An Afternoon at the Cape

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I am at Cape Cod for the next couple of days. It wasn’t part of my plan, but here I am thanks to the wisdom and encouragement of the woman I love. I hit the landward side of the Cape early this afternoon, stopping at the rest stop by the canal, which also serves as an information system.

I’ve never actually seen the information center because I go to the Cape in the off-season and they are generally closed. But it is a good stopping point with rest rooms after a long drive. There is also a path that runs along the canal for a couple of miles towards the bridge that carries you to the rest of the cape.

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I’ve never taken the walk, always in a hurry to get to Provincetown or where ever I was going, but today, I had no schedule. So down I went to the canal side and started walking.

It was cold, but the sun was high and the bank of the canal blocked the wind, so I was warm. A few times I just stopped and soaked in the light and heat. The walk was longer than I imagined, but it was good to stretch my legs.

I have missed walking this winter. I have asthma, which only hits when I push myself in cold weather, and it’s been a cold, white winter here in Vermont. So I’ve only been up in the quarry near my home once or twice, and on the trails near my house maybe half a dozen times, so the walk towards the bridge stretched my legs and felt slightly sore, but good.

I told myself I wanted to get close enough to the bridge that I could make that structure, so practical and commonplace, into something abstract. That’s what happens when we get close to something. The whole disappears and something else, details, the essence of a thing starts to emerge.

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And so, as I got closer, the bridge disappeared and turned into a collage of angles and lines against the blue sky, something that out of context made no sense, but still had a beauty of its own.

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There were pylons holding the bridge up. Massive things of stone and concrete. The shore of the canal had been built out to them and on each one were two big red and white signs, fades but still emphatic. “No Climbing” they said.

I’m 61. A responsible man, or so most people tell me. But wave a red and white sign saying “Don’t” in front of me and there is something in me that still, like some in the midst of puberty 14-year-old just has to.

And so I did. I climbed up the stone wall, and inched myself back into the sun and just sat there, legs dangling, stupid grin on my face.

Emphasis on stupid.

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The walk back was not as nice. The wind shifted and was blowing in my face. An old man who had been sitting on the bench watching me walk towards the bridge, climb up and down, and then walk back saw my eyes watering in the wind. “Punishment’s a bitch.” he said and broke into a broad laugh. I laughed with him and joined him on the bench for a while. He talked about the fishing boats that came up and down the canal. He talked about the wood ducks that swam there. He talked about getting old.

“I used to climb that thing too.” he said, “Until five years ago.” I asked him how old he was. “Eighty-one” he said, his teeth and eyes sparkling in his black face.

There’s hope for me.

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I got to Chatham in the middle of the afternoon, dumped my things in the room, and went out to the beach. There were many a half dozen others walking on the sand, and I headed out to the sand bar.

My first trip to the Cape, just at a year ago, I stumbled onto Chatham my first day. There’s a small Coast Guard lighthouse there, and sand bars that go on for miles into the ocean. That day I walked about a mile, until the footprints of others who had gone before me stopped, and then I turned around and came back.

This trip though, I wanted to go to the end of the bar. I didn’t know how far that might be, but on good old Google Maps, it looked like a long walk. Still, there is something about being at the end of land that resonates with me. It’s why I like Provincetown, I think. It’s why I will forever love Land’s End in England.

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And so I walked. I around this bend and that one. I walked past a strange little shack with a big private sign on it, flying a flag, but so rickety it is hard to imagine anyone staying there, even in the summer.

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I walked past driftwood and dunes where the seagrass waved in the wind like a ballet corps dancing Swan Lake, elegant and bowing.  I walked past the last footsteps. And then beyond that.

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Don’t ask me how far it was. It was a long way. I was tired as I got closer to the but there was so much to see. Seagulls. Shells. Waves in the sun. More driftwood, again going from a thing to the abstract, all light and dark and texture.

Clearly, I thought to myself, this is to be a detail day. Not a day of expanses and sunsets, but of the tiny minutia of life which contains its own magic.

Don’t ask me how far. Ask me what I saw. Tiny sand crabs. Seals in the water swimming. Patterns in the sand. Waves in the distance. Finally, I came close to the end of land. There was a section of strange sand ripples, still wet from the falling tide, between me and the last bit of beach.

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I had to cross them to reach the end, and I hated the idea of messing up their temporary perfection. It seemed a sacrilege, destruction of art, desecration of a Jackson Pollock or the Mona Lisa. Then I laughed at myself. No, I said, this is more like God’s finger painting, recreated with every tide. I walked through to the last spit of land I could reach, my shoes getting stuck in the slippery mud.

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The end was kind of anticlimactic. I was at the end of land, but I wasn’t. There, a short ways out, was a tiny sand bar island, a barrier between me and the crashing ocean waves. But for me, it was the end. Rip tides and freezing water were barrier enough. I turned around and began walking back.

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The sun was falling as I made my way back. The shadows grew long. As I came close to finishing, I watched a young man running, bundled up in his windbreaker, stocking cap and sweatshirt, in shorts and barefooted.

Perhaps, I thought. I am a bit mad. But not that mad. Be he was smiling. He waved. I waved back and watched him run. To the first cove, and back. I smiled, for today at least, for this one cycle of tides, I was the sole and solitary traveler to the end of land. I had seen God’s abstract art. I had cleared my head of things and deadlines and work and responsibilities.

A good start, the emptying of a head. Like coming to the end of land. Where life is reduced to horizons and the most beautiful of tiny deails. And whatever is left is the essence. A bit of an abstraction. A bit of peace.

Enough.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

 

3 thoughts on “An Afternoon at the Cape

  1. Hi Tom, I love your blog and feel especially connected to your pieces about the Cape, since it is one of my favorite places on earth. I have been going there often from my home in upstate New York for the last 45 years, exploring and taking photographs. Even after all this time, there is always something new to discover. I was wondering, after reading about your attraction to the last point of land, if you have walked out across the breakwaters in P’Town to the tip of the Cape at Long Point. I imagine you have, but f not, I highly recommend it. There is something magical about that spot.

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