9: Reentry

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 17"x14"

Untitled, colored pencil, 17″x14″

THE EXPERIENCE OF FOOD here, like everything else, is elemental. I am singularly aware of everything I eat, as well as the effort of preparing and cleaning up after it.

There is a two-burner hotplate, and a gas refrigerator. The narrow kitchen is modestly, if well-equipped with an assortment of plates, silverware, and cooking utensils.

Meals are simple, and straightforward. A peanut butter sandwich or cereal and yogurt for breakfast, with cranberry juice and coffee. A sandwich at lunch (variations of cheddar cheese, hummus, tomato, pickle, onion, banana peppers, and mustard), with an apple or orange for dessert.

Provincetown dune shack Russell Steven PowellPasta or rice for dinner, with sautéed vegetables, red sauce, and salad. Guacamole with chips one night, rice and beans with corn (“shack chili”) another. No butter or white flour, little sugar or salt.

There is no dishwasher, or even running water. We wash our dishes by hand in a plastic tub in the sink, and empty the gray water outdoors, away from the shack. As writing by hand compares to a word processor, my retro experience sustaining basic life functions here makes me think more about the consequences of my actions, about my consumption. I use less, and re-use whatever I can.

It feels like a healthier relationship to food (eat only good food, only when hungry) than the more casual diet I am used to, which is heavily influenced by having endless choices in my home kitchen or for eating out, and a certain ennui and fewer healthier options at work.

I know from experience that this simpler, healthier approach to food will be difficult to sustain when I return to the rigors of the workplace. But I resolve to start making and bringing healthier lunches there with me.

* * *

Approaching Storm, Dunes, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14"x11"

Approaching Storm, Dunes, oil on canvas, 14″x11″

THE JUICE AND MILK last through our final morning’s pills and coffee. For breakfast, we finish off the yogurt and the last McIntosh and orange.

There are just a few garlic cloves left, and one onion. We will bring home several carrots, and half-filled jars of pickles, olive oil, and capers.

About one-third of the bar of cheddar remains, plus a little bleu and feta, and varying amounts of nuts, raisins, banana chips, and tea. There’s some leftover tomato sauce from last night’s dinner. A few cereal bars, a quarter can of coffee, half a liter of wine, a partial loaf of bread, and containers of turmeric and chili powder complete the list.

Somehow we overlooked two tins of smoked oysters and a box of crackers on a low shelf, and they will be repacked, unopened.

There’s not much else to bring home. Like every other part of my stay here, I enjoyed my food and savored my meals, but eating was not a main focus.

* * *

Dune Storm, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11"x14"

Dune Storm, oil on canvas, 11″x14″

A HUGE THUNDERSTORM unfolds over the ocean at 8 a.m. on our final morning, darkening the sky. Rain pelts the shack’s roof, great peals of thunder roll over the blank sea and flashes of lightning streak the sky or form jagged lines connecting cloud and water.

Yet two hours later the heavens clear, and it becomes so warm and humid by noon that we strip down to shorts and T-shirts as we depart the dunes, huddled in the back of a pickup truck packed with our Thalassa neighbors’ and our things.

Our final day is stitched together by lightning: as we approach the Connecticut River on our way home to western Massachusetts around 8 p.m., another thunderstorm strikes, simultaneous with a blazing sunset. The image of a round, red sun in the distance through heavy rain blurring our windshield is strange, a fitting exclamation point to this week of weather extremes.

A happy reunion with our pets, a shave and shower, stories of the shacks with our house-sitter and friend over wine and a dinner of leftovers and seafood (my Spartan diet has already been breached with a milkshake while waiting for the latter to cook at a takeout in Dennisport), and the return to the life we left a week ago begins in earnest.

I know from prior visits that my experience of the dunes has just begun.


8: Dune Beach

Dune Beach, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15

Dune Beach, watercolor, 11″x15

ON OUR LAST FULL DAY in Euphoria, we set our alarm for 4:30 a.m. in order to be on the beach to watch the 5:08 sunrise. From the warmth of our narrow, bottom bunk bed we see that the day will begin with clear visibility and little wind. Despite our early rise, though, from our north-facing window we already spot a broad patch of salmon sky sweeping the horizon.

