My number had come up in the lottery. I’d won a brief stay at the C-Scape shack, a two room construction with a bed in the loft; no electricity, no running water, and a compost toilet for number two. The shack, along with sixteen similar buildings nestled among the dunes at the tip of Cape Cod, had been grandfathered in when the National Park Service acquired the land in the sixties. The clauses of the agreement specified that the owners of these gray clapboard woodpiles could use and maintain them in their semi-dilapidated condition, but were barred from making improvements. The plan entailed that the structures would slowly rot away with the elements, succumbing to “the unseen tenure of decay,” in the words of the local poet—and infamous homewrecker—Harry Kemp. The shacks would eventually be ceded back to nature.
My partner, Megan, joins me. After driving from upstate New York, we’ve been told to wait for John at the Race Point ranger station on the Cape. A half hour passes before John arrives. He’s a wiry old hand, short of words but friendlier for that. We shuffle our backpacks and a duffle of books into his mud-spattered Ford Escape before rollercoastering over the dunes; our stomachs buoy up as we coast down a loft. We carom and circle the mile to our temporary home. The dilapidated door has several holes plugged with plaster, paper, odd bits and ends. All the locks are rusted; the bolts are jammed in splintered crooks. Inside, a mangled carpet, a hand-jimmied bookshelf, a few mismatched chairs, and a plump fraying sofa surround a potbellied stove, ubiquitous granules underfoot.
John gives a quick tour of the premises. Perishables and food without hard packaging must be sealed in a safe-box; litter’s hung on a nail from the rafters so the critters won’t dig in it. “Good thing you brought those gallon jugs,” he says, trying to show me how to catch the horsehead pump outside, “because the well’s broken. Leather’s rotted through.” He flashes a taut, fatalistic smile. He points out a few native plants. We ask about the biggest animals we might encounter.
“No deer here or wolves anymore—but we’ve plenty of weasels and foxes. Course, if you’re talking big, you might spot a whale.” Then he nods goodbye and motors off.
People claim to have spotted a bear near Truro way back, but it’s likely just a “seed planted,” Mary Oliver writes. And there’s the old myth of the P-town sea-monster, a sixteen foot bearded lion-like creature with a “round buttock.” The tale originates from a newspaper article from Benjamin Franklin, who was the Benjamin Franklin’s uncle. It’s a piece of local lore that gets periodically revived. But the genuine sea monsters, which abound here, interest me most. I don’t know if I’m Ahab or Jonah, seeking or fleeing, but whales, legends, fish stories suck me in. We’ve ventured here for the freedom to work on our writing and, hopefully, see a Leviathan.
Our shack sits in a trough, slumped in the parabolic dunes on the narrow stretch of land east of Pilgrim Lake past the limp wrist of the Cape where the shore begins turning inward toward Provincetown. We can hear the ocean’s metronymic thunder from the porch. To get to the coast we tramp by blossoming beach-rose, wind-whipped blades of dune grass tracing halos in the sand, then stumble down the steep bulkhead to the Atlantic. From the crest, the noonday reflects like tinfoil off the sea. Coming back, Megan scoops up a few prolific tiny gray toads that spawn in the mucky divot by the busted well-pump. We deem them “Hoppers,” after the painter who immortalized these shadowy slopes.
Daylong, the breakers trumpet up and dump another load of codswallop. Each afternoon, we trek along the shore, combing the wrack-line for whatever the tide spits up. The beach looks different by the hour. High tide on a clear June day, the dunes slouch down into a fierce mirror where the dunes are a blinding, bone-white glare. A log rolls down the slope; slaps back up with every wave. Old gulls huddle and drift ahead of us, picking at putrid scales. I start to recognize a big one that gimps on an injured foot, a red mark on its beak like a bloodstain—the red coloration acts as a visual cue for chicks’ demand to be fed. A large mark indicates a healthy ocean; smaller spots have been correlated with oil spills.
The big gull gawks and squawks, then flaps up and yaws, touching down only a few yards off, hobbling on one leg. Someone’s made a small shrine with quills and driftwood spiked around decaying lumps, crowned with a horseshoe crab’s tail. I find the helmet-like carapace of this ancient anthropod—not a crab at all, but a Chelicerata—further in our walk, live barnacles clinging on the shell’s under-lip near its rotting book of gills. I chuck it back into the deep beyond.
