We leave our Ocean Beach rental house, and enter a corridor of something that’s a cross between bamboo and corn.
Weathered planks lead us to the water-taxi terminal. Today – our final on Fire Island – we’ve planned to walk from the island’s eastern end to its western. We’ll start in The Pines and reach Saltaire by sunset. In total it’s about eight miles along varying terrains: planks, paved paths, deep sand through which movement is tough. There are no cars. Here in this summer paradise, if people must transport something, they use wagons.
As we await the noon taxi to The Pines, I suggest playing Horse. Amazingly the ball isn’t flat. Claire has an accurate jumpshot and beats me H-O-R-S-E to H. I know I’ll never match her distance game, so I change strategy and do a bunch of layups, alternating sides – right, left, and back again. It’s cheap. But I win H-O-R-S-E to H.
Our taxi arrives.
The driver welcomes us aboard. He seems to enjoy his job. During our voyage, the passengers strike up conversation. One says “It’s hot today.” To which another replies: “I hate Fire Island when it’s hot.”
At The Pines we encounter a fork in the boardwalk. Claire pulls out her phone and calculates our route. Everywhere we see graying wooden mansions, but no residents.
Soon, however, a deer greets us. He wants to take us someplace. His head keeps moving in one direction, as if pointing. I recall Claire’s story about the wise homeless dog that led her family through Capri. He hit all the major sites. We follow the deer.
Our tour-guide reveals this flock of plastic flamingos, then vanishes in beachgrass.
How do you like Fire Island?
Linda: “We love it.”
Richard: “Here we’re forced to walk.”
We say goodbye to Linda and Richard at the Meat Rack – a forest falling between The Pines and Cherry Grove. This woodland is named after the sex it accommodates. Two mosquitoes bite chunks out of my arm. I swat another off Claire. We embrace.
Beautiful day, isn’t it?
Mark: “I’m actually looking for a place to pee.”
Downtown Cherry Grove is jubilant. Real-estate offices display million-dollar listings. Most guys wear swim trunks. We study the Cherry Lane Café’s lunch menu, and decide to move on.
Janice left Hershey, Pennsylvania for the summer to work at Homo Depot & Kinky’s Copies, a convenience/copy shop founded by her son. I grab water. When we ask about local ice-cream shops, Janice frowns. She says she’d expected “home-churned ice-cream” in Cherry Grove. But the shops serve Hershey’s – the stuff you’ll find in Pennsylvania, the very stuff that’s manufactured in her hometown.
Despite Janice’s warning we visit Sweet Licks for a Cookies ‘n’ Cream cone.
On the Cherry Grove beach, there’s a kite way up in the clear sky. A rock anchors its spool to the sand. Neither John nor Rich does anything to keep it going. They’ll spend a week at a friend’s place. Describing some differences between this town and The Pines, John tells us, “Cherry Grove is more relaxed.” Rich calls The Pines “more cityboyish.”
We walk down the beach. Near a path to the Sunken Forest is this sculpture. It contains no nails.
Trees in the Sunken Forest are shorter than their protective dunes (without which salt spray would obliterate all plant life). Signs point out black cherries, red maples, red cedars, sassafrasses, and shadblows. One 300-year-old oak is just 25 feet tall.
The sky turns ominous as we approach Point O’Woods.
We’ve managed to enter Fire Island’s gated town. We see families in V-neck sweaters holding tennis rackets. Everyone wears pastels, including these women on an afternoon cruise.
Are you the official Point O’Woods lifeguard?
Dakota: “I’m one of them. Some days it’s hot; some days it’s cool. Right now it’s perfect.”
Does your tan last the whole year?
Dakota: “That’s the most random question I’ve ever been asked.”
Walking along the Point O’Woods beach, we soon cross into Ocean Bay Park. This is another family town. But it seems scruffier – more improvisational – than the gated settlement.
Our legs start getting heavy. I peek in the window of a bike-rental place, though the shop appears closed. Someone sprints from an adjacent bar called Schooner Inn. He offers to rent this bike by the hour. Since there are thick sandy trails ahead, we pass.