We scramble down the path in our bare feet, which make a sound like soft chewing as they tickle the cool, sugary sand. The gradual sunrise is partially obscured by cloud cover, but the light grows steadily and the sun eventually breaks through not far above the skyline. Our attention toggles between the micro-environment of the beach and the vast ocean, mirroring the spatial relationship between the shack and the dunes.

Atlantic Dawn, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24"x20"

Atlantic Dawn, oil on canvas, 24″x20″

I take photographs, we scour the beach. The sand here is relatively free of ocean debris, but we collect a dozen or so crab shells, bleached pink or white by the sun. We examine a hollowed-out sea urchin, a barely alive crab (tossed back in), and countless compositions of pebble and seaweed, patterns of webbed seagull feet, fragments of pale, pungent sponges, and slick skate egg cases, looking like black raviolis with short tendrils extending from each corner.

There is plenty of bird life at this hour: gulls standing idly near the surf as if waiting for a bus, terns diving, plovers striding, and water fowl too distant to discern. The beach is relatively clean here, but still we pick up stray rubber gloves, plastic bags, beer cans, Styrofoam and other flotsam washed in from the sea.

We linger, watching southeast-bound fishing boats pass by at regular intervals. Gray seals bob up again and again near the beach singly or in pairs, sometimes for an instant, arching their long, smooth torsos as they disappear, other times staring at us through round, curious eyes as we wave our arms in greeting.

The walk provides a good example of how time slows down here: it feels as if we have been out for hours, but we are back in the shack eating breakfast before 7:30 a.m., a full day ahead of us.

It has been windy much of the week, and foggy at times, with patches of rain, or sunny and hot — often all in a single day. Today is no exception, turning out to be the hottest, most summer-like yet, but dissolving into breezy mist by evening (it is not exactly rain, but your skin gets damp even on the short walk to and from the privy).

I have been swimming  in the Atlantic most days. The water is cold but not icy, allowing me to more than simply run in, run out — I manage a couple of dives and float on my back before emerging. The decision to go in rests more on the strength of the wind and air, rather than water, temperature.

More than most beaches, I have an awareness that the ocean is teeming with life here. It is not just the seals or the terns dipping for sand eels; as I stand knee deep in water a good-sized fish, perhaps 18 inches long, approaches my ankles before quickly darting away.

A fisherman who walks the beach most days says he is “sight fishing” for striped bass — spotting their presence just below the water’s surface from shore, then casting in their midst. He pulls in a small one directly in front of where we sit. At 12 or 13 pounds, he says, it is about half as large as what he considers good size. He promptly throws it back in.

But this human presence is the rarity, and this is our sole conversation. Around the clock each day with few exceptions, the beach is ours alone as far as we can see in either direction, to read, walk, talk, or eat sandwiches beneath a mesh sun tent. In a moment of supreme relaxation, I lie splayed like a starfish on the wet sand.

But we, too, are insignificant specks here, where the animal life still dominates. We are of little consequence to the steady air traffic of terns above us, for example. After a lengthy sequence of squawking by two males fighting for the attention of a female, she promptly nests in the sand just outside the roped area arranged by humans to protect her.

No matter; when the park naturalists arrive, they merely pull up the fence posts on either side of her and arrange them closer to the ocean to accommodate her nest.

7: Dune Reading

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell watercolor 11"x15"

Untitled, watercolor on paper, 15″x11″

ASKED WHAT SHE LIKES doing most at the shacks, our friend at Peg’s answered that she likes to spend much of her day inside, reading. This definitely is a place where one can surrender to this luxurious activity.

This morning I finished re-reading The Outermost House for the third time, the first in a decade. It is a beautifully written book by Henry Beston about his year in the 1920s spent living in a two-room cottage on the beach in Eastham. It is filled with detailed observations about life in these dunes, poetically expressed. I should read it at least once every ten years.

Beston writes about the habits of birds and storm patterns, the variable surf and the life within it. I especially enjoy his chapters about night on the beach (he is often out in it), and our sense of smell.

He notes with regret how people had come to devalue the sense of smell in his lifetime, a trend that has intensified, I fear, in mine. I would add to this neglected sense hearing, which has been not so much neglected in our lives as overwhelmed.

