Day 7 & 8 – Saturday, October 24 & Sunday October 25
Saturday – On Saturday, I woke to see the first sign of inhabitants at the neighboring shack. It was odd to see a pickup truck parked next to the shack as I had gotten used to such solitude. They must have arrived late Friday evening as I was up before sunrise and hadn’t heard the truck arrive. I didn’t see anyone at the neighboring shacks, so I went about my usual routine figuring I would meet up with my neighbors eventually.
This morning’s weather was breezy and cool and it felt like a true, crisp fall morning. Thanks to waking up before the sun rose I did something I rarely do…took a nap. Because it had turned cooler over night, I had kept Arno well fed with wood, and the comforting crackle and warmth of the fire, the sound of the waves and breeze, dozing off on the comfortable, worn-in sofa was easy to do! A short while later, I heard my neighbors stirring, so I was up for the day. It was a little too chilly to attempt another shower, so I went a little old-school, washing up with pots of heated water from the stove top out on the deck. The jugs of warm water I poured over my head to wash out the shampoo felt heavenly….my own little spa treatment! Every summer I came to the Cape, the outdoor shower was one of my favorite things. Somehow, cleaning up in the fresh air while being able to see the sky above me left me feeling even cleaner and more refreshed. The warm water on a cold October day felt absolutely luxurious.
Instead of a long walk today, I hung out close to the shack enjoying a true day of relaxing before heading home tomorrow. I walked down to the beach to get my daily view of the ocean, and did my best to save in my mind the view, smell and sounds of the empty stretch of beach, overcast skies, saltwater smell, white capped waves, and wind. I headed back to the shack and cracked open a bottle of wine that was given to me by a good friend back home to enjoy while out here. I’d thought about opening the bottle earlier in the week, but I was honestly a little nervous about doing anything to dull my senses while out there alone. Instead, I decided to use it as a celebration for a week well done on my last full day at the shack. I never realized how good Oreo cookies taste with a glass of wine…maybe it had something to do with the salt air…hahaha! Whatever the reason, that was perhaps the best tasting glass of wine and Oreo cookies I’ve ever had as I relaxed in an Adirondack chair on the back deck of the shack with my feet up on the railing, taking in the view and doing nothing other than enjoying my surroundings.
A little while later when I walked down to pump some water, I met Peter Clemons, my neighbor who had arrived the evening before. Peter and his family are one of the “long-term” shack families and continually work to preserve the legacy of all the shacks. Peter was very welcoming and gave me a brief history of the Fowlers, who built the shack I was staying in back in the 1940’s. Because they didn’t have a dune vehicle, Laura and Stan Fowler carried all the materials they used to build the shack on their backs across the dunes. Peter also told me that the area in front of the Fowler shack used to be a kettle pond, so their view was of the pond, and then the ocean beyond, without the large dune that now separates the “dune bowl”, as I called it, from the beach. Having been here a week, I am actually glad that the big dune is there as it was not only pretty to look at the gracefully blowing dune grass that covered it and the path that lead up it, but the protection it offered from crashing waves on some of those windy nights was comforting. Since returning from the shack, I have purchased and read the book “Traditional Dune Dwellers” that Peter co-authored with Marianne Benson (available on blurb.com), and I highly recommend to anyone interested in the dune shack history.
I spent the rest of the afternoon reading through more of the entries left in the dune shack journal, and contributed my own entry as well. Another walk down to the beach and relaxing on the shack deck closed out my last full day there perfectly. The melancholy over having to leave this place the next day was starting to set in, but it was not as strong as the sense of gratitude at having the opportunity to stay here for a week. It is everything I have read it would be and more. Life-shifting is the best way I can describe the experience. I know that I will most definitely apply for the chance to come back.
Sunday – My last sunrise for this stay is another beauty with tufts of pastel colored pink clouds dotting the sky . As I watch the sunrise, I think of the things that I have enjoyed here and will miss the most (until my next stay!):
I make sure all of my belongings are packed up and out by the shack shed as Chip instructed me to do when he dropped me off at the beginning of the week. I clean up the inside of the shack, sweeping the never-ending supply of sand that seems to cover the floor. I restock the shed wood pile, bring a load in for the next “shackie” and build a good fire in the stove as a sort of welcome. When Chip shows up with my successor, I feel a sense of ownership as I affectionately point out all the things about staying at the shack that I think he will find helpful. I know that the shack will be in good hands as this next shackie tells me that he has stayed in Fowler before and gets his manual typewriter comfortably set up on the little kitchen table. He is a children’s author and is using his dune shack stay to work on his next book. I know as he is setting up that I need to go outside. I am not good at long goodbyes, and now that the shack has a new inhabitant, I am eager to get on the road and head home. Before I head outside, Chip comes in and provides me with one of the best souvenirs of my stay. When I ask him if it’s okay if I leave the bag of newspaper knots for the subsequent shack inhabitants, he assures me they will be put to good use and then takes one out of the bag, hands it to me and tells me that I ought to take one home with me as a memento of my stay and my dad.
We load up Chip’s truck with my bags and make the drive back to the hotel where my truck is parked. After a good hug and well wishes, Chip and I part ways and I am on the road back home with a stop for hot coffee. After arriving back home and enjoying a long, hot shower and checking a week’s worth of email, I read one of the best emails I’ve ever received. It is from my friend Dennis, who along with my friend Peter, had come out to visit me while at the shack. It read:
So proud of you! You survived one week with yourself, your thoughts and emotions. At a time when most people would need an emotional support team, you pulled up the big girl pants (to the shock of the dune tour ladies of Alabama) and ventured into the furthest point away from civilization by yourself. I’m sure the impact of the week will have a long-term influence on you. Peter and I both said we knew your parents were both out there with you, from angel rays to gentle breezes and a cooperative pot belly stove. By the way, you do make a mean fire (thanks Arno)! Cannot wait to see what glorious photos you took during your stay. Hoping you are sending in a request to the lottery for another week! Go home, shower, hug your family and be sure to pat yourself on the back. You truly are an inspiration! Hugs and love your way”
For me, the inspiration is best summed up in Henry Beston’s last paragraph of “The Outermost House”:
Touch the earth, love the earth, honor the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen over ocean from the beach.