On the bar’s patio another guy inflates beachballs. His name is Gene the Machine. Tuesdays are “Crazy Inflatable Day,” a promotion that gives 500+ balls each summer to children who visit The Schooner. Gene also serves as house musician. He’s a “one-man, real-time act” that performs 70s classic rock with occasional Frank Sinatra. While his feet kick drums and his hands play guitars, he’ll blow into a harmonica or sing.
How many summers have you spent on the island?
Wes: “This is my fiftieth.”
Peter: “It’s my thirty-ninth if you count the womb. Seaview is as much a part of me as my hair.”
We eat delicious nectarines on concrete slabs outside Seaview Market. The boardwalk leads us to Ocean Beach (where we began). Along the way Claire notices that many houses are named: “Sea’s the Day,” “Forever Young,” “Old Smuggler,” “Comfortably Numb.” One house is known simply as “Shells.” A man and woman snooze on its porch.
From Ocean Beach to Atlantique, our shoes sink every time we step.
Atlantique’s marina is packed. We sit on a bench, shake our socks, and take in the nautical bustle.
Pat’s friends prepared chicken liver and artichoke dip for her birthday. They’ve all known one another “years, years.” Artie introduces us to the Québécois neighbors. “Get their stories while they’re here,” he says.
Pierre extinguishes his cigarette. He observes: “I don’t inhale smoke, but I swallow my drink.” France waves us aboard. As a family, they’re on the water ten weeks each summer, traveling from the North Channel to Virginia Beach. They’ll drop by Atlantique during these trips. Noe’mie adds “it’s very rare you can dock, and see a deer.” Last week the family docked in Manhattan. They picnicked in Central Park.
Noe’mie wants to show us the lower level. It’s my first time in a boat’s belly. She points out the living-room/kitchen, then her bedroom. Steaks are thawing for dinner.
We cut towards the ocean and pass through Lonelyville, which – contrary to its name – has 60 houses, not one.
In Fair Harbor we hear a Yorkie growling frantically. Gary always holds Brutus’ leash because last summer Brutus was almost killed by the high tide. This gets difficult around New York City, where law requires that human beings walk dogs. But Gary won’t let people near Brutus.
Louis: “It’s a jungle … a lion’s cave. The lion enters here.”
Oh yes. We see that.
Louis: “I make jungles and giant holes.”
How’s your summer?
Adele: “We love that there are no cars. We walk around.”
When we hit Saltaire, we stop to admire what might be the world’s largest screened-in porch. I imagine contemplating Moby Dick in miraculous calm. That passage from Rilke’s diaries about just wanting keys to someone’s vacation house also comes to mind. Rilke suspects keys would change everything.
I try steering us towards Saltaire’s Public Library. Years ago, when I first visited Fire Island, the library stayed open all night and operated on an honor system. You could borrow any book or DVD so long as you signed a log. I’d even found stacks of yoga mats upstairs (beside the mayor’s office).
The sun lowers, spreading pinkness through town. It seems the library now has a deadbolt and official hours, but the door is unlocked, so we enter. At a pine table two blonde teens skim Facebook. I’m curious if the yoga mats are still upstairs.
The narrow back staircase is cluttered. On our way down Claire trips over a box – she falls in slow motion; it lasts 20 seconds. I worry her ankle is sprained. We examine it outside the library.
After a short rest, we locate the one place to eat in town: Saltaire Yacht Club. Bikes are parked along the boardwalk. We put on sleeves to look respectable. The hostess asks if we’re new to Saltaire. I say we’ve just bought in Fair Harbor, and would like to join this club. “Well you could talk with Mr. Thomas tomorrow,” she responds. Claire asks if we can eat tonight. I emphasize we’re very serious about joining.
Mr. Thomas appears. He’d been slurping oysters at the bar. Since we don’t belong to any affiliate yacht clubs, we’ll have to leave. We use a bathroom. It’s on the other side of the community hall where an underwater animation film is playing. The hall smells strongly of popcorn.
We remove our sleeves. We watch this sunset. When the sun touches the horizon, our water-taxi home should be here. But we’re already at home in this never-to-be-again composition of glowing accidental things.