Wishing to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two-thirds of the globe, but of which a man who lives a few miles inland may never see any trace, more than of another world, I made a visit to Cape Cod in October, 1849 . . .--Henry David Thoreau in "Cape Cod"
THOREAU embarked from Concord and traveled mostly by foot. We left from Philadelphia in 1962, in August, in a Chevy. The trip began on the New Jersey Turnpike with plenty of Chuckles. We divvied them up until--crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, tossing our quarters at Connecticut toll booths, idling through rush hour in Providence--we reached the Cape Cod Canal and crossed the Buzzards Bay Bridge.
In later years, we called this checkpoint simply "the bridge." The bridge meant more to us than a steel span over a canal; it meant a time when squabbles that had erupted on I-95 came abruptly, magically, to a halt, a place where the wind suddenly picked up and the light changed. Of course we ignored the hamburger stands, the dairy bars and the souvenir shops, each with an ample display of wooden ducks, their wings twirling round and round. We kept our eyes instead on the rotary, which spun us east and north, spun us toward the great Outer Beach.
Thoreau returned twice; we've returned for 20 odd years and now call the place home.
The single road which runs lengthwise the Cape, now winding over the plain, now through the shrubbery, which scrapes the wheels of the stage, was a mere cart-track in the sand . . .
Route 6. It's the Cape's main drag; some call it the Cape's horror. The highway bisects the narrow peninsula that juts out from the Massachusetts' mainland south of Boston. It moves with the land for 65 miles, extending to the east, curving north, then curling around to Race Point, where bay and sea meet. Clam shacks, motor courts and lobster huts line much of the asphalt stretch in the Lower Cape--points north of the Cape's elbow. Road signs here say, "Caution: Congested Area Next Few Miles"--a warning to the droves who travel toward Provincetown in summer.
Early in the afternoon we reached the Highland Light, whose white tower we had seen rising out of the bank in front of us for the last mile or two. It is 14 miles from the Nauset Lights, on what is called the Clay Pounds, an immense bed of clay abutting on the Atlantic . . .
Seagirt, our summer cottage, stood atop the great North Truro clay cliff; it was an outbuilding to an old red-shingled farm house, just yards from the Coast Guard station at Highland Light. Thoreau had proclaimed the spot the finest place from which to see the ocean: to the north and east, the Atlantic sweeps toward Spain; to the west, the Pilgrim Monument rises above what seems the almost miniature scale of white-washed churches, artists stalls and clapboard beach houses of Provincetown, a Colonial town on an ancient sand spit that curls 'round into the bay; to the south spreads a bearberry moor, the gothic Jenny Lind tower in the distant rough.
Here we set up house for the summer, spending the days mostly on the beach. It was a sinuous and steep climb to the ocean along a rare, sheltered hollow, full of bayberry bushes and wild sweetpeas and dune grasses. We dug holes in the sand and sometimes administered liberal mud packs with the slate-gray clay that often bled down the cliff. We watched the plovers at the shoreline and occasionally spotted a nude bather or two who had strayed from Balston Beach in Truro. For mad money we hunted for bleached sand dollars and sold them to the potters who owned a souvenir shop next to Highland Light. We got 50 cents apiece (the sand dollar is scarce), and saved our profits for penny candy from the Provincetown pier.
Provincetown was apparently what is called a flourishing town. Some of the inhabitants asked me if I did not think that they appeared to be well off generally. I said that I did . . .
Our forays into Provincetown for candy and bayberry candles and surplus khaki from the Marine warehouse were a night's entertainment (there was, too, the Eugene O'Neill theater). In our early days, the town was a hangout for beatniks, a place where the artists sketched a quick pastel portrait for the visitor. There was pottery like nowhere else and handmade leather sandals.
Provincetown has all that still. But it is overrun now with tourists who mostly gawk at one another, who walk the narrow Commercial Street, slipping in and out of the bayside alleyways. They crowd the pier, eating foot-long hot dogs and cotton candy. It's honky-tonk.
Still, the town is not without its charms. We go off-season if we can, for the restaurants of the East and West ends, for the attractions of what is still in many ways just a Portuguese fishing village. The courtyards, once full of fish heads, are now full of flowers, and the captains' houses, their windows facing the bay, hug the curb of the village street that winds around not far from Land's End. Here the Cape begins to break apart altogether.
According to the lighthouse keeper, the Cape is wasting here on both sides, though most on the eastern. In some places it has lost many rods within the last year, and, ere long, the lighthouse must be moved.
