Category Archives: Cape Cod

Entering Provincetown: The East End

Back in the Covid summer of 2020, it seemed reasonable to hope that in a year, a visit to the Cape would no longer involve considerable pandemic restrictions for the vaccinated. But that was well before the rise of the Delta variant and Provincetown’s post-July 4th surge in breakthrough infections. Therefore, many of our favorite activities–dining inside at restaurants, seeing musical and comedy shows, singing in a packed crowd of strangers around Bobby Wetherbee’s piano at the Crown & Anchor–remained off limits. There would be no festive Ptown nightlife for us this time, sadly. We didn’t, and still don’t, want to take risks that could bring the virus back to my mother. But walking through town in the early mornings, when the streets are nearly empty, seemed safe. I don’t always walk down Shore Road further into Truro. Sometimes I head in the opposite direction, and before long, I’m in Provincetown.

In terms of actual area, Provincetown is a small place. Its narrow, curving peninsula occupies about seventeen and half square miles. But surrounded on three sides by water, and with the vast, ever-changing sky above, it seems much larger. The year-round population is less than 3,500, but it swells to about 60,000 in the summer. The town’s spirit, too, like its capacity to receive guests, is generous, expansive, and welcoming.

Provincetown’s colorful present is matched by a colorful past; there’s a lot of history here. The original residents were the Nauset tribe, who interacted with the Pilgrims not long after they arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. The Nauset, and their neighbors the Wampanoag, like many of the Europeans who followed, valued the area and its deep, protected harbor, primarily for its excellent fishing. The Pilgrims moved on in two months to Plymouth, but the colony continued to rely heavily on fish from its waters. The town was a prominent whaling center for nearly two hundred years. Provincetown whaling ships sailed as far as the Azore Islands, where Portugese sailors often joined the crews. By the 1860s, Provincetown was home to a substantial, and growing, Portugese community. The railroad made the remote village more accessible in the 1870s, and the area’s great natural beauty began attracting tourists and artists. The first of many art schools opened in 1899. By the early twentieth century, Provincetown had become a destination for writers and theater people, as well as visual artists. In the summer of 1916, the Provincetown Players gave the first-ever performance of a play by the young Eugene O’Neil. When Tennessee Williams arrived in 1940, a gay community was already flourishing. In the 50s and early 60s, attempts were made to shutter gay-themed entertainment spots. These efforts failed. Today, Provincetown welcomes everyone. It’s a big-hearted, good-humored, judgment-free zone, a place where no one is a misfit, where no one is friendless for long.

And it’s a beautiful place. In the quiet early morning, it’s especially easy to appreciate the town’s charming architecture and gardens, and to catch near-hidden glimpses of the bay between buildings. On my walk from Truro, I usually pause at a wooden stairway leading to the beach, where I take in the view above. The big white house at far right, with the bay and the curve of the town behind it, is one of the most frequently painted and photographed scenes on the entire Cape. A Colonial Revival built in 1917, the house is situated near the division of Route 6A into the town’s two main streets, Commercial and Bradford. It’s at this point that Provincetown starts to look and feel like a real town, rather than a sparse collection of homes along the water’s edge. All the buildings in this post are situated along Commercial Street.

Provincetown has the typical resort town’s share of tee shirt and knick-knack shops. But even most of these are enclosed in architecturally charming exteriors, and clustered primarily in the busy central section. After passing the white Colonial house, I’m in the largely residential East End, a contrast to the touristy bustle of the town center. The front yard pocket gardens along this peaceful stretch of Commercial Street are often color-coordinated and carefully tended. They offer proof that small, thoughtfully planted spaces can pack an outsized visual punch. Many art galleries are mixed in among the East End homes.

Originally the Eastern School, the towered structure above, like many historic Provincetown buildings, has seen several uses. It’s currently the home of art galleries and WOMR-FM (Outermost Community Radio).

Teeny tiny Iota Cottage, above, got its name from a former owner, Jonathan “Jot” Small, who somehow managed to run a restaurant here in the 1930s.