Another day at low tide, kelp and rockweed sludge over pebbles. Fronds of sea lettuce slobber the gravelly flecks of Jello-green mucus. Bladderwrack with puffy pneumatocysts unfurl their olive bubble-wrap. Undulations of eelgrass scroll the shore. Devil’s apron glisters with slick rubbery leaves. Other seaweeds blot and ribbon burgundy or jade, rust, lime, maroon, or orange. Bottleglass and tiny bits of broken shells get spit-shined by the froth of waves sweeping over them. The beach beds down with a patchwork of broken vessels; its waters, protean and profuse.
On any given trip, we’ll examine mermaid’s purses, quahogs, skulls, crab shells, sponge tubes, scallops, razor mussels, sand fleas, squids, or jellyfish. The sand-dollar-sized, perforated discs that keep cropping up, we find out later, are plastic sewage filters. Here at a continent’s edge, we marvel at the garbage churned and spewed by a world submerged. The beach is littered with flensed spines of striped bass, which fishermen have abandoned. The fish heads smile up at us, gawping, eye-sockets eaten out like ghastly masks from carnival. An orgy of deerflies festers above the leftover lobster shells scattered from lunches. During one low tide, we encounter countless galaxies of starfish, some as small as a fingertip, others bigger than one’s outspread palm. Terns veer out to sea, dive-bombing for dinner, while a tiny plover waddles ahead of us, cycling blurry spindled legs. Eider ducks bobble on waves, their sinuous necks plunging headfirst under the roiling surface.
One outing, a large, indistinct mass looms from the sea. I’m excited, then worried that a whale might beach itself this close to shore. No, it’s too small. Closer inspection reveals a dog-faced creature poking up its snouts. No, two—grey seals. They rise for air, gazing shoreward, curious of their human neighbors, then glide back, disappear.
The dunes in our backyard are not, as I’d assumed, a result of the Cape’s shoreline, which curls inward like a beckoning finger—rather they’re due to the man-made depletion of the grass, trees, and shrub that once covered this area: desertification through over-grazing, a problem shared with many areas of the American West. The early colonial settlers’ sheep and cattle decimated the once-abundant pastures. As early as 1714 an act was passed to preserve the trees from becoming chopped down for firewood. A dozen years after Provincetown was incorporated in 1727, an act forbade the cows from munching on any remaining tufts. Now the topsoil has no foothold and the barren earth scatters and blazes. Prevailing northwest winds sculpt the loose sand into huge shoulders and gullies; stronger ocean breezes are wetter and tend to tamp the sand down. Gales rearrange the entire topography overnight. Roads get blocked and paths vanish when mounds drift like snowbanks after a storm. “A large part of the real estate,” Emerson says in his journals, “freely moves back and forth in the air.” The land’s as shifty as the waves, forever migrating, flying away or burying itself.
The view from the ridge reminds me of the story of Moses offered a glimpse of the Promised Land before he died from a distant hilltop. In fact, two nearby hills on the Cape are named Mount Gilboa and Mount Ararat. Significantly, Moses is the only person the Bible records who was personally buried by the Lord: “He buried him in a valley,” says Dueteronomy 34:5, “…and to this day no one knows where his grave is.” Moses had no marker, no stone to be made an idol. Instead, his remains are lost among desert and deluge. Moses smashed the first tablets of the law, descending from the mountain, forcing the Lord to do a re-write. Here on the Cape, sands blizzard and whirl to a blear; they cover their tracks, spinning up dust devils and slithering curves over the freckled, erratic fastness, continually spilling themselves, emptying their hourglass. Grains float into the horizon, as if each particle could be a fragment of originary law.
Cape Cod beyond the cliff at High Head is only 5,000 years old, nothing in geologic time. Most of this land has been accreted from the currents, wind and water adding bits onto the glacial moraine, which forms the rest of the Cape. Many geologists suspect that other parts of the nearby Massachusetts coast are a residual strip that peeled from the European landmass eons ago, as the continents broke and drifted off. This has ever been a place of flux. The patches of dune grass have been planted starting in 1825 in an effort to help hold the ground from blowing away. Today this foothold’s gripped by its literal grassroots from washing out or wandering off from the mainland.