Day 6 – Friday, October 23, 2015
Sleep was a bit interrupted last night, but the interruption was well worth it. At some point in the middle of the night (or wee hours of the morning) both the wind and the crash of waves on the shore over the dune woke me up. It was loud enough to entice me out to the deck to check out my surroundings. I was treated to a magnificently starry sky. The stars seemed within arm’s reach and left me feeling like I had just stepped into my own personal planetarium. The dome of stars over me along with the sounds of the wind and the crashing waves was striking both in its beauty and reminder of nature’s formidable power. I don’t think it is possible to stay out here without developing a much deeper respect for nature, regardless of how deep it may have been before you arrived. I headed back inside for a few more hours of sleep, knowing that even though periodically interrupted by wave crashing, wind and coyote howls over the nights I had been here, I had never slept more peacefully than this week.
When morning did arrive, I spent some time photographing more details of the shack. The collection of old books, lanterns and small treasures from the beach that filled the shelves on the walls were artwork of their own. I liked seeing the different patterns created in how they were lined up as well as the randomness of how some collections were spread across a section of shelf. Even the shack roof was interesting to me with oars housed across the crossbeams of the ceiling. How many wild storms they must have creaked and groaned through!
Today’s walk, at Dave’s (from Art’s Dune Tours) suggestion would be to head south along the beach toward the location where he told me the colony of seals liked to sun themselves. This definitely felt like a day when the warmth of the sun would be welcome. Although very windy and chilly, I didn’t fire up Arno this morning as I knew I would be gone on my walk for a while and it wouldn’t take very long for the stove to heat the whole shack up when I got back. I wrote a bit more in my journal and then headed out for the day’s exploring. As windy as it felt at the shack, the strength of the wind as I walked onto the beach caught me by surprise. Even with the wind at my back headed out, it was still pretty cold, and I was thankful that I packed a scarf and mittens. The ocean was gorgeous as the bright white caps contrasted sharply against the blue sky and the rest of the ocean. As in other walks along the shore, there were colored buoys and worn lobster traps scattered across the wide open beach. The large flocks of grey and white gulls added more flecks of color to the horizon. I loved watching the grace with which the gulls would float in place on the breeze as they launched themselves airborne. It’s no wonder that most people select flying as the superpower they would most like to have. Along the way, I would scale a dune to get a better look at the landscape around me. The look of the tall dune grass blowing back in the wind reminded me of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Wind From The Sea” with the grass acting like the billowy curtains in the window. About the only thing missing from the dune shack were billowy curtains on the windows that moved gracefully in the ocean breeze. I don’t know how far I ended up walking, but my outward trek was two hours. Walking back took a lot longer as I was heading into the wind and getting quite a workout. A few times I walked backwards just to give myself a break from the unrelenting wind and periodic sand blasts. Unfortunately, I never spotted the seals sunning themselves. Maybe they had chosen a more sheltered location. On my walk back, I did see the carcass of a dead seal and those of a few dead seagulls. None of them appeared to have been there that long, and I couldn’t tell what had caused their demise, but I wished their animal spirits well and wondered if the previous evening’s wild wind and crashing waves were an indicator of a dangerous night out at sea for these poor creatures. I also spotted a few rubber fishing gloves along the shore and hoped that everyone out to sea yesterday made it back safely.
The real imagination-fueling find on my walk was the large wooden beam that lay washed up on the shore not far from the water’s edge. It was about 4′ long and had three iron rings attached to its upright side. I have a good friend who is a novelist and has an affinity for shipwrecks, so I immediately thought of her and what story she would conjure from this relic. The fact that I happened upon it the day after a wild night of wind and crashing waves only made its story possibilities that much better.
I was glad to finally reach the dune that marked the path to the Fowler shack as it had become hard to catch my breath with the wind continually in my face, and my legs were feeling the burn of a long walk in the sand. It was a comforting feeling to crest the dune and see the cozy Fowler shack nestled in the protective bowl of the dune. I got Arno fired up with a good fire and warmed up a can of soup for lunch. Even canned food seems to taste better out here! I spent some more time photographing the exterior of the shed, relaxed by the fire while I read, did some more journaling and completed the daily round of chores. Later in the day as I was making my dinner, I was reminded of summer stays at my grandparents’ home. I was warming up canned green beans and the smell brought back memories of my grandmother warming up green beans from her extensive collection of self-canned beans from my grandfather’s garden. She would always cook me eggs to go with them, and since I had hard boiled all the eggs I had brought with me, I improvised and dined on my own canned beans and hard boiled eggs that night as an homage to the many happy memories they gave me.
Another sunset show did not disappoint accompanied by ribbons of white caps on the choppy sea. The sky became kaleidoscopic as fiery oranges and reds lit up the horizon in one direction while purples and pinks saturated the skies to my back. Never, anywhere, have I seen such a light show. My own subdued version of the warm orange glow would keep me company this evening as a cold night meant keeping the stove going all night to the tune of the still strong wind and crashing waves.
Day 5 – Thursday, October 22, 2015
I woke up this morning excited because my good friends Dennis and Peter, who live on the Cape were coming to visit courtesy of Art’s Dune Tours. I can’t wait to show them the shack and spend an afternoon with them. They have been checking in with me via text messages since my arrival to make sure that I’m doing okay and have been as excited for my shack stay as I was. They are two of the best friends a girl could ask for. My only request for what they can bring me is a cup of coffee. My instant cappuccino has been a good morning starter, but I know a cup of brewed coffee will be delicious!
I realized it has rained overnight as the all of the screens are coated with leftover raindrops, and a dew covers the beach grass and sparkles like jewels sprinkled on the dunes in the rising sun’s reflection. It was a very mild evening – I gave Arno the stove the night off as a fire wasn’t needed, and this morning looks like it will be a great day for my friends’ visit. As I watch the sun rise and spread vibrant colors across the sky and highlight the clouds in a way that looks like a painting, I feel like I am looking at nature’s own Sistine Chapel, except this one gets repainted every night. Witnessing all of these sunrises and sunsets has been one of my favorite parts of this experience.
As I head out of the shack to take care of my morning business (I’ve gotten good at timing my water consumption so I’m not forced to foray out into the pitch black night to do so!) I notice animal tracks around the shack and I suddenly remember the coyote howling I heard last night! I’m actually quite excited that they visited the shack as I now feel like I have been paid a welcome visit by the native residents. There are multiple tracks and I can’t really tell how many there were, but they rim the entire shack. Clearly, they were curious about what they might find here.