A few homes, like this one on the land side of Commercial Street, stand out for their luxuriously expansive lawns, rare in beach communities.

I find it hard to imagine a more pleasant low-key approach to the water than this narrow, rose-bordered sandy lane.

Small blue plaques on many Provincetown buildings indicate points of historical importance and associations with well-known people. The house above was the home of Donald MacMillan (1874-1970), for whom MacMillan Wharf, in the town center, is named. The influential Arctic explorer, scientist, sailor and teacher lived here as an adult; he was born a few doors down on Commercial Street.

The current owners clearly delight in their unique and historic home. I often notice what appears to be a dog puppet perched, as though to welcome guests and greet passersby, in the upper, open half of the Dutch door. I see this happy puppet, accompanied by seasonal decorations, as a manifestation of Provincetown’s jovial, quirky hospitality. Look closely, and you’ll see similar expressions all over town. It’s just that kind of place.

Check back next week, as the Provincetown tour continues into the center of town and out onto Bradford Street.

Shore Road, Once Again

After a two-year absence, I was eager to get back to my early morning walks along Shore Road in Truro this August. The section that we’d seen upon arrival appeared largely unchanged, much to our relief. As I’ve written previously, it’s this persistent sameness, this enduring sense of place, that our family has come to treasure so dearly.

This view is from Route 6A looking across Route 6 to a sliver of Pilgrim Lake.

My first Shore Road walk this summer reassured me that my favorite ribbon of land was much as I remembered it. No unexpected new structures intruded. Stretches of semi-wild landscape patches remained between buildings. Hearty, low-growing roses and juniper continued to thrive along the fence rows.

As hoped for, as anticipated, the familiar elements, like old buddies, were there: the glorious Cape hydrangeas that flourish in the salty sea air. . . 

. . .the simple white cottages of Pilgrim Colony, grouped around a neatly manicured central green. . .

. . .and the tidy, picturesque homes of Bay Colony, set off from the road by a white picket fence and a thick hedge of well-tended roses.

Days Cottages, those identical little white boxes set in a long line, looked exactly the same. Each tiny, green-shuttered house bears the name of a flower: Bluebell, Peony, Dahlia. They’ve changed very little since they were built, beginning in 1931. The land is particularly narrow here, so that at high tide, the bay is but a few short steps from the front of each cottage, and Shore Road a few steps from the back.

Several years ago, the Days family sold off the last of the units to individual buyers and retired to Florida. The exceptionally well-stocked grocery/news stand/all-purpose beach store associated with the cottages was closed and shuttered during our visit in 2018. We feared it would be razed and the land developed. Instead, it was sold to a new family, who runs it as Days Market and Deli. An upscale specialty grocery and cafe, it’s a popular spot for coffee, pastries, soups and lobster rolls.

The threat of big change on Shore Road was satisfactorily averted.

My favorite homes continued to endure, like this weathered Victorian cottage, with its yellow shutters and white gingerbread trim. On a somewhat overcast day, a solitary mourning dove sat on the telephone line out front.

This pair of very similar Dutch Colonial houses appeared just as I remembered them. They sit close together on a bit of high ground, with few other structures nearby. Like Days Cottages, they’re a frequent subject for Cape artists.

The most significant transformation along Shore road was one that had been long anticipated, and therefore didn’t seem especially dramatic. On the site of the old motel that sat empty and decaying for over twenty years, two sizable, but not overly large residences are nearing completion. For photos of the property as nature took its course in years past, as well as other Shore Road locales, see my posts from 2012 and 2013.

Most other changes on Shore Road involved the gradual yielding of the built environment to nature’s determined advances. For as long as I can remember, the expansive lot above has been occupied by a single small, gradually deteriorating cottage and several decorative birdhouses. See That Satisfying Sameness on Shore Road, September 18, 2018. There were some years when considerable effort had been made to keep the ever-encroaching foliage at bay. This August, nature was winning. The grape vines along the remains of the old fence were wild and thick, the grass was tall, and only a couple of birdhouses remained. The little building was more dilapidated than ever, but its sailboat weather vane still protruded at an angle from the corner of the roof line.

