Paumanok, Land of Tribute

Although both Queens and Kings County are physically located on Long Island, the urban landscapes bear little resemblance their suburban siblings, Nassau and Suffolk. Together, these counties span the length of the largest island in the contiguous United States, a 118 mile protrusion beginning in New York Harbor and stretching out across the Atlantic just south of Connecticut. 18,000 years ago, as the continental ice sheet proceeded steadily south from Wisconsin, pulverising and dislodging stone and sediment, Long Island became a kind of geological dump—the terminal moraine marking the end of glacial advancement at the recession of the last Ice Age. Over the course of 10,000 years, tidal activity moulded the glacial detritus and seawater flooded the northern basin, thereby forming the massive estuary known today as Long Island Sound. In geological terms at least, Massapequa is more or less identical to New Haven, but I wouldn’t have been able to guess as much as I stepped off the train at the side of Sunrise Highway.

That quaint feature of smalltown America, the welcome sign, stood alongside the motorway, whitewashed and emblazoned with the usual symbols: local chapters of the Elks and Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts of America, the Massapequa Chamber of Commerce, the Knights of Columbus, etc. Just across the road I spotted a tower of chrome and smelled the sickly aroma of artificially-flavored pancake syrup: the Massapequa Diner. The parking lot was packed with shiny SUVs. One bumper-sticker read: “THE 2ND AMENDMENT: America’s Original Department of Homeland Security”—historical revisionism in 140 characters or less.

A procession of wrinkles, Keds, and aluminum walkers ambled from the parking lot up through the entrance. Having worked at Dennys for a hellish few months during college, I knew diners to be magnets for seniors, but the demographics of the clientele on this particular morning suggested a day out at the convalescent home. Against my best judgement, I had been drinking too much the previous night. A few potent Manhattan cocktails were now, only six hours later, stoking the latent migraine I could sense throbbing at my temples with greater and greater intensity. I got a table and ordered up a western omelet and a pitcher of water, hoping to thwart my fast-developing hangover.

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Scrambling at Breakneck Ridge

Manhattan’s population swells from 1.6 to 3.1 million during weekdays and much of this human tide flows through Grand Central Terminal, but at 6 AM this Memorial Day it was quite calm. Beams of artificial light filtered through the station’s enormous windows, casting orange shadows across the nave of this secular cathedral. Several police officers guided a German shepherd past two young tourists, allowing the canine to sniff plaintively at their backpacks. Newlyweds posed for a photographer beneath a massive American flag draped from the ceiling above the 42nd St. entrance. The photographer likely predicted an empty station early on a holiday morning and sacrificed sleep to capture the surreal memento: Grand Central Terminal occupied by no one else but them. Now he holds her above his head. Click, click. Now she waves bashfully as he looks on. Click, click. Now they wait for a gaggle of tourists to pass. Ok, now kiss. Captured.

The station is stubbornly devoid of benches—exiled some time in the mid-1940s to avoid being used as cots by the homeless—so tourists, commuters, and hikers all are forced to either stand or else line the walls and stairways with their bags and bodies. The dearth of benches had never been apparent to me before, but when you’re negotiating a coffee, newspaper, trekking poles, water bottle, and a train schedule all at once, it stands out.

I was bound for the Metro-North’s Hudson line, a route which, after passing through Harlem and the Bronx, clings to the eastern shores of the Hudson River, past the Palisades and along a shoreline that very quickly and quite unexpectedly becomes a shroud of green. The city  vanishes, replaced by a matrix of foliage that hugs the riverbank like a dense fog, concealing all within. The illusion is bracing, but a slight push in any direction would reveal the network of suburban towns and villages dotting the river from Westchester county on up. I got off just north of the town of Cold Spring at the Breakneck Ridge station, a tiny platform abutting the river, so small that passengers are made to disembark from the very last car. The Metro-North only services the station on weekends and holidays—and only a handful of times throughout the day at that—but it’s a wonderful convenience for hikers to access the eponymous trail. Continue reading