The kids arranged a pleasant cottage rental for us on Cape Cod. The large pitch pines and pin oaks standing by the roadside in the Town of Dennis caught the pre-dawn hooting of a great horned owl and staged the call for exploration of the cape– the second visit for the kids but the first for my wife and me.
October was the perfect time for visiting the Atlantic coast. The sky was bright; the wind was strong, but the summer crowd had thinned considerably, and the ocean had retained its powerful allure. The bared, bent arm of coastal Massachusetts is approximately 65 miles long and roughly five miles wide (on average). Henry David Thoreau had visited the cape on several occasions in the mid-1800s and reported on his walking tours in a fascinating book entitled, appropriately enough, Cape Cod.
The village of Dennis, where we were staying for several nights, was, according to Thoreau, a barren and desolate place resembling “the bottom of the sea made dry” the day before his arrival. It was raining as Thoreau’s stage traveled northward through the sands and scrubby pines, but he found that Dennis was enjoyable, “so novel, and, in that stormy weather, so sublimely dreary.” And as watchers of the shore, ourselves, as beachcombers, we would find the cape, a land of sea and desert combined, to be an evocative stretch of stark beauty.
Thoreau was awe-struck by the cape as he and William Ellery Channing, a close friend and poet from Concord, rambled along the coast that offered its oceanic debris. Thoreau’s Cape Cod opens with a startling chapter called “The Shipwreck” that records a recent storm and tragedy– its Irish emigrant victims being collected from the sand before his eyes.
And yet, beyond the sadness and chaos of an unmatched wilderness, the ocean gave up something more: “I saw that the beauty of the shore itself was wrecked for many a lonely walker there, until he could perceive at last, how its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublime beauty still.”
Thoreau may have sensed our planet’s oceanic monsters on his visits to the cape, but he discovered more freedom here than on any of his other travels. He thrived on the cape’s ceaseless natural activity, its sudden surprises and drama. There was humor, also, which might surprise some readers acquainted only with the writer’s more famous works. Thoreau’s chapter called “The Wellfleet Oysterman” portrays an old Rabelaisian tobacco-spitting fisherman and his family with complete aplomb.
We would hike the Nauset saltmarsh, the Wellfleet dunes and the cedar swamps on well-kept trails and boardwalks, and hit the wonderful Cape Cod National Seashore that extends for many miles northward to its terminus near Provincetown– the clenched hand of the great bent arm. On the windswept beach at Nauset, on Thoreau’s “beach of smooth and gently sloping sand,” we were treated to a sudden view of seals that swam easily through an endless series of white breakers near the shore.
And that wasn’t all. While a sand bank, Cape Cod’s shrubby backbone, loomed precariously behind us, my daughter noted something much larger than a seal, about a hundred yards offshore. A whale– first, one dark shape and then another– a pod arcing through the whitecaps in the morning sun. We watched their water in amazement, and would learn from an experienced observer on the beach that they were minke whales– a small baleen species of approximately 23 feet in length and up to 10 tons in weight.
Thoreau saw these social whales in more dire circumstances, at a time when they were hunted and slaughtered unmercifully. He encountered the butchering of about 30 “blackfish” (as they were called) on the sands nearby, another scene of “naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.”
Near Provincetown we hiked a mile across the most amazing coastal dunes we’ve ever experienced. Sand banks rose a hundred feet or more and dwarfed the bare-footed walker. Between them might be found a cranberry bog with ripened berries. Stunted trees and plants such as bayberry and beach pea held the sand in place against the brutal Cape Cod winds.
Provincetown was just a four-planked street and fishing harbor in Thoreau’s day. The writer would likely turn and grumble in his grave to see the place today. Then again, there might be something sure to please him there, as well.
Thoreau had found a “pleasant equality” and good humor reigning among the rural populace, as if it were blessed by those “who had at length learned how to live.” And that feeling of equality might be found today, as well, especially in bustling Provincetown, a safe haven for minority groups and for the artistically inclined.
Thoreau wanted to experience the kind of seashore that rebuffed hotels and businesses, that had nothing manmade other than a lone humane hut or two constructed for a shipwrecked sailor or a struggling explorer. He wanted “to put up at the true Atlantic House,” and here he found it.
Far behind this solitude of ocean and desert, we could see the towering monument to the Pilgrims who had landed at Massachusetts Bay near the dawning of westward expansion. From the crest of our hundred-foot dune, we gazed northward on the restless and illimitable ocean.
We descended on a path, or “hollow,” through the dunes. The unending rush of white-capped breakers were like waterfalls, each wavering line, each noisy drop, dispersing toward the sand from distant, unknown places.