Wildwood State Park on Long Island.

Wildwood State Park on Long Island. Credit: Newsday photo illustration; photo: striperonline.com

In the summer of 1973, when I was 18, friends and I decided on a lark to go camping on Long Island.

I lived in Flushing, my friend Mike lived in Whitestone and Rico was from Jamaica. We were bored and looking for something to do. We decided to go to Wildwood State Park in Wading River. I don't know why or who chose Wildwood, but to three city boys, even the name sounded intriguing.

My knowledge of Long Island was scant. It consisted of Brentwood and Jones Beach. My uncle and cousins lived in Brentwood. My family's car rides to Brentwood from the Bronx and later from Flushing felt like we were traveling to the ends of the Earth. Surely Brentwood had to be way out on Long Island. How much farther could it possibly go?

I was clueless about Montauk, the Hamptons or even Patchogue, where nine years later I started dating my future wife. It was Brentwood and the great beyond.

So Mike, Rico and I started out on a Friday evening with a six-pack of beer, chips and pretzels, a transistor radio and a deck of cards. We would stay only overnight.

We were woefully unprepared, however, to find Wildwood. Of course, there was no GPS, MapQuest or Google. We didn't even have a map with the Exxon Tiger on the cover. But we were smart enough to find Wildwood, or so we thought.

I think we headed east on the Long Island Expressway, and then took local roads. We drove on -- and on and on. When we came to a place called Riverhead, we wondered whether we would ever get to Wildwood.

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Of course, a map would have pointed out our directional folly. Instead, as darkness enveloped us, we kept heading east. It was quiet and eerie outside; this was before the wineries made the North Fork a destination. The only thing we saw through the darkness were quiet farms, their signs advertising "Corn 5 cents an ear."

Suddenly, Mike, our driver, saw a sign.

"Mattituck," he said. "We're in Mattituck?"

"Where's Mattituck?" I asked. "Is it near Brentwood?"

"No," he said irritably. "We're way too far east."

He seemed a little panicky. It turns out we had overshot our destination by about 15 miles.

"We gotta turn around," he said, and made a U-turn to head back west. After what seemed like an hour, we saw a sign welcoming us to Rocky Point -- eight miles west of the park.

We had accomplished an unusual double play. We had overshot Wildwood in two different directions.

At this point, Rico, in the backseat, was ready to give up.

"Let's just go home," he said. "We can hang out at my house all night, play cards and go for breakfast at the diner."

Mike, however, was determined. We were finding Wildwood and that was that.

Me? I was along for the ride. I figured we would see a sign for Brentwood soon.

Instead, Mike made another U-turn. Then we saw it -- the sign for Wildwood State Park. Our inattention and cockiness had caused us to miss it going east and the darkness made it hard to see going west. We had been in the car for more than 2½ hours, but we made it!

With help from the car's headlights, we found a campsite -- basically a wooden platform -- and somehow pitched a tent in the dark. We spent the night playing cards, listening to the radio and talking wistfully about pretty girls we didn't have the nerve to ask out.

In trips since then, including one with my son's Boy Scout troop, I've seen more of Wildwood, especially its beautiful beach on the Sound. But on that trip so long ago, the three of us simply woke up, gathered our things and left. City boys in the wilderness.

Reader Jerry Giammatteo lives in Sayville.


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