I head down to the beach for my morning visit and am treated to another native wildlife experience as I spot two seals swimming in the surf along the shore! What a thrill! I have seen lots of seals before when I’ve visited the Chatham Fish Pier and they are being fed by the fisherman as they unload their catch, but I’ve never seen them swimming in the wild, away from civilization. It is the absolute coolest thing to watch them frolic in the surf, leisurely making their way down the shore. I can’t get over how close to the shore they are, and as I walk along the shore trying to keep pace with them, they look in my direction and I give them a wave, and am able to get a few photos of them.
Hearing the coyotes the night before and seeing the seals this morning, along with living in the dunes this week has made me more mindful of the footprint I leave in the environment, physically and otherwise. I have noticed that unlike summer, as Henry Beston points out in The Outermost House, as the weather gets colder, footprints in the sand stay longer. Mine from last night are still here, but in the summer they would have been gone as a much higher sun warms and dries the sand faster. I feel very alert here, not nervous or afraid, but like my senses are much more sensitive to everything around me. I am relaxed even as I am remaining very physically active taking long walks among the dunes, bringing in loads of wood, keeping a fire stoked and pumping my own water. I know it also has to do with listening to the sounds of an unfamiliar environment without the distraction of ambient noise, and it really is magnificent. I have visited the Cape every summer for 50 years, but never like this. This is a new environment, one I have only looked at from a distance on the drives along Route 6 on the way out to Provincetown. Those rides will have a such a different feel, as will all of the Cape for me, as I now look out on those dunes and know that for one week, I lived there and experienced a deep shift in what it means to be alive. Because I didn’t just stay here…I really lived here. I realize that “living” is not a matter of time. Living is a matter of being, experiencing. Being out here taught me that.
I decided that rather than my usual long morning walk, I will stay at the shack and read through the journal entries left in the shack journal by other “shackies” as I wait for Dennis and Peter. The entries are a fantastic window into what this experience was like for others before me. A part of me wishes I had read it at the start of my week to know what to expect and look for, and the other part is glad that I allowed my experience to be completely unfiltered. My favorite entry was one that ended with:
“Welcomed by whale spouts & coyote howls, rolling breakers, the sea blowing straight through the leaves, the house, my heart. Stars – forever.
It makes you wonder which life is truly ‘real life’.
Maybe, more importantly, how can I bring this connection back to culture so that we value what is so much greater than ourselves?
As artists, thinkers, makers – perhaps that is the real work.”
Yes, I think that is the real work.
As the time nears for my friends’ visit, I head down the path to the spot where they’ve told me they will be dropped off. As I see the truck pull up, I nearly climb in the window to hug my friends as I am so glad to see them! Dave, the Art’s Dune Tours Driver, tells me that he’ll drive them the rest of the way up the path, and I follow behind. When the truck pulled up to the shack, I realized there were two other passengers besides Dennis and Peter. One was the husband of the “shackie” that stayed there the week before me (they live part time in Provincetown) and the other is his friend, both of whom wanted to see the shack. Dave asks if it’s okay for my unexpected to guests to take a look, and I am thrilled to show them around. There’s something particularly wonderful about the delight that others take in an experience you get to have…it really drives it home just how incredibly fortunate you are. Dave asked me if I’d heard any coyotes, and I smiled thinking to myself that I’d somehow just passed a dune shack test in being able to tell him that I had. I told him about the seals I’d seen that morning and he told me that if I walked a ways down in the same direction, I would come across a spot where they liked to bask in the sun. He then asked, “Were you out walking in the dunes the other day with your camera bag?” I told him I was and he told me he passed me as he was taking a group of women on a tour from Alabama. I remember the day they all passed and enthusiastically waved. He laughs and says that as they passed me, one of the women said (and he imitates their southern drawl), “Look! It’s a GIRL! Do you think she needs a ride?!” Dave told them I was probably staying in one of the dune shacks, which only heightened their anxiety. “All by herself?! What if some wild man tries to get her?!” Dave said he tried hard not to laugh because he didn’t want to seem like a jerk, and he knew the women were actually concerned about me, so he explained to them that I was safe and that someone would have to make a pretty concerted effort to track me down out here. After a round of some photos, Dave headed out with my extra guests, leaving Dennis and Peter and I to our visit until he returned to pick them up a few hours later.
When you really want to connect with good friends, if at all possible, do it in the beauty of nature and unplugged from the distractions of daily life. Dennis and Peter and I relaxed on the shack deck and enjoyed the best lunch and conversation I’d had in a long time. These incredible friends of mine had not only arranged to get themselves out there to see me, they brought me coffee and a self-made survival kit that included a hand warmer for when I was out taking photographs, Oreos, Twix bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, hand wipes, survival blanket, green tea and Tylenol. Dennis (recovering from a bout of bronchitis) hung out on the deck while Peter and I took a walk up the dunes so he could get a better view of the surrounding landscape. These two really understood what it meant for me to be here, and having them come out for a visit made it that much better. After they left a little while later, I felt a little bit lonely, not because I mind being by myself, but because I didn’t know when I would see my friends next. Their visit reminded me that sometimes it is the support system of good friends that helps you find the strength and bravery to be good on your own. And in that realm, I am exceptionally fortunate. It was only appropriate then, that I soothed my missing them with my book, and the coffee and Oreos they brought me out on the deck.
It turned windy in the late afternoon and the skies turned dark, threatening rain, so I brought in more wood, replenished the shed woodpile, filled my water jugs at the pump, did my dishes and battened down the hatches from the wind and rain that had started. I enjoyed reading some more of the dune shack journal entries by solar lantern and worked on my notes of my own. Tonight I went to bed with a full, grateful heart thanks to the addition of friendship in this beautiful place.
Day 4 – Wednesday, October 21, 2015
My fourth morning here, shortly before dawn, it was the sound of soft rain on the shack roof and the sound of boat motors in the not-too-far distance that lulled me out of sleep. As I laid on the sofa, cozy in the heat from the wood stove, I listened to the rain become quiet as it thankfully stopped for the day, and the boat engines got closer. I was curious to see what was cruising out on the ocean so early, so I willed myself out of my warm cocoon to walk down to the beach to have a look.
