The towns of Wellfleet and Provincetown, near the tip of Cape Cod, are two of my favorite places, especially in the cold of winter. During our first big snowfall this year (weeks ago as of this writing), I looked out the window at gray clouds and slush, and dreamed of the sea.
Located on the Outer Cape, Wellfleet has a long history beginning with several villages inhabited by the Nauset tribe. Pilgrims visited in 1620 and it incorporated as a town in 1763. Whaling ships once came to the harbor, but those days are long past. At its narrowest only a mile, more or less, from the Atlantic on the ocean side to Wellfleet Harbor on the Bay side, Wellfleet now is a quiet place whose Main Street would suit a wood-cut drawing.
For years, I rented a cottage there for a week or two in August, and lived simply and alone in the woods on the edge of the National Seashore. A sandy meadow fronted the cottage and my only neighbor was a hundred feet away. Each morning I bicycled a half mile downhill into the town center to buy the local newspaper, then bicycled back uphill to eat a breakfast of native strawberries and Grape Nuts with yogurt on my front doorstep. At night I drove down dark, narrow, tree-lined roads to one of the Atlantic side beaches, leaned against my car and listened to the roar of the waves.
When my older daughter was almost two years old, I led her for the first time into the warm water of Wellfleet Harbor. Exploring the beach is an act of discovery and daily renewal is the life of a beachcomber. Constantly, as waves resculpt the shore, the ocean flings treasures from the deep. That year hundreds of horseshoe crabs littered the beaches of Wellfleet. Two of them dead and overturned in this picture taken August 8, 2006.
Horseshoe crabs spawn in May or June, so it was unlikely they appeared in such numbers to mate. After checking my almanac I discovered that a full moon, which would raise especially high tides, occurred the following night. So perhaps the force of a powerful surf washed them up en masse. With leathery shells looking like shields, horseshoe crabs have survived unchanged for over 350 million years; I was awed thinking that I came upon a scene that had repeated itself countless times and reached back to the early history of the earth.
When visiting the Cape I often walk past modest homes with cedar shake shingles. During the winter, ocean winds are harsh and unyielding, and a home near the shore suffers continual maintenance. In the places that have been repaired, new shingles golden in hue will weather over time to the familiar, quintiessentially New England gray, a color that like the typical Yankee is quiet, withdrawn and unprepossessing.
Yet, these houses with their fenced yards are also canvases for flower gardens—daubs of color that catch the eye and sometimes take the breath away. A leisurely stroll down one quiet street in Provincetown might take us past sprays of wild roses, daisies, black eyed Susans, tiger lillys, snapdragons and wildflowers, all carefully arranged to appear as if they grew haphazardly, without cultivation and natural in their chaos.
Each yard seems more artful than the last. Is there competition among homeowners, unstated or not? Or simply joy in feeling the sun on one's back while digging in the soil, planting, fertilizing and painting with the most evanescent of palettes?
Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, has a year round population of 3,500 that swells to 50,000 in the summer. Unlike Wellfleet, it is raucous with shops, artists and a predominantly gay and lesbian community. As a result the eccentric, the unconventional and the flamboyant are accepted and perhaps even expected.
Street musicians play outside the Provincetown town hall, and in particular I remember Ellie, a slender man(?)/woman(?)/transgender(?) who wore a long blonde wig and a miniskirt. In the late afternoon he/she sang Sinatra tunes with a marvelous voice and a sign that read “74 years young and living the dream.”
Now in this month of February the evenings are lighter and the sun sets later and later each day. So far this winter has been mild overall with no snow on the ground here in Boston and, with luck, maybe one snowstorm to go before spring. Even so, I walk from my home wearing a heavy coat, gloves and a hat. The weight of all that outerwear continually reminds me of the season, when we huddle for warmth and wait for the sun like birds fluffed up on a fencepost. In Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
We often like to think now of the life of men on beaches,--at least in mid-summer, when the weather is serene; their sunny lives on the sand, amid the beach-grass and the bayberries, their companion a cow, their wealth a jag of driftwood or a few beach-plums, and their music the surf and the peep of the beach-bird.
Winters are long in New England and inevitably by this time I dream of summer. I dream of shedding the layers of clothes. I dream of walking barefoot in salt water, stepping gingerly on rocks and broken shells, picking up seaweed and tossing it aside. Most of all, I dream of standing before the surf with the curve of the earth in the distance, the vast ocean beckoning me not to do my chores, but simply to be.