Category Archives: Cape Cod

The Beaches and Their Stories

Now and then, you get glimpses of Old New England. Not the chic galleries and pride flags along Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Not the farm-to-table fine dining with views of the coast. Not Boston and its history of Irish immigration. You get it walking on the beach on a windy day when no one is around, those windswept sand dunes undulating like the sea before a storm, and you start to picture what the Pilgrims saw when they landed in Provincetown in 1620. This fact gets lost in our Thanksgiving story—we Americans are so gifted at myth-making—but on November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims came ashore on what is now one of the most LGBTQ-friendly, art-loving communities in America. They deemed the sandy shores too difficult for farming so they explored further inland, looking for a good spot to till and hoe. Five weeks later, they made their way to what is now called Plymouth, Massachusetts, naming the location after the port from which they had sailed.

We spent last weekend in Cape Cod. It had been two years since our last visit. Haunting seems like an appropriate, yet overused word to describe the area. Cape Cod—and New England—is a region, but also a mood. Every time I’m there, I think of hardship and resilience, isolation and community, beauty and danger. A trite phrase often used in travel writing is to describe a destination as a “place of contrasts,” which you could say about almost anywhere. Cape Cod—and, really all of New England—is a study in cyclical conflict, made all the more poignant by its four very distinct seasons. Winters are exceptionally cold, brutal and long. By April, the land and sky soften and you feel yourself willing to forgive. By August, you sit on the beach enjoying a lobster roll picnic, and you can’t remember winter’s fury. In October, when the leaves turn, when the pumpkins are everywhere, when the air shifts, you know you’re in the most beautiful place on Earth, yet you start to wonder what the darker months ahead will bring, and if you’ll be prepared.


Cape Cod reaches about 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. On a map, it literally looks like a flexed arm putting its fist up to the Atlantic’s many storms, protecting the rest of Massachusetts. I walked out on part of that flexed arm last weekend; a sign warned me about sharks and to stay away from seals, which get eaten by sharks. Looking out to the sea, you felt Cape Cod protecting you from all that happens in the ocean. Go past that barrier at your own risk; for centuries, this stretch has been dubbed an “ocean graveyard.” The National Park Service reports there are one thousand shipwrecks between Wellfleet and Truro, which is less than five miles long. The first recorded shipwreck occurred six years after the Pilgrims landed. Winter months, not surprisingly, were the worst, with an estimated two wrecks every month during the early 1800s. The region gets pounded by storms, blizzards, hurricanes. A category 3 hurricane hit the area in 1635, a force of nature settlers born in Europe had never heard of or seen before. The beaches, no doubt, could tell us many, many stories, everything from who showed up and when, to the horror unspooling in the waves, to the objects fishermen accidentally reeled in, to children scampering about getting a sunburn. The beaches have seen it all.

When I think about leaving the Northeast, I think about escaping New York City, but when I think about leaving New England, I hesitate. Jobs brought and kept us here, in New York, but New England pulls us away from all that. I grew up vacationing in Mystic, Connecticut. As a child, I remember being fearful of all those oil paintings featuring angry sperm whales attacking sailors. I got married in Vermont on the coast of Lake Champlain. My first newspaper job was in Dover, New Hampshire, the Granite State’s “Seacoast,” a 40-mile stretch of oceanfront. On my days off, I used to sit and chill on the sand in York, Maine, another beach that has seen its own share of shipwrecks. In fact, in 2013, a storm washed away enough sand to reveal the bones of sloop dating between 1750 and 1850.

Today, back in suburban New Jersey, I miss coastal New England. The gray weather here doesn’t feel intriguing like the gray weather there. Last weekend, on an overcast rainy day, I visited the Provincetown Library, an impressive building given to the town in 1873. The first thing I saw walking in was its “Mysteries” section. New Englanders love their spooky yarns. Stephen King is a lifelong Maine resident. Before King, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts,—witch trial central—was writing about all the shit in the woods that could kill you, or, at the very least, emotionally scar you for life. Somehow, when you drive west and cross the Connecticut border back into New York and turn south to head into New Jersey, New England’s haunting beauty dissipates. It’s not going to compete with malls or the Manhattan skyline or traffic. You have to go there to feel it.

