2: Flora and Fauna

Rosa rugosa, Provincetown dunes

Rosa rugosa, Provincetown dunes

THE PINK AND WHITE beach roses, Rosa rugosa, are heavily in bloom, the air thick with their perfume as you pass near them, as you are bound to do twice on the path from our door to the beach, about a five-minute walk from the north-facing shack (the sun rises and sets over the ocean). A broad thicket of roses drapes over the ridge 20 feet from our door; another hangs precariously from the flat face of a dune rising from the base of the beach.

The dune grass bends and glistens in the wind. A band of it 30 yards wide or more interrupts the sand and stretches east and west between the shack and the beach. Its color is highly variable; depending on the time of day, it runs from lime to bluish-green, with accents of silver or gold. Only the ocean, with its browns, purples, grays, greens and myriad shades of blue, reflects more colors.

A number of boats already are visible by 6 a.m., plus the loud rumble of an engine that gradually fades eastward, out of view. To the west, on my left, a sailboat silently plies the waves, and two small fishing boats skip across my view, like father and son. An airplane drones overhead, unseen. There is not a cloud in the powder-blue sky.

I see a lone merganser lying down on the sand at the edge of the surf, and a number of gray seals diving and resurfacing near the water’s edge. Our interest in the seals seems reciprocal, as they frequently appear near shore and gaze at us head-on or in profile. (We saw as many as 14 at once during our week, an impressive sight, but our friend at Peg’s shack said she saw several dozen early one morning sleeping with their heads poked just above the water, and the people at Thalassa witnessed a “haul-up” of a hundred or more seals gathered in a mass on the beach two miles east of here.)

Some distance from the shore, great hosts of seagulls dot the waves for much of the day, leaving jagged, whitish patches and the impression that there is some source of easy food drifting by just beneath the surface. The beach is animated as always with tern action: squawking, diving, darting, emerging from the sea with sand eels glinting from their beaks, nesting in cordoned-off spaces in the hot sand bordering the dunes, which they share with piping plovers.

The ring-necked plovers, legs whirring, skitter up and down the beach, always watching, occasionally chirping. It is both a state and federal crime, the signs say, to disturb their nesting.

View from Euphoria, watercolor, 15"x11"

View from Euphoria, watercolor, 15″x11″

Back at the shack, a mouse walks boldly out from behind the dish drainer in broad daylight until it sees me sitting at the nearby table, then hastily retreats. We saw our first evidence of mice last night, as a roll of paper towels was pulled into the sink and shredded for a nest (later discovered behind the wood stove), the mouse ignoring the single curling strand of pasta, a straggler from dinner, clinging to the porcelain.

There are daily shack rituals like sweeping the floors of sand, checking for ticks (happily we found none) and filling plastic gallon jugs with rust-colored water from a pump at the base of a dune at the end of a winding path through and beyond the rose thicket. Then there are the rituals we brought here, that keep us from totally forgetting ourselves: toothbrush and floss, and a litany of pills—flaxseed, calcium, glucosamine with breakfast, aspirin at night. Through these, continuity and equilibrium are maintained.


1: Arrival

The dune shack Euphoria

The dune shack Euphoria

June 2010 – IT IS MID-AFTERNOON Saturday on our first day in a small, one-room shack in the dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I have just awoken from a nap. She is out walking. It is warm and windy, and the screens are whistling.

We packed incrementally over the past few days, but inevitably still forgot some things, most importantly our sleeping bags. Fortunately, on the way we were able to purchase three pillowcases, two sheets, and a comforter in excellent condition for $10.89 at a thrift shop in Wellfleet.

The slow, circuitous drive through the dunes in the back of a pick-up truck, the exchange of guests and gear at Thalassa and then Euphoria, the instructions about drinking water, where to find the pilot light on the gas refrigerator, how high to keep the kerosene lamps, and making popcorn for the privy are all part of the transition ritual. Then we are by ourselves.

Our shack, one of 18 along a five-mile stretch, is a remnant from the 1920s and 1930s. Individually and collectively, they have had unusual histories, from their beginnings as retreats for Coast Guard surfmen walking the beach at night, to decades of casual use and bohemian activity by writers, artists, and other lovers of solitude, from playwright Eugene O’Neill and photographer Walker Evans to writer Jack Kerouac and the painters Boris Margo and Jan Gelb.

Since the early 1960s the shacks gradually have been passing into the hands of the federal government overseeing the Cape Cod National Seashore, and there has ensued a protracted public debate about their continued existence and use, which still continues. As a district, though, the shacks are now eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, not for their architecture — there may not be an original board left in these wind-swept structures — but for their cultural history and the rare experience of solitude they continue to provide in the fragile and shifting dunes.

Except for the handful of people who make the 25-minute walk to the beach here from town, and the daily pass-through several times of tourists with Art’s Dune Tours, mostly in the afternoon, the shacks amid miles of sea, sand and sky remain blissfully free of signs of civilization.

But it is near impossible, it seems, to escape commerce altogether. Less than an hour after our arrival, a biplane makes its way slowly up the coastline, trailing a huge banner sponsored by Dunkin Donuts that waves eerily, leerily, invasively, “You Look Hot Down There.”