Island-hopping, Ferry-jumping

Thursday, 23 September 2010 04:10 PM Written by 


It hasn't been easy getting this far inland.

I was up before dawn after sleeping in my RAV4 on the Sag Harbor pier, trying to blend in with all the yachts berthed nearby.


Let's pretend I got five hours of actual sleep. A local told me it was a good and safe place -- i.e., I wouldn't be arrested or run out of town -- and he was right.

The idea of any crime going on Sag Harbor -- other than felonious BMW-envy -- is absurd. I never saw a cop while I was there. Of course I was in town less than 18 hours.

 I went back to Steinbeck's house at dawn to see if anyone was there and to take a picture of my idling RAV4 in the driveway. 


It was like visiting a quiet, perfectly landscaped museum at the end of a well-disguised private lane, which is exactly what it is.

An hour later I had to go back to Steinbeck's for a photo shoot with a local photographer from the Southampton Express.

The paper is doing a little feature on me and my madness written by Mike White, a guy I talked to but never met ("Blogger will retrace Steinbeck's travels 50 years later," Sept. 28).

Ready to roll: Steinbeck's front door. Southampton Express photo.



Ferrying to the Mainland:

I missed my first ferry from Sag Harbor to Shelter Island, so I never had a prayer of catching the big ferry from Orient Point to Connecticut at 10 a.m.

Steinbeck, like my co-voyagers, was no doubt a pro at the island-hopping and ferry-jumping it takes to escape the expensive end of Long Island, but I was a total rookie.

 It was a pretty cool sea journey for a landlubber. Two silent but swift 10-minute crossings on and off Shelter Island with about 15 other vehicles. Then the 90-minute trip on the Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point across Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

I had to drive about 16 miles between ferries. Virtually every home or berry farm I sped past on land was pre-1960-old, classy, rural and picture perfect.

 It was a pricy escape from Long Island -- $12 and $9 for the local trips on the small ferries and $49 for the long ride to New London, which 1,000 cars would be making today.

Those steep prices would tax even the average wealthy hamptonite. But commuters get a week's worth of roundtrips for $22, a nice deal for rich people that’s probably subsidized by some government public transit agency somewhere.

 On Steinbeck's watery way to New London aboard "the clanking iron ferry boat," he said he saw submarines surfacing nearby and met a sailor on leave -- a nuclear submariner, to be exact. They talked about the nuclear subs that were then filling up the docks at the U.S. naval base in New London on the Thames River.

 Like so many Americans in those scary Cold War days, Steinbeck was not fond of the U.S./Soviet strategy of mutual assured destruction, part of which involved building a fleet of Polaris-firing nuclear subs. He didn’t like subs, either, because despite their beauty they were “designed for destruction” and “armed with mass murder.”

 I didn't see any subs or sailors. But as I waited with about 90 other vehicles to drive into the empty open belly of the Susan Anne I met Blaize Zabel, 20.


A high school dropout, he looked tough with his big forearms, black T-shirt and shorts and cross tattoo. But he turned out to be an incredibly nice kid. He was on his way back to his home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and said he hoped he would have enough money for the Greyhound Bus fare.

I took his picture and gave him the same crazy advice I tell all young people (under 30), including my own kids Billie, Joe and Lucy -- go to L.A. and see what happens. It's been a good move for millions of migrants, including me in the late 1970s.

L.A.’s not as lovable or affordable as it was in the 1980s, but it’s still a la-la land of opportunities. If it isn't a place for you, you'll find out soon enough. Then you can go back home to your hometown, which you'll have decided isn't so bogus after all

For about two minutes of video of this day's travels and my meeting with John Woestendiek and Ace, click.
On the ferry I also met a 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter, John Woestendiek, 57, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and Philly Inquirer.

John is now the owner-operator of and, two dog-oriented web sites. Ace, his Rotweiller/Akita/Chow/pitbull mutt of 130 pounds, was traveling with him.

He's been on the road for several months already, mostly down South, and he decided it would be cool for him and Ace to start following Steinbeck and Charley's trail exactly 50 years later. He's doing dog-related things as he goes.

John genuflected at Steinbeck's house at dawn, too. He slept last night unmolested by the law behind a business called Sleepies in one of the Hamptons, sprawled across the front seat of his red Jeep Liberty. DSC_1826

Ace, 6, was so big and friendly he made me wish I had a dog along too -- for about four seconds.

Ace provides security and unconditional love but consumes the back of John's Jeep. We exchanged info, took pictures of each other and agreed our paths will probably cross again either in Maine or Montana.

Now -- at 4 p.m. -- I'm writing this at a McDonald's somewhere north of East Hartford on US 5.

I'm on the route I presume Steinbeck took to Deerfield, Mass., home of the Eaglebrook School (where actor Michael Douglas matriculated).

On state Route 85 from New London was the kind of healthy commercial development that Steinbeck never saw -- a mega-car-dealership complex with strange car names  like Hyundai and Subaru.

It gave way quickly to a rural countryside and still-green woods. And the roadside was loosely strung with old white houses and barns and roadhouse restaurants and fruit stands that look like they were there in 1960 to watch Steinbeck whiz past.

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