The lighthouse was moved in 1857. We packed up in 1974. We had returned again and again to Seagirt, until, inevitably, the cliff encroached, eroded over the years by winter's nor'east winds. The National Seashore, which maintains and protects much of the Lower Cape, bought the site, and we retreated to a tidal island south of Wellfleet.
We are sheltered now on an upland marsh, but there's no escaping the power of the wind and sea, as they constantly recarve the Cape's edges and shift the sands off shore. We traded (we had no other choice) the flash of the lighthouse beam through our cottage windows for the blinking of the buoys in the bay, reminders both of the hazards just beyond the shore. One of the buoys marks all that's left of Billingsgate, a thriving Colonial whaling port. At low tide, it's nothing more than a white sand strip.
The shoals and rocks drift, the dunes wear away, but the inhabitants fight back: they plant plugs of dune grass on bare bluffs; they construct retaining walls and install snow fences.
But for every cliff that is sliding, for every lowland that is sinking, there is, happily, a marsh that is filling in, an inland pond as old as the Ice Age, a sheltered woods full of pine, berries and wild flowers, even a haunting cedar swamp.
The Lower Cape interior--though no more than five miles wide--sometimes seems strangely far from the pounding surf. And the villages of Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans, though filled with seaside relics--ship's bells that toll ship's time, the 17th-century gravestones of fishermen lost at sea--appear as durable as the Yankees who inhabit them.
We knocked on the door of the first house, but its inhabitants were all gone away. In the meanwhile we saw the occupants of the next one looking out the window at us, and before we reached it an old woman came out and fastened the door of her bulkhead, and went in again.
Thoreau and his companion had arrived in Wellfleet and, hoping for a night's room and board, knocked on the door of an old oysterman. The bulkhead secure, the native let them in.
Wellfleet is still reserved, a little suspicious. It isn't Provincetown, where in summer anything goes. Nevertheless it's hard to keep people away. Nestled on a bay within the bay, the town of only several thousand in winter swells in summer with visitors and with those who consider themselves something else--those who stay the season, renting cottages in town or in the woods, people who return year after year. (It is said that Wellfleet attracts an inordinate number of psychiatrists.) The old Cape families-- the Nickersons, the Crowells--are inevitably outnumbered (though the local fishermen congregate at the bar at the Lighthouse Restaurant on Main Street, drinking coffee and eating blueberry pie). The town did and does attract much of the East Coast intelligentsia, writers like Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazan.
On a summer's late afternoon, the cars stream off the beach and into town and park behind the Town Hall. Local kids loiter in front of the newsstand; others sit on the park bench at the edge of the Common. A policeman directs the traffic at the intersection of Commercial and Main, streets lined by elms, church spires, and houses with mansard rooves and widow's walks.
The summer community adopts small-town ways--chatting with the postmaster ("The post office appeared a singularly domestic institution here," says Thoreau), heaving garbage into the dump, gossiping about zoning variances and building permits. They relax on their decks in evening, perhaps with a glass of Soave in hand, and oysters at their table.
The native oysters are said to have died in 1770. Various causes are assigned for this . . . but the most common account of the matter is . . . that when Wellfeet began to quarrel with the neighboring towns about the right to gather them, yellow specks appeared in them, and Providence caused them to disappear.
The Wellfleet oyster, flourishing again, is perhaps the town's greatest gift. We gather them (license in pocket) right off the flats at low tide, and carry them back in pails of salt water. Those who make their living off the shellfish dredge them from the bottom of the bay. Their shells are rough and ugly and slimy with seaweed; they're tough to pry. But connoisseurs and Provincetown cooks are not deterred. The chef at the Wellfleet Oyster House on Wellfleet's Main Street knows what to do with them. He makes them in half a dozen different ways, serving them to the many who stop at the tavern.
The time must come when this coast will be a place of resort for those New Englanders who really wish to visit the seaside. At present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them. If it is merely a ten-pin alley, or a circular railway, or an ocean of mint-julep that the visitor is in search of--if he thinks more of the wine than the brine, as I suspect some do at Newport--I trust that for a long time he will be disappointed here.
The philosopher was wrong about that. The fashionable world has taken to the place. People come now for the wine as well as the brine, and ten-pin alleys aren't so hard to find--off those ugly stretches of Route 6.
But a person can also walk the mud flats at sunset and meet but few people. A person can still see Thoreau's Cape Cod.