On the deck out back, I piss letters on an arid defile while a jet dashes off its vapor trail overhead. A mile or so up the coast, at Race Point Station, the beach is full of snuffling dogs, preppy day-trippers, canoodling sweethearts, and gay “bears” from Provincetown and Truro. Between our shack and Race Point, however, only a few grizzly flap-capped fishermen in waders dot the beach. Trucks on dune tours trumble pods of tourists over rutted tracks. Further inland, cyclists veer bike-paths between kettle ponds and dwarf pine.
In the shallow bowl where our shack is nested, Megan and I laze on the porch, scribbling whole mornings in our notebooks, occasional zigzags of dragonflies razzle by. Prop planes dragging banners cast shadows upon us. Vireos, cedar waxwings, and warblers scissor across the horizon and whistle back to perch on a nearby stump or huckleberry bush; wood-bees hover and zipline behind us. Prints trace the foxed sheets of sand.
Gazing over the pitch and bias of the dunes, I imagine the landscape as a palimpsest, not so much because this spot’s been home to a marvelous variety of litterateurs over the years, but because the land is riddle with oblique shelves of scrub and grit. It’s a littered work-in-progress, scribbling itself anew.
Out for another walk, seals break the glossy surface of the waters. The sun radiates violet and vermeil across sea chop. Seals frisk, barking unintelligible delight to each other. They drift close enough so that we can observe their expressions, nosing about with pugnacious grins before they dive and resurface further off. Grey seals are generally gentle and playful unless they feel threatened. Nonetheless, tourists are warned not to approach them since a rare seal has been known to bite. Down to a slim handful by 1980, the population is back up on the Cape to the thousands and increasing. Local authorities are worried that the seals’ numbers have started to attract Great White sharks, potentially harming the tourist economy, if not actual tourists. This summer seals thrive in record numbers, following schools of fish down the coast.
We witness the madness of a feeding frenzy. Small fish thrash so thick in one spot the water churns, flush with tiny flashes leaping from the water. Hordes of inchlings, which locals dub “baby bunkers,” attract larger fish and seals into the area. Before long, fishermen are lubbering in with their guts and buckets, trotting along the beach as fast as they can to cast into the swarm, everything sharking to the spot, right on up the food chain. The next afternoon, trudging back from our lone daytrip into Provincetown, the tiny fish gleam along the shoreline for a mile, washed up by the tide, shriveled in the sun like “a million earrings rinsed in the dawn,” to steal a line from the poet Mark Doty, who owns a place in P-town. Many of the fish still fidget, flop, and twitch—much like those fish-shaped toy fortunetellers that curl up in one’s palm. When Megan throws a few back in the water, an old salt chuckles, “You won’t be helping them any.” Their fate’s been sealed.
We follow the dazzling path of wriggling fish back home. Suds create a haze in the air. A hawk’s silhouette tholes the thermals. Beach-grass italicizes. The dunes crests and spray like the waves. One after another, cold pages of spume scud over wreckage. Scanning its thrust and undertow, the gulls glide above, scavenging. The waves sweep back, shining; swell and fold. They swelter, leap, fall, and roll. They hold in a galling brilliance. Day dies and dazes. Thoreau once called this beach “a vast morgue.”
We’ve ventured here for the gift of time, a short spell in which we could undertake new writing projects. But isolated among the dunes and waves, we begin to notice how the days wash over us, carrying us forward even as they drags us back, piece by piece, emulsifying us into more and more drafts. In our daily jaunts, the same scenes circle, blur, loop, lacerate, and erase themselves like a filmstrip replayed one too many times. We’re always starting from scratch. Expansive mornings, I turn over volumes or waste hours overturning the lines in some crabbed poem; afternoons we’re vagabonds among ever-changing landforms. We jaunt through fanning paths, forever on the lookout for the somersaulting humpbacks or fleets of patchy-headed right whales. We examine the tiny watch-like mouth parts of sand fleas. Increasingly, our attention’s zeroed to the minutia of discard, trifles, and beer cans: trivia wrecked at some littoral meeting place between deceptive currents.
