Thoreau’s Cape Cod

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.

horseshoe crabs, Dennis, MA…

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.

mushroom sprouting from the dunes near Provincetown…

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.

from a cottage print…

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.

exploring White Cedar Swamp…

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.”

an inter-dunes trail, Cape Cod Nat’l Seashore…

a cranberry bog…

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.

beach pea vines…

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.

a taste of P’town…

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.

from Provincetown…

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.

the occasional dune hut (original use for shipwrecked sailors) …

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.

Nauset Lighthouse…

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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22 Responses to Thoreau’s Cape Cod

  1. Great post RTR! Your writing skills are showing and this post is a great example of it. I’ve not been to that region of the country. Maybe some day. You mentioned bayberry – did you see any native bayberry? I know it must be only vaguely similar to the scented candles that I like. Oddly, they aren’t very common in the mid-west (the candles). Great images, like usual! Safe travels back – if you aren’t already. UB

    • It’s an interesting region, UB, and I think that you’d enjoy it. I avoided the place when my only option was a summer visit (too crowded for my taste) but autumn is another story… And yes, bayberries… I should have taken a photo, as the native bayberry seemed quite common in the dunes, another great floral opportunity for inspection… Thank you!

  2. Brent Franklin says:

    This is a great tribute to a unique place with a freewheeling spirit, despite the crowds and development which have certainly increased since Thoreau’s time. I’m glad we were able to show you some of the remainder of what captivated Thoreau, only now with more of the natural tree cover. The spirit of Provincetown is precisely that it’s located at the literal end of the road. Historically, it was far from the moral police of an earlier version of Massachusetts, and its inhabitants embraced waving their freak flag. While it might be a bit more commercialized now, I’m glad that such a place can exist–especially with a special natural place like the dunes just next door.

    • Another shout of thanks goes out to you & Alyssa & Catherine for opening up the cape to your mom and me. A wonderful experience, for sure. And very good to find more wildness on the seashore & its maritime surroundings than expected. Thank god for our national treasures!

  3. Hi. You saw and did a lot. Cape Cod is a pretty special place. By the way, have you read The Outermost House, by Henry Beston? It’s become a so-called classic. It’s really good.

    • I’ve read parts of that book & plan to reread it in entirety. We were close to his perch there on the cape, so it’s become especially meaningful. Thanks for reading here, and for the Cape Cod inspirations, as well.

  4. John says:

    The shore is certainly a place where many beach combers go to contemplate. Worship and inspiration may also be a more fitting word. I’m sure Thoreau found the cape to be of immense beauty and intrigue. Qualities today that haven’t been lost..

    • Thanks John! “Worship” and “inspiration” are certainly fitting for locations such as this, especially for the wilder places of the seashore witnessed by Thoreau and many modern-day travelers who enjoy getting off the beaten track.

  5. Jet Eliot says:

    It is a pleasure to have walked the dunes here with you and your family, Walt. Your descriptions are serene, it is easy to see you were enjoying yourself. The Thoreau parallels were also wonderful, I had no idea he had written a book just about Cape Cod, and I also had no idea he wrote with a sense of humor. What I liked the most here were hearing about the harbor seals, seeing the horseshoe crabs and oh wow, whale sightings! How very exciting that must’ve been.

    • Thanks for walking along, Jet, and for the very kind words (still savoring your recent responses to From the High Hills…!) Yes, reading Thoreau can surprise one here, with his little known book & its discoveries, historical, somber, but often humorous, too… As for the wildlife sightings here, exciting indeed.

  6. tiostib says:

    Another beautifully told travelogue, one that led me with bare footprints into the frontier wonders of Nature. Thank you.

  7. plaidcamper says:

    What a captivating location! Fabulous words and photographs here, Walt. I think you visited at about the best time of year, giving you a chance to experience the shore in some solitude. I’ll be following up by getting hold of a copy of Thoreau’s Cape Cod, to find out more about his take on a coastal wilderness.
    Thanks for sharing, thoroughly enjoyed this!

    • Thank you, Adam. Yeah, I agree about the visit happening at a very good time, as far as solitude & physical comfort are concerned. As for Thoreau, I had read this work before, with all its grimness, mirth, and occasional plodding digressions, but it comes alive predictably after an actual visit to the cape. He takes coastal wilderness to new heights (or depths). Any fan of H.D.T. (and most are not aware of this book) can find surprises here.

  8. will k says:

    Enjoyed this. The cape is a wonderful spot, and it looks like you had a great visit.

  9. loydtruss says:

    What an adventure, that makes one feel they were there with you guys. Give me the Northeast over the South for its beauty, history, and yes the endless trout streams and lakes you have to fish there. This is another post that you have shared that makes one dream of peaceful tranquility that all of us wish for in this day and time. Great post thanks for sharing

  10. Bob Stanton says:

    Lovely Walt…you had me at “Thoreau.” I’ve heard that Provincetown is a haven for diversity and that a goodly percentage of its population is made up of descendants of Portuguese fisherman (or ARE Portuguese fisherman). Regardless, your vivid description of the area conjures up “Melvillean” imagery aplenty.

    • Thanks, Bob, for pointing it out: Provincetown is such– a fine haven for cultural diversity & tolerance. I didn’t realize it also has a very strong Portuguese connection historically. Fishermen & descendants all. It’s quite interesting, and I’m only now beginning to learn more about it.

  11. Bob says:

    The similarities we share amaze me. While living in the Albany/Kinderhook area we had a friend who had a house on the Cape and we vacationed there every summer for years. You’ve made me miss it. I’m gonna have to make a return visit. Thanks Walt, for sharing your time and inspiring me.

    • Bob M.,
      I do find it remarkable that many of our interests coincide when it comes to this big old world we share. You must have some great memories stemming from the Cape and I hope that you get back there sometime. I know I’ll be trying to do so.

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