We rented a condo in Provincetown, just two blocks from Commercial Street and all its wonderful restaurants and galleries, and every morning as I poured myself a cup of coffee, I would look out from the kitchen and see the Provincetown Cemetery, a few of the taller headstones poking up from a hill. There are stones dating to the early 1800s, also worn by Cape Cod’s mercurial weather. If you read the dates on many of these graves, you realize a number of people barely made it to age 45. Many graves lack a birth date because the information wasn’t available.

And that’s Cape Cod, and much of New England right now: orange and brown leaves blowing past old headstones; people curling up indoors reading a good mystery; waves and winds hitting the beaches harder; fireplaces going strong inside restaurants serving chowder because it’s getting cold and warming up takes more effort. And it’s all beautiful, even when it feels creepy.

All Diets Fail

Last year sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day—that week of excess and reflection—I vowed in a half-assed but hopeful way to go on a travel diet for 2014. It was time to save more, spend less, do all the things that the financial commercials advise you to do. The first item on any financial adviser’s chopping block: the family vacation.

But as anyone who attempts to stop eating bacon and doughnuts every weekend because of a New Year’s resolution can tell you—all diets fail.


“The Year of Austerity” also known as “Travel Diet 2014” never really had a fighting chance. We kicked off the new year flying home after visiting friends in Arizona (on this day last year we were traveling from Phoenix to Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon). By April, we were on a plane to Iceland. Two months later, we were smothered in sunscreen and hiking Colorado. A few weeks later, our July trip to California was cancelled last-minute when Mike’s mom passed away, but later this year, he was back out on the Left Coast—twice in three weeks. In fact, my husband’s travel surpassed my own this year: he white water rafted in Idaho, mingled with Jedis and heroes in Atlanta for DragonCon, spent two days sequestered in a hotel conference room in Orlando, Florida, then flew to Pasadena, and came back for two-and-a-half weeks before heading back to California for stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He arrived home less than three weeks ago with some winter respiratory virus that’s left us all hacking and begging for NyQuil. In between all this we scored a gorgeous late September weekend in Cape Cod, and I escaped to a magnificent week in the Berkshires. Not traveling is just not who we are.

Science has shown that vacation planning boosts happiness. This certainly feels true for us; the anticipation of any trip brings a bounce to our daily routine. A 2010 study suggested that the excitement of any upcoming vacation was all that was needed, for apparently after a family holiday, folks became grumpy again. Not us. We’re buzzing before the trip, during the trip, after the trip. Travel is a geographical adventure, not an emotional escape for us; we’re happy at home or on the road, but not having a trip on the calendar would certainly darken my mood. Travel is my Prozac.

So for 2015, I’ve reframed the resolution so that I don’t set myself up for immediate failure because clearly I need some amount of travel in my life so I don’t become depressed. I hate to use that buzzword “balance” but for a lack of a better word, I’m aiming for balance in 2015. And I think I already accomplished some balance this past fall. For example, a small inheritance from my mother-in-law allowed me to pay off my student loans earlier than expected, a balance that hit “zero” right before Thanksgiving (the best kind of loan balance of all!). I suppose we could’ve blown that money on a trip, but that never entered into the equation. Getting rid of that loan was the smart, prudent thing to do, and not once did I feel tempted by ads of dreamy, sandy beaches. Student loans suck—especially at a rolling 7 percent interest rate, which is what I had been paying since 1996. Class of 2013 graduates have an average of $28,400 in student loan debt; mine was significantly more than that, and we squirrel away money every month so our daughter won’t carry such a financial burden. Not every dime earned disappears on vacation. See? Balance. And it’s not even January 1!