The natural world is constantly alive with noise that we either ignore or layer over, and at the beach the simple, repetitive crash of breaking waves is a reminder of how complex and compelling natural sound can be, if we choose to listen. Like their visual counterpart here — the seemingly stark, monochromatic bands of dune, grass, ocean, and sky, which reveal a thousand shades and variations once one spends time among them — the waves are not truly repetitive at all. Each one breaks at a different height, in a different place, in a different cadence, producing subtly different sounds and shades than the one before it.

I contrast this with the assaultive blasts pulsing from my television set, the screech of unmuffled jets overhead, or the modified motorcycles that lay siege to my house in summer, shattering all society before, during, and after they pass. They symbolize the arrogant and aggressive sounds that we routinely tolerate in our culture today. To my ears, they are a vile pollution.

Silence is an adjunct to solitude, and equally hard to find. The dunes offer both in abundance, and my ears, as well as eyes, nose, and palate, experience a rare chance to reawaken here. I hear sounds I am usually deaf to, decompressed. I also experience a stillness so great I can hear myself think.

In addition to our senses of hearing and smell, we give short shrift to memory among those traits that disproportionately define our experience. We increasingly delegate memory, subcontracting it to our computers and cell phones, to great benefit but with great risk.

Our technology has exponentially expanded the great global closet of facts and figures available to our consciousness, while liberating us from the mundane. But something is sacrificed when we no longer are compelled to remember phone numbers and grocery lists. Our memory of events, always subject to interpretation, can become even more conflicted if we cede over this task to others, or to machines.

How can we truly argue, confidently resist the narrative of others when our own memory fails us? Memory, like smell, must be cultivated to experience its full benefit, else it atrophy. We strengthen memory by telling stories to each other, by making careful observations, by writing things down, by flexing our memory muscles in multiple ways, every day.

Deep, visceral memories of time and place are transmitted by our sense of smell, Beston notes. A reliable way of recalling the conscious events of our collective and individual experience, as well as their meanings, can be nourished by reading on the beach or in a dune shack, alone with our thoughts.

* * *

TODAY I BEGAN Cape Cod, by Henry David Thoreau, which, like The Outermost House I have read before and will read again. I love Thoreau’s descriptions of the 28-mile walk from Eastham to Provincetown he made three times between 1849 and 1855. Thoreau sets out for the Cape from Concord, Massachusetts, via Boston, taking the train to Sandwich, “the terminus of the ‘Cape Cod Railroad,”’ before transferring to stagecoach from there to Eastham to begin his hike. The story begins with a grim shipwreck in Cohasset and some history of the Cape from local historians. Cape Cod was a wild, remote, and somewhat desolate place then, and Thoreau describes his encounters with occasional wry humor.

The terrible violence of the sea was visible regularly from shore during Thoreau’s lifetime, and remained so during Beston’s, more than 50 years later. Both men write not just of the frequency of shipwrecks, but the mixed feelings of horror, fascination, and helplessness while standing on the beach watching people in their final, desperate moments before being swallowed up by a storm-churned ocean of inestimable strength.

The death and destruction in Salt House, Cynthia Huntington’s excellent 1999 collection of essays about three summers she spent living in Euphoria, thankfully is limited to her riveting description of a frenzy of bluefish that arrive in late summer, creating great havoc near the beach as they prey on anything that moves, including each other.

Like The Outermost House, Huntington’s book follows the calendar year of her stays in the dunes, a choice, I suspect, made because of the heightened awareness one has here of the passage of every day, each sunrise and sunset unfolding like the waves, unique in aspect, at a slightly different time, at a slightly different angle.

This awareness of the vastness of planetary time and space juxtaposed with the micro experience of living in the shacks, where every nail and loose board has identity and purpose, is both humbling and expansive. It is centering, a cosmic tuning fork, and its effect is fundamental to the dune experience, as expounded in its literature.

* * *

WE ARE ALSO READING Anne of Green Gables, aloud, evenings, by lamplight, in preparation for a trip to Cape Breton later this summer. My daughter read L. M. Montgomery’s century-old stories  about Anne, the wholesome but feisty 11-year-old, again and again. Rita probably read Anne of Green Gables in this very shack, where she stayed more than once as a young girl, loving the experience as much as the book.

I did not read Anne of Green Gables at the time, but now, separated by two decades and half the continent, reading Anne presents an unexpected and pleasurable sense of connection to my daughter and those earlier times.