Before nightfall, we trim the lanterns. We read under a thin circle of illumination dangling from a hook, a small flame projecting lurid shadows on the wall. Moths flutter and merge their silhouettes with ours. Trash-bags float overhead like thought-balloons, hanging from rusty nails, lest the mice ransack our rubbish. Something’s scratching—a critter skulking through the house. Beyond the window it’s utterly dark: only our own ghostly faces glare back. The wilderness beyond seems immense. Random sounds begin to spook us. A rustle, a susurrus.
The slight, unnerving babble needs to be drowned out. We’ve been warned the shack has weasels. We adjust the FM’s dial, tune past the staticky rock, pop, or talk stations from Boston and Providence to find some local pirate radio broadcasting blues covers. Otherwise, the constant scritch and cricketing, the waves’ low thunder and the sea-wind make this place a madhouse. We drink Sangria, play a board game, and turn in early, exhausted from our long day of walking and working. But past midnight I wake up from the noise. I scratch another line or two and turn in.
One evening, a storm broods out to sea. We brace ourselves on the crest, cloudbanks rumpled along the horizon, like dark mountains of some Atlantis sailing above us. Wind picks up. The water’s a booming seethe of nauseous swill. Gulls swoop and boomerang, held stiff in mid-air against the gale. One small craft still shines in the distance, heading in. When the lightning strikes, a forked tongue, it breaks the sky and licks back up into the heavens. Rain starts to pummel down. Sand’s pockmarked. We race downhill, back inside, past the rippled thickets and rushes. Our lone dim solar-powered light bulb blinks off after a crash of lightning. Windows rattle and swim.
Each blue bolt snaps like a photo—we glimpse a rodent slink through bayberry. Nosapocket, an old Wapanoag Indian, tells the legend of a weasel that once darted into a congregation at an Indian meeting house and briefly materialized into a human being, then “poof,” he “collapsed back into weasel form . . . never to be seen again.” Our ramshackle cabin miraculously holds together despite its wormholed timbers plugged with paper and plastered with schmutz.
Halfway through our time, I reflect on the undertow of days rolling by. During our first day here, we attempted a journey to the Visitor’s Center, the lookout tower of which is visible from our shack. It juts up above the dunes, past a perimeter of scrub and vegetation. We traversed the wending terrain, which shipwrecks into a labyrinth of marsh and wild cranberry bogs. Desiccated moss crunched underfoot as we threaded through a dense selva oscura. We passed earthstars and lady’s slippers, false paths forking through the gully into brambles and tangles. By the time we reached a murky valley festering with mosquitos, we decided to turn back.
The second day, we tried to reach the elusive Visitor’s Center again, catching a trail back into the mosquito breeding grounds, but found a bike path that led us home. Soon lost again, we ogled the whale-roads from a ridge, but never saw any cetaceans. Late sun squalled and shimmered as if the sea’s mouth swallowed swords, breathed fire.
Various journeys overwrite themselves, subscribed into the understory of memory. Picking our way through a snarl of pitch pine and scrub oak, the insistent deviance of cranberry swales and bog-marches, we finally reached the Visitor’s Center on our third try.
As we examine the labeled artifacts at the Visitor’s Center, I overhear an elderly tourist couple who sound like descendants of the Mayflower with their high-toned patrician accents. They give us wooden looks as if we were fresh off the boat, buzzing like busybody wasps to the ranger about what kind of whale they sighted. I thump up to the panoramic deck. No whales in view. Instead, the vista reveals a thin serpentine trail that circles back to our ramshackle redoubt.
Another day, another walk—or maybe the same day since time itself mazes. About two-three miles from our shack, around the bend from Race Point, we reach the flats where there’s a sandbar and tidepool. We rummage, but don’t find much. We decide we’ll look on our way back. Turning another corner, we discover an abundance of moon snails, the size of baby’s skulls. Most are alive and oozing goop. We stagger round to the tidal basin, a long hollow filled with starbursts of flotsam, old life-preservers, loose rigging, rotten hulls. Then we follow a footpath up to the lighthouse.
In the distance, the lighthouse-keeper peers at us through binoculars. When we arrive at the candy-cane striped tower, I approach the house next to it, asking for water. After several knocks, an old man with fish-scales sequined in his beard comes out, tell-tale binoculars hanging from his neck. He refuses to fill our water bottle, saying “This is my property.” I give him a searching glare, knowing that we’re still in the park. “Get off my property,” he says after a pause. I inform him that we’re on the National Seashore, which is public land. He says the lighthouse is run by the Lighthouse Preservation Fund. So I ask him where “his” property begins. At first he points to a fence-post at the foot of the little boardwalk that runs up to his door, but reconsiders, and then points vaguely yonder over the dunes. “You can’t see it from here,” he says. I don’t believe him, so I ask, “How can I get off your property when I can’t tell where it begins?” The wind spritzes sand in my face. He grimaces. I ask for water again, and he barks, “No.”
