The arrival of Hurricane Irene happened to coincide with what many consider the last real weekend of summer, ruining what would have been a perfect opportunity to hit the beach with an onslaught of tree-death and a total transportation lock down of Speed-like proportions.
Monday, of course, was a beautiful day. As I am a reporter (and also somewhat foolhardy), I wasn't going to let a few broken sticks, or the fact that the beach was technically closed, rob me of the chance to savor the last gasps of warm weather. That the Rockaways were among the most badly hit parts of the city promised only to make the journey more interesting.
Departure time (from Little Neck LIRR): 1:16 p.m.
Arrival Time: 3:15 p.m.
The Ride: Make no mistake, the Rockaways are a haul. But if you like biking - which, presumably, you do - the ride is actually very satisfying.
Because I decided to embark on a 16 mile journey mere hours after the city faced one of the biggest storms of the year, I certainly expected to hit some roadblocks. Literally. It was in Douglaston that I encountered my first massive fallen tree, having been wrenched up by its roots and splayed pitifully before me, stymying the flow of travel like a great, leafy blood clot.
I watched as a series of cars approached the tree, paused and, seeing that no magic hands would be descending from the heavens to hoist them over the tree's carcass, turned back to find an alternate route.
"Suckers!" I concluded. I picked up my bike and stepped over the tree's mighty trunk, feeling rather smug until I stepped squarely in a puddle of mud, creating a squishy sensation in my shoe that would haunt me for the rest of my journey.
The rest of the ride's obstacles came in slightly less dramatic proportions, mostly in the form of debris that had been pushed to the side of the road. I spent most of the ride debating the merits of getting twigs and leaves caught in my spokes, versus incurring the wrath of cars by taking the lane. In the end I did both, and no one was happy.
The ride also served as a veritable Tour of Destruction, and I saw more downed trees and haphazardly formed lakes than I could photograph (though I did try, and documented my efforts in the photos at right.)
Nevertheless, the beautiful weather seemed to have a restorative quality, luring people out of their houses to do what they could to clear the wreckage of the previous day from their driveways, porches and lawns. One woman pushed sticks from her front walk with... a larger stick. Many people were washing their cars. Children played in the street, dodging downed power lines, which was probably not the greatest idea. Nothing melds people together like catastrophe, and in that, Irene had done her job.
The Destination: Why does mankind so love the ocean? Is it the romantic ideal of being seated at the edge of the Earth? Is it because it's the one place in which it's socially acceptable to bury friends and loved ones neck-deep in sand? Whatever the reason, almost everyone finds something to appreciate about a day at the beach.
The Rockaways are not the most splendid bit of coastline the country has to offer (as a Californian, I am contractually obligated to point you to ), but they do the job. After a near-fatal episode trying to pedal the final stretch of semi-paved path that leads to the boardwalk (fun fact: bikes don't work in sand!) I was rewarded with a sight that I had yet to behold this year: Sand! Ocean! Seagulls? Coastline is coastline, no matter how you cut it.
Unsurprisingly, the beach was mostly empty, save for a pair of officials from the city's parks department, languishing under an oversized umbrella while waiting for the opportunity to stop somebody, anybody, from trying to step foot onto the jetties that protruded into the ocean.
The other was a fisherman, a congenial guy named Rocky, who had just gotten off work at his job at a nearby nursing home. Rocky wore knee-high rubber boots and was in the process of shucking armfuls of clams, which he said he used to lure striped bass to his fishing pole.
He asked if I ever fished, and I told him, truthfully, only once, when I was around 7-years-old. After hours of slouching on the Seal Beach pier next to my father, the only thing I had to show for my efforts were mounds upon mounds of seaweed. I never fished again.
Rocky laughed. He'd been fishing for more than 20 years, and admitted it could be an incredibly dull pastime if you never caught anything.
"But after I caught my first fish, I was hooked," he said. "I felt like a little kid again."
Maybe that's the appeal of the ocean. You get to take off your shoes, scrunch your feet in the sand, let the water lap at the bottoms of your jeans. And for a time, standing there at the edge of the world, it's a lot like being a kid again.