6: Painting

Still Life with Avocado, Russell Steven Powell watercolor on paper, 15"x11"

Still Life with Avocado, watercolor on paper, 15″x11″

PAINTING AND ITS BODY ANALOG, athletics, both require endurance training. Practicing the art of shooting a basketball or developing proper running form is akin to learning to draw, requiring hand-eye coordination, fluidity, muscle control, and stamina. Physical and mental fitness  are essential to do either activity well.

Usually I only manage to paint for two or three hours at a time, but already this week I have had four- and five-hour stretches. It is energizing, relaxing — and draining. Painting is mostly pleasurable, but it is difficult at times to maintain concentration and control of my arm, wrist, and hand.

Today I paint for six hours, comparable, perhaps, to a long training run for a 26.2-mile marathon. During long runs I experience extended periods of serene beauty, where I feel totally in sync, successfully balancing relaxation with effort, moving fluidly, breathing rhythmically.

But there are other times when the pace is hard to sustain, physically and mentally. During these moments, my mind seeks relief from the relentless physical exertion, but also from the demands of concentration. The discomfort makes manifest my doubts about my ability to complete what I set out to accomplish.

Running through these mental troughs, I become more fit and gain greater confidence that I will emerge stronger from the next one. The effect over time is that I run further, faster, and more often than I originally thought possible.


AS I BEGIN this still-life with avocado, I already sense a greater familiarity with its demands of time and patience, a result of the painting I have done leading up to it.

I have used watercolors before, but never so intently as this week. I have learned a great deal in just these few days about layering, blending, mixing, and washing. I have a better command of my brushes and how best to use them, and my hand gradually is becoming more steady.


FOR ALL THEIR SIMILARITIES, painting requires not running’s speed, but its antithesis. Unlike running’s perpetual motion, painting allows for, even demands, slowing down, stopping at times, practicing patience and cultivating introspection. I get up and walk away, the painting hovering near my consciousness the whole time — or not — as I make subcutaneous connections, choices, approaches.

I stare at the painting from across the room, and again within reach of my palette. I study the plate of arranged fruit, clarifying planes and angles with my outstretched brush. I stare out the window to the ocean, off in the distance, thought abstracted in the waves.

I make a bold, impulsive stroke or take minutes to trace a single line. I sip a cup of tea, peel an orange as the forms gradually gain shape and contour, slowly, unrecognizable at first.

I add layers of color before arriving at a final, intricate shade, learning to trust in the deliberate, repetitive process, like a chant or prayer. The painting needs to be absorbed, allowed to sink in before it can paradoxically emerge. Part of it is seeing, becoming more observant, even mathematical at times. Some of it is about being on the surface of the objects I draw, sensing the avocado’s curve as though I am walking on it rather than seeing it from afar.

In running, my goal is to move freely through space. In painting, it is to inhabit space, to supplement, or transpose, my vision with the tactile.

5: Dune Night

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 14"x17"

Untitled, colored pencil, 14″x17″

AT TEN O’CLOCK last night we walked down to the beach, leaving behind the embers of a small fire in the woodstove and a single lamp turned low. The beach was beautiful and still, except for the steady, rhythmic breaking of the waves. A solitary yellow light advanced slowly right to left, east to west, on the dark horizon.

The evening was cool, but we could have walked the beach for hours. We were not dressed for it, though, and in any case could not stray far from the dying fire.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on wood, 8"x6"

Untitled, oil on wood, 8″x6″

Hundreds of fatal shipwrecks haunt these shores. In The Outermost House, published in 1928, Henry Beston wrote admiringly of the Coast Guard surfmen who patrolled the beach around the clock, year-round, looking for boats foundering in the sandbars off this wild stretch of ocean off the outer beach.

The nightly beach patrols began with the formation of the United States Life-Saving Service on Cape Cod in the 1870s, and continued until 1940, when a safer route for boat traffic was secured with completion of the Cape Cod Canal. Some of these night-walkers are credited with building some of the early shacks, around the time of Beston’s book, as havens from bad weather or places to meet their sweethearts.

The first shacks, though, appeared on Cape Cod’s outer beaches more than a century earlier, as part of relief efforts by the Massachusetts Humane Society, to shelter any shipwrecked sailors who made it alive to shore.