Before long, only the cupola and weather vane of this small cottage may be visible above the growing tangle of plant life. The building, like a humble Sleeping Beauty cabin, has been in slow decline for two decades.

The small structure above, along with the picnic table, has occupied an otherwise empty lot for many years. This summer, there was one minor modification to the building. It received a hand-painted sign bearing an identifying label, or perhaps a name: SHED. On Shore Road, my comfortable, beloved old friend, that’s the kind of subtle change I can support and appreciate.

Past and Present, Wrapped up Together in our Summer Village on the Cape

Our family’s long-time summer destination sits on the skinny finger of land between Cape Cod Bay and Route 6A, or Shore Road. When seen from the water, the small cottages appear to be nestled between the sea grass and a low hill of dunes that rises along the banks of Pilgrim Lake.

As the aerial photo above shows, the complex resembles a miniature village. The look is classic Old Cape Cod. Basic, simple, absolutely without pretense. On each side of the central pool, two rows of white cottages, built in the 1940s, face a grassy, rectangular courtyard. Six additional cottages are covered in weathered cedar shakes. Constructed in the 80s, these are off the greens, clustered in the sand. In the broad expanse that leads to the water are two narrow boardwalks and a fire pit enclosed by a semi-circle of sturdy wooden chairs. The wide beach, unusual for the area, has grown much bigger over the years. When the colony was new, the high tide mark reached all the way up to the line where the beach grass begins now. It would seem that every bit of sand that’s continually swept away from the rest of waterfront Truro is being deposited here.

A trellis-topped archway and white picket fence mark the entrance to one of the greens.

The cottages farthest from the water have the benefit of being surrounded on all sides by a grassy lawn planted with bountiful hydrangeas.

The photo above shows the cottage that my family will probably always think of as “Grandma and Grandpa’s place.” It’s the one that my husband remembers as the vacation home from his childhood, beginning in the 1970s. His parents last occupied it in 2018. Sadly, that visit made it clear that their health issues had become too daunting to make the trip worthwhile.

There are several models of the white cottages. Those across each green are mirror images of one other.

The cedar-shingled cottage above is the one our family returns to in early August. It sits just in front and to the side of H’s parents’ old place.

A sandy lane separates this row of cottages from the pool. There are no paved roads in our summer village.

Just as I often expect to see my husband’s parents planted in their beach chairs every time I approach their old cottage, I can’t go to the pool without recalling the way our daughter, as a baby, delighted in the glistening, chilly water. The photo above shows her with my husband in 2001, on her very first visit to the Cape.

Nearly every spot in our pleasant village conjures an image of our daughter as she has been, over the years. I can see her at two and a half, sitting happily outside our cottage, talking to herself while pouring sand into a cup.

I remember her as a little girl, pausing on a sandy path leading to the water, a wistful expression on her face.

I see her as a young teenager, the summer before she began middle school.

All the while, I see and give thanks for the strong, compassionate, intelligent young woman she has become. Here she is this August with Dozer, one of the owner’s dogs.

As our daughter has grown, and as my husband and I have simply aged,  our summer village has changed only minimally.  Here in this timeless place, more than anywhere else, I hold simultaneously in my mind’s eye the various stages of our family’s life.  With our every return to this sliver of sandy ground that floats serenely between sea and sky, I feel what it means to be young, to be old, and everything in between, and even beyond.  The day will come when H and I, like Grandma and Grandpa, no longer make the trip.  Will there be a time when our daughter gazes at the sunset over the Cape while watching her own child contentedly pouring sand into a cup?  I think I can see that, too.  

