. I'm not sure what it is, except there's an immediate sense of romance and attraction. You want to go to them." Perhaps the attraction begins with language, when two of our more evocative words form one that describes a place ensuring safe passage.
In 1792, the Second Congress under President Washington authorized construction of the 110-foot beacon. It was built between June and November of 1796 and still operates, the light visible from 19 nautical miles away. Unlike a lot of American lighthouses, this one has exhibits that are presented (on the ground floor) in museum-quality fashion. History here is not rusting anchors and dim-lighted rope knots under glass, but clean and crisp charts, graphics and a small but remarkable collection of sparkling cut-glass lenses. One hundred and thirty-seven iron steps spiral to the crow's nest. You might get winded, but blame it on the view; even mountaineers will have their breath taken away.
Fifty yards out, shrieking gulls wheel above a wide circle of baitfish driven to the surface by blues feeding on the run, hammering into the school. One boat slowly circles, lines out, hooking the bluefish. Beyond, the open ocean rolls in long swells, as if it's breathing. In "Montauk Point," Walt Whitman wrote: "I stand on some mighty eagle's beak," reminding you of another reason to climb a lighthouse and look out over the water all the way to the horizon -- liberation from solid ground, a feeling of flight.
Sitting on one of the long, beautifully carved wooden benches at the Depot Gallery, formerly the railroad station, is Percy Heath, president of the Montauk Artists Association. Heath's career is the history of jazz for the past 50 years. His powerfully fluid bass lines anchored everything from big bands to hard bop to the "new traditionalists." His legend is secured by his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet, where his bass, in the words of producer Ira Gitler, "was utilized as another voice as well as a rhythm instrument." He still plays, using a cello more and more these days, as well as painting to express himself.
"What do you think of our station?" he asks. The old depot was built in 1944 from a Stanford White design and has been turned into a stunning art space and the association's headquarters. Construction has begun upstairs to create studios, dark rooms and offices.
Striped bass brought Heath to Montauk. "I followed the stripers all the way out from Far Rockaway to here, the summer of 1963. When I saw this place, I told the quartet not to book during the summer because I have to be here with my wife, June, and three boys. That was it," he said. "We rented for 26 summers and have been here permanently since 1989."
Asked if there have been big changes, he smiles. "Everyone thinks they discovered Paradise when they get here, and then watch it get less beautiful with time. There was a fellow named Sam Cox I met out here the summer of '63. He said, 'Percy, Montauk is ruined!' " Heath laughs, a man who understands that, just as in music or painting, perspective is everything.
A man visiting the gallery overhears the musician talking about fishing. Soon a detailed conversation is flowing about rigs, bait, boats and the art of surf-casting.
Painter Lorraine La Vista stops by to explain what artists mean by "Long Island light," the quality that attracted, among others, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning. "It's bright light, clear, but the colors are muted," she says. La Vista grew up in Westhampton, N.Y., and has been in Montauk 18 years. Her accomplished work uses the media of undiluted watercolor and oils, her subject the natural loveliness and sense of quiet "out here." Montauk suits her. "I'm up at 5, get a cup of coffee, wander around my yard, and then I go to the easel. But I'm really working all the time in my head, solving problems."
Heath talks about the facilities for teaching art that the association is preparing on the second floor. He then pauses and looks out the gallery door at the dappled light of a sleepy summer afternoon. "I've been around the world nine times. And I don't want to be anyplace else but right here."
Ambrose Clancy last wrote for Travel on New York's Finger Lakes region.