Although no longer raining, the skies did not look promising for a sunny day, but cloudy days are equally good for exploring. I was surprised, as I reached the top of the dune bordering the beach, at how far out to sea the two boats whose engines I had heard in the shack were. It must have been the breeze that carried their sounds so much closer to shore. I fully expected to come over the dune and see them a stone’s throw from the water’s edge; however, they were far enough out that I was just able to make them out as fishing boats with the assistance of both my dad’s binoculars and my telephoto camera lens. As it was still pretty dark, both boats had their lights on, and I imagined their captains standing with one hand on the wheel and another wrapped around a warm mug of strong black coffee. Not a bad commute to work, I thought. They slowly motored their way across the horizon and it made me think of Captain Billy Tyne’s (played by George Clooney) quote in the movie The Perfect Storm:
“The fog’s just lifting. Throw off your bow line; throw off your stern. You head out to South channel, past Rocky Neck, Ten Pound Island. Past Niles Pond where I skated as a kid. Blow your air horn and throw a wave to the lighthouse keeper’s kid on Thatcher Island. Then the birds show up: black backs, herring gulls, big dump ducks. The sun hits ya – head north. Open up to 12 – steamin’ now. The guys are busy; you’re in charge. You know what? You’re a goddam sword boat captain! Is there anything better in the world?”
I stand a few more minutes on top of the dune watching the boats, imagining myself as that lighthouse keeper’s kid, and I wave to boats I know probably cannot see me…but it’s fun to pretend. The sun is now making its presence known with an orangey-red glow at the end of the horizon, like the still-warm coals left from the previous night’s fire. The sky becomes light but not sunny, and the skies still look like they hold a threat of rain. The boats have now left my field of vision as they headed down the coast, so I make my way back to the shack for breakfast.
This morning’s breakfast of instant oatmeal, a griddle warmed blueberry muffin, hard -boiled egg and instant cappuccino, accompanied by my dune view and cozy smell of the wood stove encourage me to linger longer than normal at my little breakfast table. I decide that I will relax at the shack this morning before heading out on my daily excursion, and I grab my copy of Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” and settle in on the back porch to read. I mark passages that I connect with now staying in an “outermost house”, in particular, his passage about watching “Glorious white birds in the blue October heights over the solemn unrest of ocean – their passing was more than music, and from their wings descended the old love lines of earth which both affirms and heals.”
Before I head out on my walk, I spend some time taking more photos of the shack, wanting to remember all its little details, inside and out. Each day, there is some new detail that catches my attention and endears this place to me. When I head out for my walk, I decide to head south through the dunes, again following one of Art’s Dune Tour paths. The first thing I come across is the ruins of the Peaked Hill Bars Coastguard Station. We had passed by it on the ride into the shack, but I hadn’t really been able to get a good view of it. This was the stuff I loved…and old, abandoned building with just enough left to fire up the imagination. The station was originally built back in 1914 and subsequently moved inland about 300 yards in 1930 to protected it from the encroaching sea. Eventually, it was decommissioned in 1937 (but reactivated briefly during WWII), and burned down in 1958. The concrete foundation is now all that is left. The interior walls of the foundation are decorated with graffiti that almost feels respectful. There is nothing vulgar, just quite good renderings of a great white shark and some ocean waves. I know from reading about the shacks, that it is also a place where a memorial service was held for a past shack resident. I would imagine, that much like the landscape that surrounds it, the graffiti changes over the years.
I continue down the dune path and find a few more shacks perched among the dunes. A shack on my left, on the ocean side, caught my attention as atop its roof was perched an Adirondack chair with what had to be a killer view. The dune next to it had a perfectly smooth side – no plant growth at all – except along its top edge, which was rimmed with blooming Rosa rugosa plants. I scaled a path next to the dune and discovered that at the very top of the dune there was a small bowl-shaped depression that was completely hidden from the landscape around it. I climbed down into the bowl and lay in the bottom of it and looked up at what had, by then, become a mostly blue sky and watched the clouds drift by. I have never had any kind of spa treatment in my life, but I would hazard a guess that the feeling of complete relaxation and peace I felt laying in that soft sand warmed by the sun, inhaling the scent of Rosa rugosa blooms, protected from the wind by the rising sand walls and watching the clouds softly float by was just as good as anything I would ever pay for. Eventually, I hoisted myself up and headed back to my shack. I made another visit to my neighbors’ shack and climbed the dune behind it to get a better view of my shack from above.
As I climbed back down the dune and headed across the path to Fowler, I heard what sounded like helicopters in the distance. Moments later two Coastguard helicopters zoomed by. I was comforted by the fact that they did not seem to head out over the ocean, so at least their flight did not involve anyone lost at sea. I was somewhat ironic to me that my day started off with a “Perfect Storm” moment, and it was now, like the movie, ending with a scene involving Coastguard helicopters. It was the one and only time I saw them during my stay at the shack. Once back inside my shack, I checked out the bookshelf for my next read, having polished off “The Outermost House”. It didn’t take long for me to find the right one. A book called “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan By the Japanese” by Elizabeth Norman presented itself to me. My mother was a nurse, and she loved stories about other nurses, and for me to find this book here, was no coincidence. It turned out to be a fantastic read, and I stayed up late reading it via the solar powered lanterns the next few nights.
Another “gift” got sent my way before the night was over when I was awakened by what initially sounded like a woman yelling in the distance during the night. When I shook off my initial fear and sat up listening for it again, the next “yell” was clearly a coyote howling! They howled in the distance several times, and it was unlike anything I have ever heard before . It was such a lonely, pristine sound. Once I knew it was coyotes, I was no longer scared and just laid there listening to this wild sound in this wild place smiling at how fortunate I was. Tomorrow my good friends Dennis and Peter, who live on the Cape, were coming out to visit for the afternoon, and I went back to sleep excited about sharing the magic of this place with them.