Back on the Cape, One Constant in an Ever-Shifting View

Last summer, the pandemic interfered with our annual trip to Cape Cod.  For the first time in twenty years, our family failed to spend part of August at the modest little cottage complex in Truro that we love so well. My husband began going there with his parents and siblings when he was a little boy.  Our journey to the Cape is not just a vacation; it’s more like a pilgrimage.  That narrow ribbon of land, curved like a hook into the bay, is, to us, if not quite the promised land, then something quite close to it.  Certainly it’s a second home.  We have no financial claim to any bit of real estate there, but we’re loyal renters.  More importantly, as pilgrimage sites do, the place has claimed us as its own. 

When we return, we go back to the same waterfront cottage, at the same time every year. We reconnect with many of the same families. We look out to a vast expanse of sand that leads to Cape Cod Bay, framed on each side by islands of sea grass and wild roses. The spare, simple skyline of Provincetown, about a mile away, appears to float atop the water. Its most distinctive feature, appropriately, is the tall, granite bell tower that commemorates the arrival of the original Pilgrims to the area, in 1620. Five weeks before landing at Plymouth, the Mayflower docked at what is now Provincetown Harbor. Due to rough weather, the ship had missed its mark in Northern Virginia. Anchored far north in Massachusetts, where the contract the Pilgrims had signed with the Virginia Company was deemed void, the group determined “to covenant and combine . . .together into a civil body politic,” to maintain order and the common good. So it was in Provincetown that the Mayflower Compact, an early and largely successful attempt at democracy, was written and signed. The Pilgrim Monument, now the symbol of the town’s warm, accepting and all-inclusive spirit, reminds us that great things are possible when we work together. For residents and returning pilgrims like our family, it’s a welcoming beacon. I love it that the tower is the anchoring feature in the ever-changing view from our little cottage.

The Pilgrim Monument was completed in 1910. Its design was based on the civic symbol of Siena, the 14h century Torre del Mangia in the Piazzo del Campo, the town’s main square. Other features of Provincetown’s narrow silhouette are two water towers, several church steeples, and the Town Hall tower.

Our view toward the bay varies minute by minute with the shifting of the light, the play of the clouds and the passage of the hours.  The ethereal, transformative quality of Cape light has long made this area a favorite destination for artists. Above, around noontime, the sun glints off sparkling blue water, and a line of clouds hugs the horizon, in an otherwise clear sky.   

On partially overcast afternoons, the water tends to turn silvery, like a sea of mercury. It’s often on days like this that the wind picks up, and my husband, and also now our daughter, may be out windsurfing.

One evening toward sunset, a sky resembling orange sherbet settled above the town’s dark silhouette and a bay of molten lead.

The color of the sand is changeable, as well. In early mornings and late afternoons, it may take on a peachy pink cast, as in the photos above and below. The dark patches of seaweed that litter the beach no doubt seem unsightly to some. But we’ve grown so used to it that it’s no longer remarkable. It’s just more evidence of the abundant life that thrives in and around the bay.

Windsurfing boards await my husband and daughter.

Occasionally, as a storm or dense fog moves in, all the towers of Provincetown are rendered completely invisible. 

To me, the loveliest time of the day is just before sunset, when the shadows in the sand turn a magical, brilliant blue.

Sunset itself, on every clear day, is an event that brings our small, enduring community outside in admiration and awe. The sky often glows with streaks of increasingly fiery red, orange and yellow. And then, as the brilliant colors gradually dissipate, and Cape light fades into Cape night, the Pilgrim Monument is illuminated. Its white granite glows clean and bright against the dark sky. The tower is typically the last thing I see before I close my eyes at night. How comforting to know it is there, a reassuring beacon at all hours, in all weathers and seasons.

That Satisfying Sameness on Shore Road

Shore Road, Route 6A, is our Main Street while we’re in Cape Cod, and I walk it nearly every morning.  As in our little cottage complex, major changes along the road are refreshingly few and far between.  Its scenery is almost as familiar to me as my childhood back yard.  My Shore Road walks serve to further sustain the illusion of timelessness in Truro. 

Fence-hugging hydrangeas, for example, which thrive in the moist salty air, are always bountiful and glorious.  

