We are Cape people.
Every year, for about the past 20, we’ve returned for a week to a shabby cabin with a galley kitchen, lousy TV reception, and a deck with the proverbial “distant water view” of Wellfleet Harbor. Like the bobolinks that return each year from South America to their favorite New England hayfield, we keep coming back to this crook of fragile land, where the biggest decision of the day is: Bayside or ocean?
It’s not lack of imagination — or an aversion to culture — that brings us back year after year. It’s the reduction of all things, for a few days anyway, to the elements: light, air, water. And, above all, it’s the notion that vacation shouldn’t be such hard work. There’s a lazy comfort to our routine, the bones of which we lay out on the long ride from pike to bridge: Which night to head to Provincetown? Which to the drive-in? What day for the flea market? When we arrive at the Orleans rotary, I have my Stop & Shop deli order ready, the Cape’s being the only location on the planet where we actually eat olive loaf.
I could tell you where our favorite beach is, but then I’d have to kill you.
We discovered it many years ago, and let’s just say it’s a bit of a schlep, tucked away into grassy dunes and a brilliant green salt marsh on Cape Cod Bay. Its isolation and streaks of rockiness make it a less-traveled, more sedate counterpart to the oceanside beaches. Over the years we’ve watched its contours change, one dune waxing as another wanes. One year the skeleton of a hardtop road appears in the striation of a dune; the next it’s gone.
A few years ago we returned to find the place transformed by the previous winter, which had wreaked havoc on the Cape — its pebbly stretches smoothed over by a luxurious sweep of sand. The life cycle of a beach: one more thing to ponder as, nearly alone, we swish-swash a half mile out through knee-deep, diamond-dancing water to bask like seals on a sandbar.
That’s one thing that can still surprise you about the Cape: Despite its image as a crowded, touristy place, you can still find a solitary landscape, just as Henry Beston did when he built his “Fo’castle,” the little dune shack near what’s now Coast Guard Beach, the shack that became the setting for The Outermost House, his Cape Cod classic. Much of this solitude is thanks to the 44,000-acre Cape Cod National Seashore, a modern wonder of the world, and the other preserves that keep the Cape from being paved over.
Several years ago, in a rare outbreak of ambition, I bought a book called In the Footsteps of Thoreau: 25 Historic & Nature Walks on Cape Cod, by Adam Gamble, and each year we try a different hike, duly making notes about each one. Each has taken us into the Cape’s remarkable wild side: bold bluffs blanketed with wildflowers, the ruins of old farms, spectacular views of the ocean. One year we explored Pilgrim Spring, said to be the spot where the settlers of 1620 discovered the first fresh drinking water in their new land. Last summer we discovered the village-like streets of Provincetown’s West End and explored the beech forest in the Province Lands, on the Cape’s outer tip.
Often enough, though, there’s magic even in the crowded places. OK, maybe not in the Saturday morning traffic jams or the beach parking lots. But is there anything more fun than the kooky parade of humanity that makes its way up Commercial Street in Provincetown on a warm evening? Is there a finer summer moment than your first day out, when you’re standing at the top of the stairs at, say, the Marconi Station platform or Nauset Light, and you catch your first glimpse of the beach below — a sandy grand boulevard with a cast of tiny thousands, dotted with beach umbrellas like toy tops?
Above, a clear blue sky, and beyond, all that water.
The Cape makes me want to be a better woman.
Though I vacation in the valley of the fried clam, I shall consume only broiled fish, I vow as we prepare for takeoff over Sagamore Bridge. Early in my week, I even head to the basement of a church in town for a bit of aerobic torture known as the Wellfleet Workout. By Friday, I’m brunching on vodka tonics, dipping my Cape Cod potato chips into smoked bluefish pate from the local fish market, and figuring out whether I want mashed potatoes or fries with my lobster pie at Clem & Ursies.
Aspirations come easily from the seat of a beach chair. When I get home, I muse as I watch the tide come in, I’ll redesign my garden. Out with the phlox and in with the bushes of silvery-blue Russian sage that grow so audaciously next to the lemony daylilies on the traffic islands off Route 6. I’ll grow blousy blue hydrangeas, even the lacecap variety that seem to spring up almost wild on the Cape, even though they may not bloom well in my temperature zone in northwest Massachusetts.
And I will be well-read. That 10-inch stack of New Yorkers accumulated over the spring will be digested, along with the latest Tom Friedman tome.
Like the diet, such plans are abandoned in short order, and by midweek, I’ve plowed through a potboiler picked up for a quarter at a church tag sale on Route 6. And I know more about Archer Mayor’s Brattleboro than Tom Friedman’s Lahore.
There’s a poster at the Wellfleet Public Library announcing a lecture by a very smart man. Oh, too bad, he’s speaking next week. The extent of our cultural meandering is to tune in to an evening concert from Tanglewood on the radio while we play crazy eights in the living room. From our deck on Wednesday night, we can hear the music and see the contra dancers on Wellfleet Pier as we play Scrabble.
Every year we say, “Hey, we should go do that.”
Every year, we never do.
Last year I spotted a cell phone user on our beach. Actually, he wasn’t on the beach; he was in the water, cavorting with his golden retriever as he talked. It’s just wrong. I want to tell him: no multitasking. Relaxing and searching for doubloons only. Get off my beach and come back when you can follow the rules.
Because, to my mind, that’s what vacations are for, and that’s why the Cape is the place to do it. If you let — or make — yourself drop everything, the Cape, or any other place you revisit year after year, becomes a part of you, and its restorative powers will sustain you through the fall, winter, and spring, until you return. Sometimes when I can’t sleep in the middle of a January night, I take myself back to our beach. My breathing becomes the bay, inhaling, exhaling, onto the sand. Soon I’m dozing.
The Cape is our reward for New England winters. Could we ask for a better time and setting to slow down and reconnect — with kids, partners, parents, and friends? A few years ago, we got together for an impromptu picnic on our beach with some old college buddies who were moving to California.
It was one of those crystalline afternoons that I imagine happen only in the Cape’s wide, high light: no wind, no greenheads, warm water, tide just right. The grass danced a spangly silver, and as the kids scrambled along paths through the dunes and carved out canals at the water’s edge, we sat in beach chairs and solved the world’s problems.
We stayed on the beach yakking until it was nearly too dark to see. It’s a day that, years later, we still talk about. And if the olive loaf sandwiches and the beer hadn’t run out, we all might still be sitting there.