Now it feels supremely safe in these dunes, like being inside a giant sandbox.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14"x11"

Untitled, oil on canvas, 14″x11″

Night, what Beston calls “the true other half of the day’s tremendous wheel,” is a rich and complex part of our planetary experience from which many people retreat. We expend copious time and energy trying to defeat it, overwhelming the dark with synthetic light before falling to sleep, with perhaps a lingering look at the full moon, moved by its natural illumination, or a starry night sky.

We rarely give our senses time to adjust to and explore the night, with its unique shades, tones, and odors. But here in the dunes, we are stripped of artificial light except for a few dots of flame from a kerosene lamp and the distant floodlight from a ship sliding silently across our horizon. There are no human predators, and it would be a rare storm to threaten us on shore.

Our latent senses are activated in this environment, fear of the unknown confronted. All but the fear blossom.

* * *

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 14"x11"

Untitled, oil on canvas, 14″x11″

WE BEGIN a twilight walk to Peg’s shack for a visit with friends, taking the winding, inland route through the dunes. I have made the ten-minute walk many times, but this is my first time here in four years, and the dunes often shift from season to season. We make several false starts to Peg’s off the main road as I struggle to get my bearings.

Finally, by process of elimination, we approach a shack sitting well above the dunes, though it makes little sense to me. I know Peg’s to be practically buried in the sand — not visible from either the beach or the interior road on which we walk. This shack jutting above the dunes does not fit, but its roofline and porch are familiar, and we have run out of choices.

When we near the shack, rust-colored light seeps from its windows and there is a low murmur of voices inside. But the entryway is level — not the descent down several stairs I remember. Our friends supply the answer to this riddle: since my last visit the shack has been lifted up seven feet, placing it (for now) safely above the encroaching dunes.

After conversation over a couple of glasses of musty red wine from a vineyard in nearby Truro, we start for home, around nine. A heavy fog has rolled in, and it is quite dark. Rather than return the way we came, we decide to walk the beach.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15"

Untitled, watercolor, 11″x15″

The fog is too thick to reveal stars, or even the presence of other shacks that might serve as landmarks. We carry flashlights, but still I am unable to make out the cut to the beach where the path from town ends. As we walk and walk, the dunes become more strange and unfamiliar.

At one point I leave the beach and scramble to the top of a large dune, but see nothing recognizable from its vantage point — not a single shack. After a brief debate, we continue walking in the same direction.

Before long, near the base of a shadowy dune, we see a large black mass emerge from the darkness. Bigger than a bear, smaller than a whale, it gradually forms into the hard edges of a pick-up truck as we approach. It is empty, as far as we can tell, though we do not choose to investigate. As no vehicles are allowed on the beach during the nesting season of the plovers and terns, we now know we have come too far, and turn back.

We walk briskly, enough for me to work up a light sweat beneath my windbreaker. After about ten minutes we find the outer edge of the area roped off for the birds. I shine my light on the single strand of twine looped between each post, and we follow it for another ten minutes.

Eventually we come to a break in the line, signaling the now-recognizable path to Euphoria, which winds through a field of dune grass after it leaves the beach, and over a little rise before joining the driveway. You cannot actually see the shack until you are at the top of this rise.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell monoprint, 10"x8"

Untitled, acrylic monoprint, 10″x8″

With our unintended detour, the walk home from Peg’s took well over an hour. It was pleasant, a puzzle of sorts. We appreciated it mostly in silence, listening to the breaking surf, breathing the mists and smelling the warm salt air, enjoying the feel of our legs pushing through the sand, making out what little we could see.

You cannot really get lost in this space, but the dunes can be disorienting at times, seeming to take on a life of their own.

4: Dune Society

Dune Fence, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24"x48"

Dune Fence, oil on canvas, 24″x48″

AROUND MIDDAY I return to “town” following a three-hour walk southeast along the beach (an hour out, an hour of writing, and then back). The roughly mile-long, half-mile-wide stretch of dunes framed eastward by the Jones shack (about which I know little, other than its location) and Euphoria to the west has several shacks within its radius, occasionally visible but discretely nestled in the dunes.

There is Peg Watson’s place. Her end was grimly poetic — she died here, crawling up the face of a dune after her Jeep broke down (she suffered from severe, chronic arthritis).

Just before Peg’s shack is one owned by Ray Wells, who, if she had her way, would likely go in a similar fashion. Now 103 and limited to an apartment in New York City, Ray still insists that she will walk to her shack once again from Route 6. I admire her spirit, but in her frail state she could not possibly make the 25-minute walk over dunes to get there.