Typically, any changes along this thin ribbon of land by the bay are so subtle that they serve to reinforce the unchanging nature of the place.  Most of the homes and cottage groupings appear largely the same, year after year after year.  Routine maintenance, not extreme renovation, is the guiding principle.  The small structures of this condominium complex, above, continue to be nestled snugly amid the roses, much as they have been for nearly two decades.  Hours of diligent pruning, no doubt, keep the surrounding plantings looking luxuriantly abundant but not overpowering.

Nature can easily get the upper hand, if left unchecked, as it has above.  Each year, untamed, weedy foliage encroaches a bit more around this small, sagging, cupola-topped cabin.  Considering the high value of real estate along the bay, there are a surprising number of small Shore Road structures, some barely bigger than sheds, that exist in a state of ongoing gradual decay.  They appear to lack all creature comforts, but some show signs of sporadic human occupation.  This gives them an air of mystery that adds to their appeal. 

 

There are certain areas where the tug-of-war between nature and the attempt to subjugate it is particularly evident.  For as long as I’ve walked Shore Road, the large lot above has been occupied by a small semi-dilapidated cottage, whimsical bird houses on tall posts, and the occasional boat.  Some years, the foliage reigns victorious, as in the top photo, dating from 2013, where the cottage appears to float in a sea of tall grass and grapevines.  The following year, the weeds were mown and vines cut back substantially.  Flower boxes adorned the cottage’s front windows.  Near the road, a patriotic tableau had been assembled: a wooden bench painted like the flag, Adirondack chairs and a pot of geraniums

Since 2014, nature has been allowed its riotous advance.  Once again, the cottage is enveloped by high grass and unruly foliage.  The flag bench, its paint faded, appears to be sighing toward collapse, and the split-rail fence groans under a heavy tangle of grapevines.  The chairs have disappeared, and even the bird houses are in advanced decline.  The lighthouse is unrecognizable, and the caboose is little more than a façade.  (See Shore Road Scenes in Cape Cod, August 24, 2012.)  Next year, will the progression toward wildness and ruin continue?  Or will there be another effort toward taming nature and renovating the manmade?  I hope it’s one or the other, and not a dreaded third option:  a gleaming new structure that stands out starkly from the pleasantly worn and familiar Shore Road sights I cherish.      

I’m not averse to some instances of refurbishment.  Two years ago, for example, this rusty roadside owl received a coat of white paint and amber-colored eyes.  Such measured, unobtrusive alteration I can wholeheartedly support.  I appreciate it all the more knowing that it’s likely to be overlooked.  I enjoy thinking I know Shore Road the way I know an old companion.    

I can also welcome a unique addition that fits in well with that which already exists.  The gray shingled house above, with its American flag and rainbow banner bearing the word PEACE, looks essentially the same every year.  Several years ago I noticed an interesting vehicle parked in front, a small car colorfully painted with a variety of sea creatures in a folk art style.  This year the little car gained a sibling, a minivan painted with similar colors and designs: sharks, lobsters, fish and  sailing scenes.  A white plastic egret keeps watch from the roof.  The light-hearted, slightly eccentric spirit of these vehicles is in perfect sync with the PEACE house and with the Outer Cape.  (They remind me of the Key West Don’t Dredge on Me truck encrusted with sea creatures.  See Uniquely Key West, April 24, 2015.) 

It’s been five years since I last wrote about the Shore Road sights I hold dear.  As I began looking back and comparing this summer’s photos to those from earlier years, I was afraid that the idea of sameness might prove to be primarily in my mind.  Maybe my old friend has changed more than I’d like to admit?  

Generally, I don’t think so.  This narrow strip of land still seems to be largely immune to the accelerated pace of change that characterizes my former Atlanta neighborhood or the DC suburbs where I now live.  Every return visit brings this reassurance: the familiar sights of Shore Road, and its inimitable essence, they endure.  Perhaps I hope that through proximity, this immutability is contagious.  By spending time each summer in a timeless place, can I slow my own aging process?  Or at least feed the fantasy?  These days, it couldn’t hurt. 

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For more on this topic, see Back Again, on Shore Road in Truro, September 13, 2013.