We walk off. However, this seems to antagonize the old codger some more, so he stalks behind us as we’re leaving. He yells at us to stay away from the plover nesting grounds. Megan says, “Yes, they’re roped off.” He takes this as a provocation, saying, “You were getting close there!” As we wander off, he picks up his binoculars again, squinting at Megan in her bikini.
Lighthouse-keepers have always been a peculiar breed. Thoreau teased a lighthouse-keeper that he should profit by so much light, “Government oil!—light enough, perchance, to read the Constitution by! I thought he should read nothing less than his Bible by that light.” Instead of being shining examples of enlightenment, however, most lighthouse-keepers seem a dim and batty race, tucking themselves up into lonely towers. This lighthouse-keeper tried to claim a little spit of land that belonged to the government, or nature, or god. Or nothing—since it’s all blowing in the wind, shaped by the waves. I still see those roving eyes goggling in his head, and the far-gone, blinding wattage of those beacons startle me awake some nights.
When we amble back to where the tidepool was, it’s been lost. The waves dragged out. So we stumble home on fresh ground, a few seals gadding and frolicking nearby the shore. At evening the darkness scythes over the dunes, sand ripples wrought into chiaroscuro. Party boats and sails lace the horizon. “It is the first and last land in America,” John Hay wrote of this place; as far back as 1007, Icelandic whale-hunters called it Furdustrandas, Wonder-Strand, before the English claimed it Northern Virginia: the beginning—the end of the country, where, as Thoreau once said, you’re free to turn your back on it. Indeed, the citizens of Provincetown were originally exempted from taxes and military duties. Looking out over the wide waste of waters thrashing up more giddy foam and cutting inroads along the beach, one can believe it is America in extremis. Here, as the local poet Alan Dugan said, you can have “a hooky life baited with good times,” if you’re content to nurse the little pleasures given by the waters and taken by the land. The dunes shift and the shore erodes.
The last full day at our shack begins as a dreary morning tinseled with mizzle. We potter about inside. Around noon, it clears somewhat, though cloudbanks still glacier above us. We want one last epic walk. We’re eager to see as much of the park as we can, knowing there’s much we missed; much we will miss. We hike out to the Visitor’s Center, planning to ask what routes to take. We realize, through all our blazing and mazing of trails, we never strolled the length of the bike path yet, so we head toward Beech Forest.
The terrain zigzags abruptly from dunes to swampland to woods and back again. Dragonflies descend and iridesce. Mushrooms terrace an old willow oak. Wild iris bedizen the pondside near lily pads where tiny water-skaters dimple on the surface-tension. Mosquitos are terrible here, of course. Megan and I keep swatting them off, playfully smacking each other. Next to the roadway, half submersed, we spot a rare splayfoot toad. It’s much larger than the little Hoppers near our house. We’re glad not to be racing by on bikes. Flies corkscrew above it, but it stays put. I have a hunch the frog is wary of us—it’s crouched down, stock-still but spring-loaded, peeping up from the puddle with big unblinking eyes, ready to leap at any breach of faith. Amphibians have had a rough time of it lately, many threatened or endangered. Some hypothesize it’s because their permeable skins soak up any toxins that seep into water.
The path bisects, and we choose the longer route, haunting through more woods and sauntering another three miles out to Herring Cove. Where the beachhead meets trailhead, we inadvertently step through a lesbian elopement. A minister’s about to sanction a kiss as we mount the hummock right into the ceremony on the other side. Just as we behold sea crushing shore, we realize we’re wedding crashers. We hotfoot away before we cause more of a to-do. Breaking through, the sun unravels from its mummy-shroud. We steal down to lounge on the beach. Examining the crumpled map I buried in my pocket, we find we’re actually closer to P-town than to our shack. We flirt with the idea of trekking into town and then trying to hitch back. What decides us against the journey to town is that we don’t have a dime on us—what if we got hungry before we found a ride? We opt for the long slog past Herring’s Cove along the shore to return.