Day 3 – Tuesday, October 20, 2015
This morning dawned with yet another magnificent sunrise. Rather than the dramatic “angel rays” of yesterday, today it was more of a slow unveiling of the day with the sun gradually saturating the sky with vibrant oranges and yellows against the blue-tinted clouds. The temperature was very mild and it was shaping up to be a comfortably warm and sunny October day. I enjoyed the sunrise from both the back deck of the shack and the top of the dune next to the shack. Before my morning chores of restocking the wood and pumping my water, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of cinnamon raisin oatmeal and a corn muffin warmed in the frying pan on the stove. It is a meal that makes me think of my dad as those were two of his favorites. The little kitchen table was situated perfectly so as to catch the morning light. I never thought breakfast at a paint-chipped, weathered little wooden table in a place with no electricity or running water could feel so luxurious and relaxing. As I sat there, I thought that maybe it’s not the addition of things that creates luxury, but the paring down and savoring of the simple things. I make a mental note to pay more attention to sunrises and sets when I leave here and think about one of the great gifts given to me by photography – the habit of paying more attention to detail.
After I’ve made several wood-bearing trips into the shack and a few more to collect fresh water from the pump out in front of the shack, I relax on the front deck and polish off the book I was in the middle of before I came here and decide to check out the shack’s selection of books for my next read. It is quite an interesting collection of titles on the little shelf that lines the shack wall.
Today my plan is to explore the dunes surrounding the shack, but first I decide I want to walk down to the beach just because I like the idea of starting each day with a visit to the ocean’s edge. I’ve noticed that the stones on these beaches are so much bigger, flatter and smoother than those that I have found on the mid-Cape beaches where my family has vacationed every summer. Another difference, thankfully, is that there are no early morning seaweed-raking tractors “cleaning up” the beach, so what I find on the beach each morning is exactly what the ocean left there overnight. I decide to collect some stones for cairns I will bring back home to remind me of the beauty, peace and solitude I am enjoying here. My favorite cairn stones are the ones I find that remind me of my three children. My son Seamus is my oldest, the first to arrive, and his was the first stone I noticed. It is a sturdy-looking stone with a warm greenish color. My son has always been the warm hugger in my family, the first to offer comfort when he knows someone is sad, so his stone will go on the bottom as the strong, supportive base for the cairn. The next stone I searched for represents my daughter Aine. I find an unusually colored one with yellows and whites that remind me of her unique, artistic personality. When I look at the stone for my middle child, I know, like her, it will never be lost in the middle because it is so bright and strong. The third stone for my cairn represents my youngest child, my daughter Bridget. It is a small, pretty pink stone that matches the little girl I always think of her as. The flip side of the stone, with its intricately textured surface and little ridges make me think of her tenacity. She has never needed things to be smooth or easy in order to give them a try. She has always been a brave kid, so I know her stone will fit perfectly right up on top of the cairn. It surprised me when I realized that in over an hour’s time, I had not wandered more than a few feet down the beach because there is so much detail to admire in all the stones and shells that have washed up on the shore. I also find a crab shell that has what looks like the outline of a skeleton in pink on its shell, and a buoy hidden in a patch of dune grass. I collect more stones for the other cairns I want to make and head back to the shack.
Before I head out to explore the dunes surrounding the shack, I see whale watch boats from Provincetown out on the ocean in the distance, and I climb the dune next to the shack to get a closer look with my dad’s binoculars. I can tell when they may have spotted whales as I watch the ships suddenly speed up or change direction to get themselves closer. I follow their path for a while hoping to catch a glimpse of a whale myself through the binoculars, but no luck. I will have to be satisfied with my discoveries on land today, so I set out on my walk. I head northwest via the path Chip drove to bring me out here. The cream colored sand is sprinkled with blueberries that looks like someone knocked over a giant pitcher of blueberry pancake batter. I make a mental note to bring pancake batter if I get to come again! At the fork in the path, I head right toward the Snail Road trail. I keep walking beyond the arched dead tree trunk that marks the trail and came to a small wooded section of the dunes. The trees arched over the dune path created what felt like a scene from a Tim Burton movie with their gnarly, twisted limbs and stunted growth from the ocean winds. It was actually a nice little variation in the dune landscape. I followed the path through the short wooded section up to the crest of the dunes beyond. Vast is the word that came to mind standing atop one of the dunes. Where there wasn’t dunes as far as my eyes could see, there was ocean….both of them so vast. Yet in this vastness, there were the most delicate little flowers growing out of the protected dips in the dunes. Another detail to be recorded with a photograph. I headed back to the shack, passed along the way by one of Art’s Dune Tour vehicles. The spot where they passed me was one of those not-much-room-for error strips, so I had to stop walking as they passed. Everyone in the truck enthusiastically waved and the open windows allowed me to hear the driver talking about the dune shacks in the distance. It’s kind of cool to know that I’m staying in a historic place that is part of a tour that has been given for many generations.
I arrive back at the shack and decide to give the shower a try since I’m certain that the mild temperatures and sun have sufficiently heated up my water tank…my painful dune shack rookie mistake. The water in the garden hose that snaked across the shack roof was, indeed, plenty warm, so I delighted in my open air shower as I soaped and shampooed myself up…no problem. Enter the mistake. Late October sun does NOT warm an entire tank of water, no matter how long you wait to take your shower. It ONLY heats what is in the length of that skinny hose on the roof. My mistake was not turning the nozzle off once I got wet. Instead, I let the nice warm water run as I soaped myself up and shampooed my hair. And as I was still covered in suds from head to toe, the cold water made a very quick and painful appearance. I have had cold showers before, but not like this. I had to get the shampoo out of my hair, and the soap off my body, so I turned the water on myself in small doses because that was all I could take…and it still made my head hurt. It’s probably a very good thing that the shacks are pretty remote because I’m fairly certain that the noises I was making dancing under that bone chilling water did not resemble anything human. At least not one you would want to come in contact with. It never got warm enough for me to brave another shower, so the remainder of the week, pots of warm water courtesy of Arno, the faithful wood stove, became my clean-up method! I at least had the consolation that I had left my towel on a chair near the stove, so it was truly like a spa treatment wrapping that warm, soft towel around my shivering body. I warmed up by the stove, had a comfort food dinner of ravioli and read by the fire until the sun began to set.
Sunsets in this place are my nightly show. I either stand atop the dune that borders the beach or sit in the Adirondack chairs on the dune next to the shack and enjoy the nightly display of colors in the sky set to the sound of the wind and waves in the distance. It’s like a fireworks show in slow motion, and in the nights that are to come, I am never disappointed. I have read that some nights out in the dunes, you may hear the sounds of coyotes out for a hunt. I go to bed hoping I will hear them, but like the whales, they are illusive and I am not treated to their presence this evening. Instead, it will be Arno’s soft wood popping and fizzing and the periodic big wave that crashes the shore over the dune that will lull me to sleep tonight.
