A family of deer walk the cliff edge overlooking the rocky shore. I follow their hoof prints in the mud. I want to ask them about this place. I want to know the deeper truths that only animals understand, but they just run away.
They don’t talk to strangers.
Lucky I’m surfing with a local who doesn’t mind talking to strangers. James Katsipis has lived here his whole life. He’s got the word “MONTAUK” tattooed across his back shoulders in Old English. He seems like a thug, but he’s a big teddy bear with sailor’s tattoos and he’s our guide to the saltiest town in New York.
Montauk is at the end of the world. It’s the tip of Long Island and home to New York’s first lighthouse. The lighthouse with the big black stripe was commissioned by George Washington to keep boats from hitting the shores, but these days it attracts surfers and millionaires looking to escape the city. In the summer when hotels like the Surf Lodge are open, celebrities come out to rage for the cameras. Kanye West was recently turned away at the door of the Surf Lodge. He then went to a local dive bar and bought everyone personal pizzas. “Pizza is ok, but he’s still an asshole,” explains James. Since Montauk has become popular with the rich and famous, it’s changed. Reality TV shows are filmed on the streets, traffic is insane, and locals do their best to avoid the mess. Property value has gone through the roof, too. Crappy old shacks sell for $800K just to be torn down for the property. James says if his parents’ house — the one he grew up in — ever gets torn down for money, he’ll “cry his eyes out.” Nobody should ever have to cry their eyes out.
We’re here in the off-season. The Surf Lodge is closed. The crowds have gone. The cold and wind have returned. The locals have their town back. We’re here to surf with James. The day we arrive he has us meet at a potholed dirt lot on the outskirts of the popular spot called Ditch Planes. It’s rocky, windy, and nothing like the spots we’re used to surfing. We paddle out into a world that’s new to us.
We are strangers here. I am from Portland, Oregon. Adam Walker is from Huntington Beach. Manny Pangilinan is a recent transplant to New Jersey from Honolulu. Corina Barnick is from Costa Mesa. Jessica Altieriis is from Babylon (different part of Long Island, but a world away). Jess swims out in her wetsuit to take photos, but comes in early since the water and waves are freezing. Cori seems to surf in slow motion. Her moves are so graceful I forget what I’m doing in the water and just bob around like a lost buoy. Then Manny rides by on his back with his arms and legs squirming in the air. He’s doing the dead cockroach on one of the classic Matador surfboards he brought from Jersey. It’s cold, but it’s fun!
We’ve come together to do this story about surfing Montauk, and although we caught some good tiny waves and got some good photos at that dirt lot on the first day, the Atlantic Ocean calms to a lake for the rest of the week. The waves stop and our adventure begins.
We’ve taken time off work, we’ve spent money, we’ve traveled a long way to surf, but there are no waves. The surf report actually says “FLAT” for the rest of the week.
We could have gone back to the cabin and watched movies by the fire. We could have played on our phones like babies complaining about being bored. We could have wallowed in our sorrow, but instead we follow James to an abandoned building on the bay. It is crumbling as nature takes it back. It is returning to the wild. I find some cool clam shells and an empty bird’s nest while peeing behind a wall. Cori takes film photos of pretty plants. Manny tags his name on one of the unbroken windows. Jess wanders down the fragile dock over the muddy marsh, careful not to fall through cracked planks. Adam falls through a plank and almost loses his shoe. I climb up a radio tower to feel it jiggle in the wind. It is strangely peaceful. We love it and want more, so James takes us to the craziest abandoned building in Montauk.
Camp Hero is near the light house outside of town. It’s a nice nature area for picnicking near a giant government radar tower and a top-secret underground bunker. The radar tower is huge and haunting, but it’s tiny compared to the even bigger underground bunker. James tells us how he used to sneak into the underground bunker as a kid to find weird shit like chairs in cages. I’m not surprised since this place was home to government experiments in telekinesis, time travel, teleportation, and stranger things. In fact, Stranger Things, the Netflix show with a cult-like following, is based on stories about this place. If you like aliens and stories that rip holes in time big enough to let monsters through, then you should read all about what happened in a series of books called The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time. According to Wikipedia and conspiracy theorists, “To mask the nature of the project the site was closed in 1969 and donated as a wildlife refuge/park, with the provision that everything underground would remain the property of the Air Force.” Hmmm … what’s underground? And why is it government property? James thinks chemicals like Agent Orange left over from the Vietnam War were dumped into the bunkers. Knocking my fist on the super thick cement wall sealing up the hole James climbed through as a kid, it’s clearly locking something in, not just locking kids out. James thinks the underground war waste chambers have leaked into the ground water. Which could explain the high number of local cancer victims. But of course, this is all just speculation, so we hop the chainlink fence and go deep into Camp Hero.
What if there was a portal to another world, another time, or dimension? Would you be open to the possibilities? Would you go? We did. The portal we find is a small hole busted through the cement in the radar tower with a sledge hammer. The hole is so small some of us have to strip clothes off to fit through. It is totally dark inside. The wind howls outside. It smells like trouble. I am ready to find a body, but all I find is a dusty Blink 182 T-shirt, graffiti about your mom, and a vintage can of Hamm’s beer.