Before we reach the Race Point lighthouse we can see in the distance, and which we know will offer no solace, we have to navigate Hatches Harbor with its wide depression of tidepools and marsh with swatches of salt hay grass. There we discover scallops and razor-mussel shells among the mud flats. Turning a bend, there’s no solid land now that high tide has encroached all the way into the plover nesting area, blocking our path. Water snakes into the shallows for near a mile. We roll up our jeans, our sleeves, and wade in. As the quicksand slips from under our feet, we plunge down the muck, breasting the water, which sloshes to our nipples. The water gives a wicked chill. But soon we’re slaphappy and splashing. Once we’ve crossed the gully, we traipse around another bend, and bask in the sun, its bloodflame pulse on bare skin.
Continuing our beach walk, a seal pup approaches, swimming within a few feet of shore. It gambols and skylarks, coasting on its back, its belly up. Its gleeful face is turned toward us as it paddles. The seal’s delight causes Megan to squeal, “Meet you in the jellies,” silliness from a James Schuyler poem that’s somehow oddly appropriate. Sunlight webs over water so that when the seal dives back under, we can follow its outline. A carefree little fellow, the seal pauses to look at us again, then plunges under, nosing through the waves, probably as curious of us as we are of it. The pup swims along parallel to us, popping up for air and making sure we’re heading in the same direction, a charming ham. We click a photo with our phone when the seal swerves close, but it pixelates to blur. The seal is a strange stain where the watery shadows pass away. It proves impossible to capture. We just enjoy our guest, amused with our chance encounter. It follows us, freewheeling, for over half a mile.
Eventually, we round another crook, and the seal seems to slide along solo, further out to sea. As we make the turn, we discover a dead white heron. A slender needle of a bird, as tall as a small child, it must have recently died since only a couple stray mites pillage its gelatinous eyes. Its feathers look greasy, warped and weatherworn. The sight snuffs the giddy sentimentalism of our recent baby seal sighting. Our errant roaming begins to take its toll on our weary limbs; Megan’s scummed bellbottoms look frayed and limp. We’re getting closer to home now, a couple miles from the peopled beach at Race Point as dusk approaches.
Before we reach the sunbathers and day-trippers, we spy a black lump trundled in the waves. At first we guess it must be a spare tire, it has such an odd rubbery lumber and elliptical thump. But closer inspection reveals it’s a dead seal pup. My heart starts and wobbles. It looks identical to the one we observed but minutes before. As its blubbery body tumbles in the tidewash, I bend down closer. A clean round depression marks its mottled stomach: a bullet-hole, I think. “But who—who would want to hurt this little guy?” Megan asks. On our final leg home, the long mile and a half stretch from Race Point Station, we alert a ranger driving by on a four-wheeler so she can report the dead seal to the harbor authorities.
We’re bedraggled and famished as we drag ourselves to the shack at the end of our walk—almost thirteen miles in all, most of it barefoot across the beach. There’s only a sliver left of light. I nibble an apple, a bagel. I sip a glass of white wine and hunker on the porch to paint an impression of the dunes. I brush the dune crests as the last blush of shade goes down. The mosquitos siphon off their souvenirs, a rich itch of blood. A lush gloom.
Our final morning, we take one last walk down to the beach before we go. Scarves of dense fog fringe the dark waters. Cold waves refresh stones, wet with their true colors: glittering pink, cyan, sage, and ash. Already, our time here is hazing into the backwash of reminiscence. The Cape is supposed to be the best spot in the lower forty-eight to sight whales. Yet, despite constant sea-gazing, neither Megan nor I saw one flipping humpback the whole time, not a fluke. I have a journal full of notes and poems, scribbles and blots. Most of the ravished innards I’ve written will get erased. A few seals, no more than black shapes, play out and float off, finally vanishing under the sea. That one old bloody gull hobbles on its last leg, wandering the shore for castoff, gutted bait.
As we’re packing up to leave, we talk to John about the dead seal. He confirms that someone has been shooting the seals this summer because they gawp up bait and compete for the catch of the commercial fishermen. John also mentions, as we gallop back over the dunes in his SUV, that he’s in training to be the new lighthouse keeper.