Day 2 – Monday, October 19, 2015
My second day here dawned chilly and breezy with a partly cloudy sky. I climbed the dune next to the shack with my mug of coffee to watch the sunrise from the sunrise chairs my predecessor at the shack told me about. To watch the day start from a point where you have an unobstructed 360 degree view of the horizon left me feeling like each day really was a clean slate. My first look at the sky reminded me of the pastel palette of a Monet painting with a pink sky on the far horizon over the ocean gradually blending with a light blue and yellow cloud bank that was directly over me. I enjoyed the view for a bit and then headed back down to the shack to grab a couple more camera lenses for a walk to the beach to watch the rest of the sunrise from there. As I headed up the dune path that lead to the beach, it was tough to tell whether the clear sky in the distance or the clouds overhead would dominate the sky that day. My thoughts as I climbed the dune wandered to my mom and dad…not sad, just knowing how much they both would have loved this place. As I crested the dune, a light in my right peripheral vision caught my attention. When I turned to look, I saw the most magnificent set of sunbeams shining down through a break in a dark blue cloud bank. It stopped me in my tracks and I lowered myself to my knees and just let the tears come. I know there is science involved in why these things happen. Science calls what I saw crepuscular rays. They are rays you see that break through clouds usually around dusk or dawn (crepuscular comes from the Latin word crepusculum meaning twilight). But I believe too that there is an aspect of beauty that goes beyond science. It can buckle your knees, take your breath away, move you to tears…or all three. And in that moment, you know more than science is at work. And you can’t explain how you know – you just do. I knew it was my parents letting me know they were there. I can’t explain how I knew. I just did. I walked down to the beach to get a different view of it from the water and took what is probably my favorite series of photos. As it grew in size, I imagined that it was a window in the sky that had been cracked open a bit so that my parents could see me and know that I was okay. I envisioned my mother telling my father to keep pushing it up a bit so she could see more, and that’s why those rays kept getting a little wider. As beautiful as the remaining sunrises and sunsets I would see in my week there were, I never saw another set of sunbeams quite a beautiful as these. It was as I stood there, turning to look in all directions, that it really hit me that I got to live in this untamed, beautiful, natural landscape for a week. And that woke up my appetite, so back to the shack for breakfast!
A simple breakfast never tasted as good as it did at the small, worn, cozy table with the dune view out the shack windows. As I enjoyed the warmth of the sun through the window and a fruit cup filled with granola along with a muffin I warmed up on the stove, I watched the sky lighten up to a bright blue dotted with tufts of cotton-white clouds. It looked like it was going to be good day for my first exploring walk. Before my walk, I completed what became my daily morning routine of pumping the day’s water supply and bringing in and then replacing the day’s wood for the stove (aka Arno!). I liked the feeling of putting some of my own muscle into supplying my own water and heat.
Today’s walk was northwest down the beach (in the direction of Race Point for those of you familiar with the Cape’s layout). What I noticed first was a few of the other dune shacks that sporadically dotted the dunes. Tasha (all of the shacks are named) was the closest to me in that direction. It is a tiny shack nestled in a dip atop a dune. When I first spotted it, I was excited to find what to me was a piece of art in and of itself. It’s no bigger than a shed with a diamond shaped glass window on one of its front doors, driftwood “locks” keeping the doors closed, and shingles weathering at varying rates as they are replaced over time. A member of the Tasha family would later recognize the shack in a photo I posted on a Cape Cod photography site and contacted me to share some history. Her family has had the rights to the shack since the 1940’s. The shack was originally owned by the late poet Harry Kemp, “Poet of the Dunes”, and he left it to Rose “Sunny” Tasha, the grandmother of the woman who spotted my photo of the shack. It was great to connect with her and be able to send her the photo! The Euphoria shack is just beyond the Tasha shack and sits on the top of a dune. Its slanted roof became a familiar silhouette on many an evening as I watched the sun set facing the ocean from the dune next to the Fowler shack.
Along my beach walk, I was surprised at the number of buoys, lobster traps and even the rubber fishermen’s gloves that had been washed ashore. All made for good photos as the painted buoys were like colorful little jewels scattered along the beach, and a lone glove and worn fishing trap were good fodder for my imagination…perhaps stormy nights at sea that pulled the gloves from your hands and tossed the traps onto the shore. They were also good markers for remembering just how far I had left to go when I would return from a long walks along the beach. As the dunes became higher and their sea-facing sides much steeper, they began to take on the look of photos I had seen of sandstone rock formations out west, with lines demarcating different shades of tan, as if someone had cut through a layered cake.
Other than the earlier mentioned shacks (both of which were uninhabited) the only other signs of humans I saw that day were the single set of tire tracks on a dune path from Art’s Dune Tours. The sand acts like a sound insulator, so if you walk on or near the dune tour tracks, you have to carefully listen for an approaching truck as there is little room for anything more than the truck on some of the trails. No sightings of Art’s Dune Tours today though. As I walked down the beach and along my walk back to the shack, I paid attention, with both my naked eye and in the photos I took, to details as small as the stones scattered along the water’s edge and as wide as the way the wind and light made the blowing dune grass look like a giant multi-colored and textured quilt spread out across the landscape. It was a long and chilly walk, so I was glad to see my welcoming shack when I climbed to the top of what I began to call the Fowler dune. Once I got Arno fed with enough wood for a good fire, I relaxed on the front porch in the sun, in a spot protected from the wind and began reading Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House”. I’ve never actually read a well-known book about doing something as I was actually doing a scaled-down version of it myself (unlike Henry, I was not braving a year in an outermost house…just a week!). Rather than required reading before you go, it really should be read while you are there because Beston’s descriptions of the sounds, smells, colors and feeling of being in this place alone remain accurate 87 years after it was first published in 1928. To read about it as I experienced it myself deepened my appreciation for it and guided me in what to look for as well. Before the last of daylight, I photographed more of the Fowler shack’s details and checked out the neighboring shack (called The Grail) close up. I love the way the shacks themselves are pieces of art, decorated with colorful stones rubbed smooth by constant movement of sand and water over their surface, colorful birdhouses made of driftwood collected along the shore and brightly colored buoys hanging from exterior walls. Even the circular pattern made in the sand by blades of dune grass whose bottoms were rooted in the sand but their tops created graceful circles in the wind looked like art to me. Atop a dune in front of The Grail I discovered a large, low, round wooden table decorated with more stones and surrounded by wide wooden chairs. In each of the four corners of a square area surrounding the table and chairs there stood a weathered wooden pole, one of which had a broken lantern hanging from it. Its deserted look gave it the feel of a party that was suddenly interrupted years ago and was just as guests had left it.