Other expenses need to be paid off as well and our old house always needs some TLC. Our dishwasher sounds like NASCAR and our lawn mower can barely chew a blade of grass, but that’s middle class life in America. Appliances will get replaced, cracks in the ceiling and walls will get fixed. Unlike middle class America, I don’t spend weekends dumping a few hundred dollars here and there at Target or Home Depot, something I hear my neighbor talk about. We’d rather put that money towards trips, which is what we’re doing in about seven weeks. We’ll be heading to the Caribbean spending February break soaking up some much-needed vitamin D in the Bahamas, specifically Exuma. We skipped the all-inclusive scene to do something a bit quieter, though not necessarily cheaper, and we’re looking forward to swimming with pigs and feeling the sun on our skin. January and February in the Northeastern United States are my two worst months; I struggle with darkness, go fetal on our couch and beg for Persephone’s return. In my opinion, the Caribbean is cheaper than eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, especially given the hourly rates New York City shrinks charge.

Bahamas will be it for international trips in 2015. We’ll putter around the continental US, fix some things around the house, pay some stuff off, ease into the new year with essentially more of the same, which works for us. If this time next year I’m blogging again about the cool places we visited and the sites we hope to see in the coming year, well, then I couldn’t be happier.

What the Whales Know

It was 10 o’clock in the morning on a stretch of beach long vacated by tourists. The tide hadn’t come in yet and there were spits of sand surrounded by water the kids called “islands” that they would chase after with their plastic toys, laughing while the waves gently pushed them back. The forecast was perfect for a last Saturday in September: upper 70s, abundant sunshine, barely any breeze. Just stillness.




By lunch, the beach had filled up, but that was okay. By lunch, we were willing to share our slice of heaven with strangers. Mayflower Beach in Cape Cod is pristine, far from any boardwalk or ferris wheel or fried dough vendor. The sand felt powdery under my feet. I hadn’t felt sand like that in ages. I went walking on it and walked for so long I lost track of how far away I had gone from our little stakeout of blankets and chairs and our confetti-colored beach umbrella that had disappeared from my view.


We enjoyed a picnic of lobster rolls and lemonade that afternoon and while slathering myself with SPF 50 for the umpteenth time, I decided that late September would be beach time going forward. Fewer people. Cheaper hotel rates. Quiet. Beaches as the calm respite they once were, not beaches the way Atlantic City had twisted them.



Beyond the beach, Cape Cod had its tchotchke shops with too many Chinese-imported souvenirs praising the sea and the toothy Kennedys. Beyond the usual tourist trappings though are flickers of Old Cape Cod, the ones fishermen families probably enjoyed before being overrun by chunky pale people from Boston and New York. While sitting on the beach I began to think of Cape Cod’s mysteries and stories. I’d like to explore more of Cape Cod once the summer beachgoers are gone, when it’s quiet and lines for ordering a lobster roll aren’t long. I’d like to see what the Cape Cod old timers saw. They probably knew humpback whales had horrible halitosis or that the tide buried sandcastles in minutes not hours. They probably knew the lighthouse signatures–the sequence of light flashes that were specific to each lighthouse and that helped ships identify where they were. They probably knew that past the powdery sand were hundreds and hundreds of splintered ships, wrecked by rocks and bad weather and bad luck.

Cape Cod is a cemetery, though this part is hard to see amid all the colorful, charming seaside shops and restaurants. But it’s a beautiful cemetery like St. Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia, or the bright, cheery cemeteries in Mexico. The area was once dubbed “the graveyard of the Atlantic,” for throughout colonial times and even well into the first half of the 20th century, ships plowed right into the Massachusetts coast. You see glimpses of these losses throughout the region, that despite the deceptive beauty of the Massachusetts’ shoreline, you see how the sea was a very dangerous place, a message romanticized in souvenir shops. Men just disappeared. And the whales could not help them. My guess is the whales, those coy humpbacks and minkes with the bad breath, waving their tails for the tourists’ cameras, know the Atlantic’s secrets. They know who lost what, who ended their days at sea, where the treasure is buried. But they’re not telling, for perhaps it’s a story we couldn’t bear to hear.




