The Walking Dunes

Montauk, somehow, is the place I go for equinoxes. My first visit there was back on March 21st, and I finally went again early this week – this time, straight to Hither Hills State Park, specifically to the Walking Dunes, acres of sand dunes known for moving a few feet in the same direction every year, hence “walking.”

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The “walking dunes.”

I’ve been reading Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an insightful book book about a life spent studying moss, including a chapter devoted to the special role moss plays in regenerating forests on damaged land. I’m an amateur naturalist who often makes rookie mistakes identifying plants, but books like Gathering Moss have opened my eyes to forests like never before.

To get to the Walking Dunes you park on the scenic overlook and hike through a thick forest of oaks. Some visitors out here are so afraid of Lyme disease they avoid the woods, but I just wear light-colored, long pants and white socks, and check my legs for ticks, often. I’d have preferred a few ticks to the hundreds of mosquitoes I slapped off my face on my way there.

Once at the dunes, though, you can see right away that you’re in a rare ecosystem:

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I noticed shrub oaks all across the tops of the dunes, and some kind of cedar bushes around them. In the ravines in between were pines, and berry bushes. You got the sense that if the dunes were slowly walking through, then the tree roots were putting up as hard a fight as they could. Knowing even a little, you see drama everywhere.

The water around there is full of shellfish farms. Though not all that inviting to swim in, I was determined. I walked along Napeague Harbor, and felt my bare feet sink into the silty sand, before crossing over the peninsula to the Napeague Bay side, more like the water I’m used to swimming in around Shelter Island. It had more waves, but my walk had taken so long, I was starting to get concerned about making it through the woods again before dark, so I figured I’d skip it till I got clear across the South Fork to the ocean (unnecessarily, it turns out, but getting stuck in the woods at dark is miserable, I can tell you that).

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I can’t explain it – it might have been too cool, though it sure felt hot – but at dusk the mosquitoes were all hiding, and the oak woods on my way out were the prettiest of my walk. I started noticing lots of varieties of mushrooms, and moss. I may get to know moss better, but I doubt I’ll ever be a mushroom forager: one mistake and you’re dead as a shrub oak with the sand cratering beneath it.

By the time I made it to the beach on the ocean side, I saw signs that read “No lifeguard on duty, no swimming,” or something like that. I’m not scared of water, and used to ignoring those signs, but all it took was one look at the violent waves to resign oneself: there was a hurricane someplace far off that shore, and there would be no swimming!

I saw three different kinds of Atlantic water in one afternoon, but the swim would have to wait. I saw exactly zero ticks, one deer, and not many more humans. Kept repeating the same line of Seamus Heaney: “The bog holes might be Atlantic seepage.” Tried composing my own ode to the place but only came up with one line worth keeping: “Take me to the edge of misanthropy but no further.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing about the thousands of protozoans and tardigrades found in one gram of moss, says, “But the numbers themselves miss the point. Such lists remind me of the inconsequential facts tossed off by a tour guide, the number of steps to the top of the Washington Monument, or the number of blocks of granite used to construct it, when what I really want to know about is the view from the top and the jokes told by the stonemasons.”

Like many extroverts, I cherish my time alone, and after a day in the the lush world of some very weird yet unspectacular plants, I went to my usual spot in Montauk for a fish and chips, and made a point of talking with strangers. I asked them about the Memory Motel down the road, one of the few old time-feeling hotels left in Montauk, and they shrugged. Any place that inspired such a uniquely sad Rolling Stones song must be a town landmark, I figured, but to them it was a dump. Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to see things right.

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