August 20, 2009

Naturalist Urban Wanderer Seeks Same

I haven't been too keen on leaving my apartment over the last week. No, it hasn't been the 90+ degree weather, or a daily hangover from too much partying. I just decided to take a little break from the city after a mildly harrowing experience in one of its parks last Friday.

People always tell me, "You shouldn't go there alone," but what am I supposed to do? I could have gotten grabbed in Syracuse or Connecticut or New Jersey or Philly or DC or Chicago or carjacked in LA. I'm not "safe" anywhere. At some point, I have to just suspend my disbelief and trudge on, alone or not.

Sometimes the solitude is what I'm looking for, like my many hours spent out in the desert while I was staying out in Joshua Tree. But often, other people really make the adventure so much better, like crossing a flooded bridge or climbing up a water tower in the rain. So I was really glad when Joe beckoned me to Long Island, to go explore the Gold Coast with him. Joe has always been a friend who's up for anything ("You want me to jump out of a plane? I'll jump out of a plane"), and it turns out he likes wandering around looking at stuff about as much as I do.

Along Long Island's north shore, you can find many Great Gatsby-era mansions and estates - some in ruins, some open to the public as museums, and some still private residences. We stopped first at Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt's home during his presidency until his death in 1919. My recent travels owe a lot to Teddy Roosevelt, who federalized conservation to found the National Parks Service, the Forest Service, and so on - preserving wildlife and wilderness, conserving natural resources, and giving people unprecedented access to the sites. (Edward Abbey would disagree with me here, but I think what Teddy did was a very good thing, otherwise man would have bulldozed, deforested, stripped, and harvested everything away.) It's fitting that his home was turned over to the NPS to operate it as a National Historic Site, giving hourly tours to families and seniors even in the summer, despite maintaining the house without air conditioning for historic accuracy.

Located in Cove Neck just outside of Oyster Bay, Sagamore Hill once boasted uninterrupted views of Cold Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay Harbor a half mile away, but neighboring houses planted trees for privacy, obstructing the view (and the breeze) from the rocking chairs on the back porch. Paying our respects briefly at the property's pet cemetery, Joe and I climbed down a short, woodsy nature trail to get down to the water via a boardwalk.

pet cemetery

We stood on the shell-lined shore for a while, hands on hips, breathing in the sea air and listening to the rushing water. The shore is full of shells too broken for bare feet, barnacles that crunch underfoot like the West Shores of the Salton Sea. You can't hear the traffic there, just water, and boats from a nearby yacht club.

We had to eventually turn back and climb back up the nature trail, back out into the burning hot sun that soaked our faces and backs. We hopped in the car and headed down Northern Boulevard to Roslyn's Nassau County Museum of Art, whose outdoor sculpture garden is a sprawling treasure hunt of public art. From the stone dogs guarding the formal gardens to looming shapes and figures cast in bronze and reflecting the sun in mirrored glass mosaics, we investigated every weird thing we saw, sometimes not sure if what we were looking at was art or not.

formal gardens

There are a few nature trails there too, but we chose to stay out in the open as the sun's dramatic angle cast shadows of ourselves on the paved paths, and of the sculptures on the rolling green lawns that we climbed up and down in search of treasure across as much of their 145 acres as we could cover. One of the more puzzling sites was a tower, several stories high, covered in wood siding and accessible only through a locked door. Joe looked up and called out "Rapunzel?!" to no response.


Was it one of their 50 sculptures in the permanent collection or on loan? We suspected it was more functional than that, but for what? Protection? Espionage? (Ed: I've emailed the museum to ask.)

We ended our day on one of the quiet park benches in the garden, the sun no longer beating down from overhead, and a bit of that cool North Shore breeze rolling in. It was too late to squeeze a visit to Sands Point for more mansions/castles, but that's OK. It's nice to have a plan for another day of traipsing around the farther reaches of the city.

And it's nice to know I have somebody to do it with every now and then.

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