The Right Stuff

Dominique Browning is right: “souvenir” is a beautiful word and purchases made while traveling are definitely souvenirs, not stuff. “Stuff” sounds exactly like what it is: bulky, awkward, unnecessary. Stuff is what you buy at Target and then pack off to Good Will the following year. Stuff is what you trip over. Souvenirs are stories.

The latest souvenir to enter our home is this decorative metal chicken I bought over the weekend in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that spunky speck of land and the fist in the bicep curl that is Cape Cod. I don’t even really eat chicken, but this chicken now guards our cookbooks, including pages explaining how to best prepare that middle American staple: the boring chicken breast.


Does it have a story? Well, I’ll always look at this bird and think of that gloomy, cardigan day walking around Provincetown and I’ll remember two things: how delicious the lobster rolls were there and the ticket collector at the pirate museum who spoke so passionately about her own metal chicken collection back at her home in Key West, where living, wild chickens roam free. I’m not about to become a collector of anything, certainly not of metal chickens for I’m sure I paid too much for this stupid thing. I later learned it was made in either China or Indonesia so I was disappointed that I had been tricked into buying something I thought was “artisanal,” a word I’m growing tired of but still use probably more than I should. But there is a story in that too; I thought I was buying something artsy in charming Provincetown only to have been tricked into buying another mass-produced tchotchke from China. Yet I was smitten, plastic was swiped, and now there’s a metal chicken in the dining room that brings back seaside chill and nautical New England as well as naive shopping.

This chicken joins savvier travel purchases that have far more individuality: the antler art I bought in Colorado this summer–as artisanal as you can get with deer parts; my painting from Taos–my second-favorite vacation purchase; my metallic sunflower and pig also from Taos; my Buddha from Montreal; my teapot from Kyoto, Japan; and my favorite souvenir of all, the antique fish knife I bought in London fourteen years ago that later became the knife that sliced through our wedding cake and birthday cakes. And of course there’s a closet full of scarves that represent my globe-trotting.

Oddly, I don’t like it when people give me souvenirs from their trips. Sure, I’ll say “thanks” and do whatever it is I’m supposed to do with the souvenir that was given to me, but this trinket wasn’t my experience–it was theirs. I have no memory of a lovely family vacation with this object; there’s no story to share over that third glass of wine. When I travel, I want to collect stories. Every time I bring out the antique fish knife I purchased in Notting Hill in London, I remember the argument Mike and I had at the Churchill Hills Arm pub next door. We sat under a collection of chamber pots suspended from the ceiling and bickered. We had been engaged for just a few days. Mike, who had just dropped some serious coin on an engagement ring, didn’t want to blow $250 USD on some random fish knife serving set that dated from 1910. The antiques dealer wouldn’t sell me the knife separately, since I wanted that knife for our wedding cake, and Mike thought it was stupid to pay for a fork and knife set when we would only use the knife, which wasn’t even meant to cut cake in the first place. I loved his practicality even then. The more we argued, the more I fell in love with that fish knife. “Think of what a great story this would be for our kids!” I had said. And it was, retold countless times with my version, Mike’s version and the version told by both of us at the same time where our sentences overlapped. Had someone given us that fish knife as a wedding gift it would not have meant as much.

This past weekend, as I browsed shops along Provincetown, I texted Mike to let him know I was wrapping up and would meet up with him and our kid; they were several doors down the street perusing a game shop. I told him I had just bought a metal chicken. He texted back “Of course you did.” We don’t argue about such things anymore. Back in our hotel room, I shared this story with Mike. It’s about a wife who brought home a five-foot metal chicken and left it at the front door for her husband to find. So as I reminded Mike, it could be worse. And besides, Anna has already laid claim to the antlers and chicken to decorate her first apartment, so there will be opportunities to declutter. Sure, she’s in elementary school right now, but she’s already developing an eye for quirky art. One day, she’ll point to those antlers from Colorado or the metal chicken from Massachusetts by way of China, and tell her roommates stories about traveling with her parents. Her roommates will either roll their eyes or nod in agreement that Anna’s mother is indeed one of the coolest people on the planet. And the stories behind these souvenirs will live on.