I confess to being a bit of a snob about the east. My journalist days often took me up and down the eastern seaboard, mostly to big cities where crime, decay, overcrowded neighborhoods and a general malaise of discontent seemed to be the chief characteristic of the people and places.
Such is the danger of journalism. Seeing bad news makes you skeptical. Seeing too much bad news makes you a cynic. And being cynical is not a good way to live.
So it’s good to have finally visited the east now in an RV, where we have time to see the land and marvel at how wrong I was.
It’s drop-dead gorgeous and, even on the turnpikes and interstates, the route to Cape Cod reveals wide open spaces, beautiful rolling hills and mountains and little towns and villages peppered with antique shops, the pleasant lines of New England architecture and history everywhere.
During our early June visit, we stayed at the Sweetwater Forest Campground in Brewster, MA. The campground is huge, with private full hookups on flat spots nested in trees amidst a hilly forest.
The Cape Cod National Seashore was our destination, 40 miles of pristine sandy beach, marshes, ponds, and bicycle trails along the Atlantic-facing eastern shore of Cape Cod. We drove the whole seashore, stretching from Chatham to Provincetown, At numerous places we pulled off, and walked portions of the beach, touring an old Life Saving Station at the tip of Cape Cod, and taking in both National Parks Service Visitor Centers. There’s plenty out here for history buffs, too, with sites associated with the Pilgrims, Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless station and numerous lighthouses.
Shipwreck lore abounds on the cape. So many ships have piled up on the hidden sand bars off the coast between Chatham and Provincetown that those 40 miles of sea have been called an “ocean graveyard.” Indeed, between Truro and Wellfleet alone, there have been more than 1,000 wrecks. In the early 1800s, there was an average of two wrecks every month during the winter. The loss of life seemed especially sad when a sailor managed to get ashore on a winter night only to freeze to death after he got there. In 1797, the Massachusetts Humane Society started putting up huts along the most dangerous sections of the Massachusetts coast in the hope that stranded sailors would find them and take shelter. It was not, however, until 1872, that a really efficient lifesaving service was put into operation by the United States government. Stations were erected every five miles on the beach.
On November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims got their first look at the New World when they saw Cape Cod. In Provincetown, there’s a huge monument commemorating the Mayflower Pilgrims’ first landing in the New World in Provincetown. Here the Pilgrims spent five weeks exploring the tip of Cape Cod, before they sailed on to Plymouth. They also drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact, which established the rule of law for the new land.
In the waters within sight of shores you can often spot whales, pretty much every season of the year. Three different species are prevalent. Signs warn swimmers and waders that Great White Sharks are also plentiful in the water, coming to feed on the seals. The signs suggest people not swim with seals present. Good advice..
We drove over to the Nauset Light at low tide and spent a delightful couple of hours watching seals bob in the surf. They seemed to be watching us as curiously as we watched them.
If that red and white lighthouse looks familiar, that’s the one you see on the familiar Cape Cod potato chip bags sold nationwide..
Growing lush and wild are Cape Cod beach roses in beautiful and fragrant whites and reds. Back off the beach a bit, rhododendrons grow as high as house rooftops. Cranberry bogs can be found in Brewster.
The cape also the place that, next to Walden Pond, most captivated Henry David Thoreau. I love this description of the place: “The restless ocean may at any moment cast up a whale or a wrecked vessel at your feet. All the reporters in the world, the most rapid stenographers, could not report the news it brings.” That’s from his book on Cape Cod, published in 1850’s.
I thought of Thoreau as I stood ankle deep in the waters of the Atlantic, gazing out to the east and remembering my favorite quote from the naturalist/philsopher/poet/historian. Of these waters and this very shoreline where I was standing he wrote: “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
I turned around, looking west at rolling grass covered and flower studded sand dunes. Beyond them, it’s 3,000 miles to the Pacific, where in a few months our Roadtreking travels will also take us, God willing. What a vast country this is, hemmed in and surrounded by these great oceans.
Our visit to the cape couldn’t have come at a better time. The beaches in early June were all but deserted during the week. School out here doesn’t get out for summer for another 10 days. After that, the place fills up with vacationers from Boston and New York, the roads are congested, beach access fees are charged.
But in early June, it was very much like the place Thoreau gushed over.
One warning: Ticks. They are everywhere on the Cape, and, indeed, throughout the eastern seaboard. We picked two of them off the dog after a five minute walk. The photo is one of them that was crawling on me, and I didn’t even stray off the beach path.
We’ll be back.