Euphoria stairs, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 14"x17"

Euphoria stairs, colored pencil, 14″x17″

Her shack, set high on stilts back from the water, is currently in disrepair because Ray has been unable to make the trip out by foot or vehicle for several years now. Until recently, she has not allowed others to maintain it, either, and structures like the shacks cannot withstand this harsh environment for long if not cared for. Fortunately, Ray has now granted permission to the Peaked Hill Trust, which holds leases to several of the shacks, to rehabilitate her shack.

Next comes the Bratten shack, home to the dunes’ only year-round human resident, who after years of walking in and out exclusively now has a car, which looks disconcerting where he parks it in the dunes behind his shack. Continuing westward there is Bessay’s, then Thalassa (Greek for “the sea”), one of two shacks, with Euphoria, named by longtime owner Hazel Hawthorne Werner. Hazel was a central figure in the halcyon days of the shacks, allowing many artists, writers, and an assortment of other bohemians to stay here.

Thalassa is one of the smallest shacks, and the nearest to the ocean. Hazel purchased it for her children to stay in while she lived in Euphoria, a courageous or foolhardy act, depending on your point of view, given its distance from Euphoria — at least half a mile.

Dawn from Euphoria, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24"x18"

Dawn from Euphoria, oil on canvas, 24″x18″

Set back in the dunes is neat, white-trimmed Fowler’s, looking more like a small cottage than a shack (it even has a chemical toilet). Above it, atop a dune overlooking the sea, is Boris’sthe boxy shack formerly owned by the late painters Boris Margo and Jan Gelb. Boris would form a great sculpture on the beach with driftwood he had gathered all summer, and set it ablaze for a bacchanal every August, to which his friends and anyone else who ventured out from town were invited.

Zara’s sits further back in the dunes than the other shacks, without ocean views. Because of its location it offers a unique experience of the environment, and inside it feels relatively spacious, with a pitched pyramid roof and screened-in porch. Zara, now in her 80s, remains in good health and continues to spend time in her shack every summer.

From Euphoria’s door facing southeast we have good views of Boris’s’ and Fowler’s, and see traces of a few others — the vent pipe of a privy here, a birdhouse there, a fading tarpaper roofline. Bisecting the quarter-mile of dunes between Boris’s and Euphoria, we also glimpse occasional walkers on the sandy path leading to the beach.

When the terns and plovers are done nesting, a few vehicles with permits, mostly fisherman, are allowed to drive along the beach from Race Point, about two miles northwest of here. But they are banned now.

Provincetown dunes Russell Steven PowellThe exception, ironically, is the ATVs driven by two naturalists working to save the protected birds. They seem enthusiastic, but opine resignedly that coyotes will probably get the eggs before they hatch (though I have neither seen nor heard coyotes during my stays in the dunes).

Several riders on horseback traverse this stretch of beach most days, especially at twilight, when they appear as silhouettes on the horizon.


IF YOU ARE GOING to see people while staying in the dunes, the beach at the end of the dune road amid this constellation of shacks is the likeliest place to encounter them. After a morning of being alone with my thoughts, I now meet the older couple we rode in with, who are staying at Thalassa, and we exchange a few pleasantries.

Among other things, they tell me that the junior high school students we saw walking in the day before were not a local group from Provincetown, as we had suspected, but from an inner city in southern Connecticut. The students and their chaperones camped in Brewster overnight, and made the trek into the dunes as a day trip.

Untitled Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 14"x17"

Untitled colored pencil, 14″x17″

Some of the children had never seen the ocean before. The distant sound of their laughing and chatter was startling but pleasant in the normally quiet dunes, like a brief visitation of migrating birds.

Moving on, I nod silently to a middle-aged man wearing a sky-blue baseball hat and a woman in a white blouse with short, strawberry-blonde hair, perched on a blanket just above the surf, not wanting to interrupt their conversation.

A binocular-wielding man covered by dungarees, beach hat, sunglasses, and a faded-yellow shirt billowing in the breeze, stands with his back to the ocean. He appears to be searching the dunes for signs of nesting birds. Because of its proximity, I presume he is staying at Boris’s shack. (Later in the week this is confirmed; he has been coming to the dunes off and on for 40 years.)