After the sun set, I decided to try a few starry sky photos. I managed to get one of the Big Dipper hanging over the dunes as you look out toward the ocean, with the Euphoria shack silhouetted against the last bit of light along the edge of the horizon. Looking up at the stars without a single bit of light pollution brought to mind the quote by Jacob Paul Patchen, “If you want to feel small, try to count the stars, but if you want to feel big, then try to count your blessings.” I don’t know that I would describe the feeling as small though….it was really more of wonder, just marveling at how much is out there beyond ourselves. Thoreau’s quote, “The universe is wider than our views of it” was the most accurate description of what it felt like to me.
When I’d satisfied my stargazing craving, I headed back into my shack for the evening, cozy in the warmth the wood stove was providing. On my second night I was already settling into a nightly routine of spreading my sleeping bag out on the couch next to the stove and placing my mom’s old battery operated clock, my battery powered lantern, the transistor radio, my book and dark chocolates for snacking on the little table next to the couch. I situated my head underneath the window as I kept it partially open during the night so that I could hear the waves in the distance. For all the years I had been coming to the Cape with my family, I had never actually fallen asleep listening to the sounds of the waves. As I drifted off to sleep listening to its distant thunder on the shore, I was grateful for the large dune that would stand sentry between the sea and the shack while I slept.
In October 2015, I spent a one week artist residency in the Fowler dune shack located within the Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The dune shacks have no electricity, no running water and are situated in an isolated place of incredible natural beauty. I knew why I wanted to experience a one week artist residency in the shack – to grow my photography and immerse myself more deeply in this place that I have loved all my life. I knew going into it that it would be a life-changing experience. I knew I would be both nervous and excited if I actually got picked for one of those weeks. What I did not know was what an intensely cathartic, healing and self-reliant experience it would be. I applied for the residency at the Fowler shack eleven months before my actual stay, and in that time, I lost four family members, including both of my parents. My father passed away shortly after I submitted my application, and my mother just three weeks to the day I left for the shack. She was more excited than anyone when I found out I had been selected for a week. While I worried about being unreachable for a week because she was not well physically and was struggling with missing my dad, she called everyone she knew and told them about this fantastic experience I was going to have. “There’s no way you are not going” she told me. I don’t think anyone has ever been more excited for me than she was about my dune shack stay. I think she knew before I did what an incredible experience it would be for me. Their deaths bookended a period of time that I still look back at and wonder what the hell happened. I discovered that entering this experience feeling raw laid me open to allow it to be what I needed rather than what I expected. It threw my expectations out the window, and better equipped me to just pay attention to what it was. And what it was, was phenomenal.
Day One- Arrival on Sunday, October 18, 2015
In my days leading up to coming here, I was both nervous and excited about this adventure unlike any I’d had before. I was about to seclude myself in a way and place that some of the great playwrights and artists had done, so I felt a little intimidated and wondered how I would fare. But the day was here, and the planning done, so after loading up on portable chargers for my cell phone, extra camera batteries and memory cards, a huge cooler full of non-perishable foods (an email letting me know that the propane powered refrigerator in the shack was not working added even more non-perishables!), a sleeping bag, a battery powered lantern, a bag full of newspaper knots made by my dad for wood stove kindling, and a backpack full of books and notebooks for photography notes and journaling, I headed out from my home in upstate New York. I needed to get on the road. I get antsy packing because there are too many opportunities to second guess myself. Once I’m on the road, all the decisions have been made, and I make do with whatever I remembered or without whatever I forgot. I made good time which gave me the opportunity to make a pit stop at my summer spot in Dennisport . I knew laying my eyes on the ocean, my neighbor for the next week, would settle some of my butterflies. My friends who live on the Cape and saw my social media post of my pit stop photos later told me that they thought maybe I was getting cold feet because I’d stopped before my final destination! The remainder of my ride out to Provincetown was comforting as the traffic on Route 6 made my impending isolation seem not so…well…isolated. I pulled into the meeting spot for my ride out to the shack at the Harbor Hotel just outside of Provincetown, snapped another ocean shot and registered my car at the front desk. The front desk clerk asked if it was my first time out to one of the shacks and when I answered, “Yup!” with a nervous laugh, he smiled and said, “You are going to love it! It will be like nothing else you’ve ever done.” That’s the point when my excitement outweighed my nervousness, and I eagerly waited for my ride out to the shack – Chip from the Provincetown Community Compact, the organization that maintains and stewards both the Fowler and C-Scape dune shacks.
Chip pulled up in his old pickup, and I liked him right away. He is an easy-going, down-to-earth man who immediately puts me at ease and alleviates my first concern by assuring me that all my gear will fit as he helps me load it into his truck. I tell him that I’m a bit nervous as this is my first time and he tells me with a smile that I’ll do just fine. We access the dunes from Route 6, where Chip pulls off the road onto a dune trail that is chained off. He stops his pickup and tells me that he needs to let air out of his tires. Learning new things helps me alleviate nervousness when I’m in a new situation, so I asked Chip why he needed to let the air out. He explained that full tires would sink into a rut in the sand, but somewhat deflated tires would spread out over the sand. I also find out that both Chip and his wife are local artists and that Chip himself has completed a three-week residency in one of the shacks.
