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.


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