Standing in the dark, James shares what he knows about the Beast of Montauk. In the show Stranger Things, a monster comes from another world called the “Upside Down” and causes all sorts of trouble. The monster in the show is based on the Beast of Montauk. With a phone flashlight under his chin, James tells us how when the monster came through the dimensional rip caused by the Montauk Project: “All the animals in town were acting funny. All the deer came running straight through town down Main street and were fleeing ‘cause animals know first. They have that extra instinct. It was like a Sasquatch-looking kind of beast. The one they depict on the show is a little bit more terrifying.”
Guided by flashlights, we find some stairs and go up. The stairs begin to disappear and by the time we get to the top, the last two flights of stairs are gone. They had rusted and fallen into the darkness below. Manny and I make it to the top by climbing the wall and the rusty railing. When we get to the roof, the radar is so big we can’t even get a photo of it. We crawl to the edge to enjoy the view, but see a golf cart below. Is it security? Some kind of scout calling for reinforcements? Am I going to jail again? I turn to Manny in a panic, looking for answers, but his answer is “Be a model!” We just laugh and I take his picture posing with the gigantic radar before we get the fawk out of there. We run like wild donkeys in slow motion and hop to the legal side of the fence. Our smiling eyes agree we got away with something stupid.
Back at the house we make art by the warm fire place, snack on popcorn, flip through books, and soak in an Original Nomad portable hot tub. The fridge is stocked with cans of an awesome local beer. Itching to explore more, we take a trip to the brewery to suckle from the frothy keg’s teet itself.
Montauk Brewing Co. is the smallest brewery I’ve ever seen. They craft small batches, and if their taproom drinkers respond well, they make more. Vaughan Cutillo, one of the founders, calls it their “test kitchen.” Vaughan tells us how they started out brewing a mile away from the brewery in his basement. Their nautical flag-inspired packaging is a hat tip to the saltier side of their town, and their arrowhead logo pays respect to the Montaukett tribe that inhabited this land before them. Brews like their Driftwood Ale might be poured in the city, but the beer is also rooted in Montauk’s small town history.
Up the road from the brewery, the wooden surf craft studio Grain helps people make surfboards of all shapes and styles. We swing by their shop and meet Brian Schopfer. Brian is helping a student glue strips of wood over a hollow hull before coating it in bio-resin made with 40-something-percent tree sap. Wooden surfboards are harder to make than foam boards, but they’re way better for the environment and beautiful. Brian lets us borrow a nine-foot longboard and a four-foot bellyboard, just in case some waves pop up.
The surf report still says “FLAT,” so we make our own waves at the Walking Dunes. Eighty-foot tall sand dunes “walk” 3.5 feet each year, pushed along by wind. I grab the wooden bellyboard and do some pushing of my own. The board takes to the sand surprisingly well since it was never intended to ride this way. Manny and Jess even get in on the action until we crack the board right down the center. Now I’m the proud owner of a used and abused Grain board.
Why does breaking things have to be so damn fun?
We go down to the docks for sunset and I jump in a couple times with an inflatable raft until it pops. I keep diving into the dark anyway. On the walk back to shore, we see a big ass fish zig and zag under the dock. It jumps out of the water a couple of times as if it was being chased by a bigger fish. “Oh, yeah. This is a breeding ground for sharks.” Thanks for not telling me earlier, James. I fear sharks more than death. Turns out his wifey, Bella Ornaf, is a local shark wrangler. Bella has a jewelry brand called Fin and she makes jewelry out of shark teeth found 200 feet below the surface of the Atlantic. Bella lets me hold a megalodon tooth that is 30 million years old. It is the scariest tooth I’ve ever held in my hand.
On our last day in Montauk, we get up before the sun. The surf report has changed for the better!
The waves are bigger and buffer than we’re ready for. Manny and Adam oddly have to shit at the same time as they squeeze into their thick rubber wetsuits. Maybe they are scared? I’m not. I surf with cold-blooded killer sharks in Oregon. This was going to be easy for me, but it’s not. A shore breaker almost slams me into an old WWll rusty cement war relic. I get my ass kicked and wash up on the rocks. I try again and again, but get my ass kicked harder. Unable to paddle past the white water, I just sink into the sand like a puddle of failure. Cori doesn’t even bother putting on her wetsuit. She knows better.
Manny and Adam are a rare breed. With each set that rolls in, I think about their heroic deaths from attempting to ride giants, but they don’t die, they slay. They shred! They laugh like Santa Claus. They are pure positivity. They make you better for just being around them. Plus, they surf with mucho aloha and the happiness of hairy muppets. I think they shit rainbows and stardust, that’s how much I love these guys!
James hands his camera to Cori to shoot while he paddles out. James is a professional cold water surf photographer. He’s traveled to the coldest waves in the world with famous surfers. Although he surfs Montauk year round and knows every break, he’s never the guy on the board in the photos.
Cori snaps the perfect photo of James and I finally see the story we came looking for.
The story about surfing in Montauk isn’t about visitors trying to have fun in a new place. The story is all about this photo of James on a perfect wave, at long last. This story is about respecting local vibes. We are here seeking adventure, but sometimes the adventure finds you and gives you a tour of its hometown.
A beast of a seal head pops out of the silver water. It swims up to our friends. It raises a flipper to them. It’s not saying “Hi,” it’s saying “Get the fawk outta here!” It’s time to go. The guys share one last wave in and get out of the water. The seal was kind enough to share this place with us, but it wants its home back now.
I see a family of deer on the cliff staring at us. We are the strangest things here.