There are three pairs of young men. One pair sunbathes at the base of the dunes, another sits propped up reading, mid-beach. A third arrives on the entry road as I pass by, dressed in light-colored plaids.

These are my day’s society.


POSTCRIPT: Shack owner Ray Wells passed away July 23, 2011.

3: Vacation

Still Life with Cantaloupe, detail, Russell Steven Powell watercolor, 11"x15"

Still Life with Cantaloupe, detail, watercolor, 11″x15″

ON MOST VACATIONS, time speeds up. I just get settled in to a place and establish a rhythm, it seems, and I look up and it is already Thursday, and I begin to anticipate loss and return. Here in the dunes, every day is like a week of true living, each 24-hour period spawning several days within it.

It’s not exactly vacation by most people’s standards. There are few amenities—no going out to eat, no maid service, no shopping or museums (except to the extent that the shack itself is a living museum). Being here, for me at least, is not the absence of work, but rather an exchange: I replace labor for someone else with labor of my own making, on my terms and schedule.

Civilization, we know, requires the cumulative efforts of masses of people to accomplish common goals, such as manufacturing cars or running a college. But these shared endeavors are not innate to us as individuals. We labor on behalf of others for the money to buy goods necessary to support our independent lives, our separate houses and cars, our nuclear families. The world of work, for most of us, is no altruistic beehive or ant colony; our loyalty must be earned, or bought.

With our individuality comes the capacity for passion and independent thought, and these defy conscription. Thus many people become resigned to their work, accept it as a cost of living, and seek their true passion elsewhere, often vicariously. Hopefully they find their tasks worthy and colleagues pleasant, and feel adequately compensated.

Vacation may be a necessary compensation for the sacrifices we make to earn our money (and from our employer’s point of view, an essential ingredient to sustained productivity). But many people confuse the need for time off from our jobs with a break from labor. For those of us in white-collar positions, this is especially absurd, since our work is not physical, and includes enough repetitive tasks that its abstract mental challenges can hardly be considered taxing.

(Is thinking work? We don’t stop thinking on vacation, whether reading a mystery or exploring a new destination. But we exercise a different part of the brain than the one we use in the repetitive aspects of our jobs. Is exercise work?)

Still LIfe with Tomato, detail, Russell Steven Powell colored pencil, 17"x14"

Still LIfe with Tomato, detail, colored pencil, 17″x14″

With rare exceptions, few of us work to full capacity in our day jobs, and those who do often are less interested in vacation — they don’t feel as great a need to separate from activity they genuinely enjoy doing, on behalf of some organization or cause whose goals and culture they freely embrace. For the rest, the need for vacation can signify dissonance between how we spend our days and who we think we are.

A week in the dunes subverts this, in part because the shacks lack the traditional trappings of leisure. Like any vacation, we are free to do what we want here, true; the physical demands are slight. But without the usual distractions and filters of society, there are few barriers to realizing one’s self — our fundamental, holistic selves, not just what we do to “make a living.” Sleep, paint, read, write, walk or sunbathe here, the choice is not mediated by either a need to escape work, or an expectation about how, or when, to do it.

Most of the year we go to bed and set our alarms in the morning, shave and shower, eat, do chores and make plans for living, not according to our own rhythms, but in deference to our workplace. Perversely, we can’t wait for the week — and our lives — to speed by, so we can get to the next weekend. Then we look back and say, “I can’t believe summer’s over,” or “where did the time go?”

Living in the dunes, we are no longer on the clock, at work or away from it. Time slows down here. Our hours are no longer ordered and regulated around the workday axis — or in response to it.

Our institutions are necessary, and commerce inevitable. We are social animals, congenial for the most part when it comes to serving a larger purpose or need. Most people do not consciously rebel against their lack of control or feel deprived of passion, and are willing to trade the uncertainty of freedom for the security of a clear purpose and fixed schedule, with predictable costs and rewards. One of those rewards is vacation, prescribed periods away from the job offering just enough taste of the other side to satisfy our appetite for independence.

Certain words in our lexicon become appropriated or politicized beyond, or rather ahead of, their definition in dictionaries. Vacation is one of these — to “vacate” implying emptiness rather than the fullness of living according to our own desires. The term “vacation” is determined by, set in opposition to, the world of industrial work, from which we are granted a temporary escape.