It has taken us about twenty minutes to get into Gardiners Creek from a mooring in the town harbor of Shelter Island, set snugly between two peninsulas, the North and South Forks of Long Island, New York, whose tips stretch out to touch the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean, where the Gulf Stream runs close to the continent as it flows north and east toward Europe.
The tide is full as we ease the dinghy through a big pipe that supports a bridge, a bridge so low to the water that we have to flatten ourselves on the thwarts to get through without banging our heads. The pipe acts as an echo chamber, even for a whisper. It is too narrow for us to use the oars, so we brace our hands on the curve of the low ceiling and push. A friend has brought me here to see “something,” but he won’t say what. It is a summer day in 1984.
Finally out in the light, we see nothing but woods looming down to the water. Then, about a half mile off, at what seems to be the end of the inlet we have found our way into, phragmites and cattails fringe the shore. On our right are a few roofs, half hidden in the trees. On our left, toward the east, lies only a salt marsh where white egrets stalk in the long grasses. No houses. Not even a dock, a boat, or a mooring. Gulls wheel above a low hill covered with large trees: oak, hickory, walnut. Turning east means seeing land set back in time, so far back it looks as if it had never been inhabited. We blink, feeling tension rise between the modern world we’ve left behind so abruptly and the past we are rowing into.
A mudbank lies ahead, lurking under shallow water, and we get stuck, briefly. It is only when we steer into the tide channel, stirring up silty brown clouds in the water as we pole ourselves with the oars, that we first see the big yellow house. From its hip roof and big brick chimneys to its well-proportioned bulk, the house quietly acknowledges its eighteenth-century origins. I’m in a time warp.