“Is this your first time in the lottery for a shack?” he asks me. I tell him it is and that of the three different weeks that I picked, although this one was my third choice, and as fate would have it, it ended up being the only one I could have come. “That’s unusual. Most first-time lottery applicants don’t get in….you’re very lucky!” and I start to feel that way. We take a winding route over velvety sand scattered with scrub pine against the backdrop of a brilliantly blue sky scattered with tufts of bright white clouds. I settle in the passenger seat and enjoy the landscape and my personal dune tour guide. Chip tells me that after the ferocious winter they had this year, they were concerned spring shack visitors would have their stays delayed, but they were able to clear paths to the shacks and instead of anyone’s stay being pushed back, Compact volunteers lost their “fix-up” week. He then tells me that Art’s Dune Tours, the local family run business that is the only way you can tour the dunes, almost lost one of their vehicles off the side of a dune, so they no longer go that route. “What route?” I ask. “This one” Chip answers as I we crest a dune. “If a vehicle went off the side of this dune, I’m not sure how they would ever get it out” he says, and I look down into a basin of trees and bushes hoping that we aren’t the ones who have to figure it out. As we pass a turn-off, he tells me that’s the way to the Fowler shack, but he wants to show me the way to the Snail Road trail because if I need to walk back into town for anything, that’s the way to do it. What’s left of a dead tree bent in an arch marks the trail, and I feel a little bit like he has just shown me where the eject button in the cockpit is. Thankfully, I didn’t need to head back to town for anything, nor did I have any desire to leave the dunes during my stay.
We turn and head back to Fowler, and my first impression as Fowler comes into view is one of welcoming. This quaint, unimposing little shack looks more like a cottage to me. It sits at the bottom of a wide bowl-like dip in the surrounding dunes, so it feels somewhat protected and not as exposed as the two smaller shacks higher up the dunes to the right. My predecessor at the shack, a young man who I find out splits his time between California and Provincetown, has his bags ready to go and greets me warmly with a big hug and tells me that he has built a fire for me in the wood burning stove. I haven’t even stayed one night here and I already feel a sense of camaraderie with my fellow shack dweller. “Did you come out here to work on your art?” I ask him. “Nope. Simply to unplug and have some time to myself. I read, walked the beach and wrote. I left my cell phone off the whole time. God knows what shit storm I’ll walk into when I get back, but THIS was worth it!”
We unload my things from the truck and Chip gives me the very quick how-to of dune shack living. The bathroom has a composting toilet that gets “one clamshell of peat for poop” and peeing is done outside. As Chip explains how sand is a great natural filter, I silently thank God for the “squatty potty” muscles regular gym visits have given me. Mice, cohabitants I’ve been told to expect, apparently consider toilet paper a delicacy, so I need to keep it in a container. Burn the toilet paper and other paper you use in the wood burning stove as any garbage you create, you have to take home with you. Under the kitchen there is a small “garage” on the back of the shack that houses buckets of peat, firewood and kindling. There is also a large pile of wood in the sand a few feet from the shack. Chip explains that for every piece of wood I take from the garage, I should replace it with a piece from the stack outside. He also tells me that if I am looking for any chores to do while I’m there, it would be great if I would shovel the sand that has made its way into the doorway of the garage, preventing the door from closing all the way. I realize that each of us who gets to stay at this shack also becomes its caretaker. It is the only way these volunteers can keep up with its maintenance, so I am happy to help, and feel it is actually somewhat of a privilege to help take care of it.
My next instruction is on the well pump. I had seen pictures of this bright red arm that emerges from the sand on a previous shack dweller’s blog. It was one of the novelties of shack life that I thought was kind of cool. The pump needs to be primed with water when you begin pumping it. “Make sure you always keep water in these buckets,” Chip told me as he pointed to two buckets in the sand near the pump, “as that’s what you’ll use to prime the pump. If you let those buckets get empty, you’re screwed.” That’s all I needed to know. I kept those buckets completely full my entire stay! We both had a drink of the water, and I have honestly never tasted water so good. It was the freshest , cleanest tasting water I’ve ever had. Chip explained that they only have to go five feet down to tap into the fresh water, and that my sentiment is shared by everyone who stays at the shack. Next up is a shower tutorial. My “shower” consists of a hose attached to a giant blue barrel that sits on top of the garage roof. The hose is snaked across the roof so that it lays in the sun and the water heats up. In other words, I need to plan my showers for afternoons on sunny days…it is late October after all! I was pretty sure I had all the ins and outs of the shower down, including climbing up on the garage roof to turn the water valve off and on. A painful rookie mistake I made when I took my first shower on Tuesday proved I did not in fact have it all down! Chip left me with two more tips – hang a towel on the back deck clothes line to indicate the shack was occupied and discourage the curious from disturbing any privacy; and keep a pot of water on top of the wood stove so that I always had hot water when needed. Just when I thought I was finally ready to settle in, I realized I had left my backpack in my truck. Thankfully, Chip hadn’t left yet and gave me a lift back to the hotel lot to get it. Thank God I paid attention to the trail head information so I would know how to walk myself back out! On the ride back to my truck, my predecessor gave me all kinds of tips on what not to miss during my stay…most importantly, the “sunset/sunrise chairs” that are atop a dune next to the shack and the best spot to see the sun rise and set over the dunes and ocean. After I grabbed my backpack, Chip told me to hop in his truck and he very generously gave me a ride back out to the shack, which was great because I got even more history from him about the surrounding shacks.
The rest of that first day, I didn’t wander far from the shack as I wanted to settle in and get to know my cozy little abode. It was a cold day, probably the coldest of the entire time I was there, with even a brief snowfall. I christened the wood stove “Arno” after my father’s middle name as it was his newspaper knots that served as kindling and my dad and I always had a bit of a running competition over who could build the best fires! Several wood pile trips later, I had an ample supply of wood inside to keep Arno fed. I also pumped myself a bunch of empty milk jugs worth of water at the pump and got my hot water supply going on the stove. After unpacking and checking every nook and cranny of the interior and exterior of the shack out, I headed up the nearby dune that bordered the beach to get my first ocean view. I stood atop the dune and just took in this epically beautiful vista and decided that rather than try to complete my list of photo ideas, I would let this place dictatewhat photos I took, and I crumpled up the list that was in my pocket. My first sunset was magnificent, and by the end of the my stay, I would marvel at how the same sun, setting over the same ocean and landscape could be so inspiringly beautiful and different every night. My only casualty that first day was a blood blister on my finger when I caught my finger in the screen door trying to juggle too many pieces of wood. My first lesson that day was that you learn quickly what works and what doesn’t when you have to rely on yourself. Arno’s pleasant heat, the sound of a transistor radio I found that reminded me of my grandfather listening to baseball games on summer nights, and the sounds of the wind helped lull me to sleep that first night. I had made it here, and I was ready for a week of exploring and immersing myself in my passion for both this place and my art.
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