I did not come to Cape Cod intending to write about it. Quite the contrary, it seemed to me that ever since Henry David Thoreau's posthumously published account in 1865, the Cape had become a travel cliche, combed by naturalists and novelists, trampled by summer hordes and done to death by gossip columnists and paparazzi tracking the Kennedy clan. But that magical juncture of sand, sea and sky where Massachusetts curls its salty tongue out into the Atlantic took me by surprise, casting its unshakable spell, compelling tribute.
The business that brought me to Osterville (a posh pocket of blue blood gentility at mid Cape) having been completed, I hightailed it up Route 6 to Wellfleet on the outer Cape. The idea was to take a solitary stroll on the beach, a whiff of salt sea air and a bowl of clam chowder. Little did I suspect that it would be love at first sight of the Cape Cod National Seashore, a 40-mile stretch of unspoiled beachhead from Chatham to Provincetown designated a protected area by Hyannis homeboy President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Rising like a great fist of sand, a contrecoup to the restless onslaught of the foamy deep, the 65-foot dune at Cahoon Hollow Beach off Ocean View Drive in Wellfleet whopped me right in the solar plexus. Weaving and waltzing, the Atlantic Ocean followed with a hard right. All I could do was gaze and gasp. Though the beach grass was still blue-green, the air had a crisp autumnal nip. The crowds were long gone, leaving behind a lone fisherman and a kid flying his kite. I took off my shoes, slid barefoot down the dune and walked along the winding beachhead till a bend in the sand swallowed fisherman and kid. I sat down and watched a bobbing black spot in the foam where the gulls circled low. It might or might not have been a seal. Lacking binoculars, I had to make do with the naked eye.
Back in town, the desolation was likewise soothing. Off-season Wellfleet retains the sleepy air of the New England fishing village it once was. Even Main Street, with its sprinkling of galleries, boutiques and restaurants (most closed till next summer) invites a quiet stroll. Left to your own devices, a little imagination will fill in the gaps. You can get a cup of coffee and browse the holdings of local talent at the public library.
The erstwhile home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and the scene of sometime resident Mary McCarthy's novel, "A Charmed Life," Wellfleet confirmed its literary heritage in a chance encounter.
They'd been digging up the roadbed near a high-end thrift shop called Eccentricity. Waiting in my car to be waved on by a policeman posted at the site, I noticed an old man with a white shaggy mane and bushy eyebrows at the wheel of the car waiting to pass in the opposite direction. His intense gull-like gaze briefly interlocked with mine. The face looked familiar. "You can go now, Norman!" said the young woman seated beside him. It might or might not have been novelist Norman Mailer.
Allergic to the hoi polloi, yet determined to make it to the tip of the Cape, the next morning I drove with a lingering dread the 14 miles north to Provincetown, expecting to find a raucous honky tonk town. But except for a busload of snapshooting souvenir hunters rubbing elbows with purple-haired nose-ringed locals on Commercial Street, off-season P-town proved a peaceful place.
The Pilgrims first landed here in 1620 (before they got to Plymouth Rock), and Portuguese fishermen subsequently set up shop. They were followed by dramatist Eugene O'Neil and succeeding generations of Greenwich Village denizens of every stripe who set the tolerant tone of anything-goes. The mood holds off-season as well as on, but the decibel level and body count are considerably lower after Labor Day.
I dutifully climbed the Pilgrim Monument on High Pole Hill, all 353 feet of it above sea level, for a sweeping bayside view of Long Point Light and the busy barnacle cluster-clam bed of cottages comprising downtown.
But feeling reclusive and wanting to take in a surfeit of sea and dunes in my brief stay, I fled to Herring Cove Beach at the edge of town and walked its length to Race Point Light, following in the footsteps of Thoreau. In season, I understand, this sheltered stretch of dramatic sunsets is the unspoken preserve of same-sex couples. Off-season, it was pretty much me and the gulls nesting noisily along the shore.
The mood was a salty blend of autumnal melancholy, the ocean and sky being a gray shade of blue, with the shrub oak and wild plum so prized by Thoreau streaked squash yellow and cranberry red by the freewheeling hand of nature. Driftwood bleached a ghostly white lay about like whale bones on the beach. An occasional whitecap blossomed like a forget-me-not on the flat blue lawn of Massachusetts Bay.
The dunes are lower here thanin Wellfleet, but they spread across the interior, walling in the salt pond habitats of wild ducks and loons.
A sinking feeling of despair when my camera ran out of film at the crest of a dune soon succumbed to a profound relief. No longer obliged to distance myself behind a 35 mm lens, I had no recourse but to join nature, to let the naked eye cavort with the windy clash of sand and sea and inhale the vapor of creation. I admit to feeling a tinge of guilt at robbing the seagulls of their virgin shriek and subjugating life to language. But oohs and ahs do not suffice before such windswept majesty. Even a loner like Thoreau felt compelled to put his wonderment into words. He filled a classic book with observations and reflections of a mere several weeks' looking. I figured I could legitimately extract an article out of a long weekend on the Cape.
If you go
Where to stay: At Wellfleet, I stayed at the inexpensive and congenial Inn at Duck Creeke (70 Main St., Box 364, Wellfleet, Mass. 02667; (508) 349-9333; Fax: (508) 349-0234; E-mail: email@example.com; www.capecod.net/duckinn). A complex of four vintage buildings on a five-acre wooded spread overlooking a salt marsh, the inn has 25 units in all. My cozy ship's cabin-like room with private bath in the Main Building, a 19th century captain's house, cost me a mere $70 a night plus tax, with a continental breakfast included. I did not miss the absence of TV or telephone in the room.
Another rustic option, this one right on the beach, is the vintage 60's "modern" surfside Cottages (Ocean View Drive at Le Count Hollow Road, Box 937, South Wellfleet, Mass. 02663; (508) 349-3959; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.capecod.net/surfside), an off-season steal at $70-$125/day for one-, two-, or three-bedroom units with kitchen, bath, fireplace and screened-in porch).
Gregarious friends have stayed in P-town at the off-beat White Horse Inn (500 Commercial St., Provincetown, Mass. 02657; (508) 487-1790). Rooms in this collectibles-laden late 18th century house run from $60 a single with shared bath to $125 for a fully-equipped efficiency unit.
Where to eat: The aforementioned Inn at Duck Creeke, in Wellfleet, has two restaurants on site, the posh Sweet Seasons (508-349-6535), which used to be the place in town, and the homier Duck Creeke Tavern just next door. Sweet Seasons was closed during my off-season stay, but the Tavern offered delectable pickings at moderate prices. I had a savory mussels and shrimp stew for $17, washed down by Copper Ale, a tangy amber Vermont draft on tap. Salad and a home-made rustic whitebread were extra.
In Provincetown, I dined at a local institution, the Lobster Pot (231 Commerce St.; 50 8/4 87-0842; no reservations) which has been dishing out fresh seafood since 1876. Their menu, the same all day, is replete with temptations from the deep in the $15-$21 range. I couldn't resist their Clambake special at $20.95, which included a salad, home-made bread, a memorable clam chowder, mussels, corn on the cob, a red potato and a pink 1.25 pound lobster. The place is bare-wood finish and friendly. Though lines can be long in summer, you can waltz right in off-season and get a window table overlooking MacMillan Wharf.
For more information: Surf straight to www.capecod.about.com, www.capecodchamber.org, or www.capecodhistory.org, and for such timely counsel as fall foliage updates to www.mass.vacation.com.