Cape Cod: Back on the Sandbar

End of Summer Day-Trip to Provincetown: Monday, September 21

I spent a little over a month at home on Cape Cod, from early August to late September (minus a ten day excursion north to VT and NY. Read about that in my previous posts on Saint Regis canoing and Otis Mountain Get Down!)

One of the highlights of being home was a day trip to Provincetown, a town that I knew from high school sports and occasional trips, but didn't know all that well. It was neat to see some of the attractions in mid-September after the crowds had left. Sometimes being a tourist in your own area is exciting, and can bring you new perspective.


I've been to Provincetown (P-town as it is affectionately called) numerous times, but there were several noteworthy things in Cape Cod's oldest town that I've never done. I was moving to the South soon, and there were two things I wanted to experience on the Cape before I left. 

The first: climb the Pilgrim Monument. Yes, contrary to popular belief, the Pilgrims landed in Provincetown first, then journeyed across the bay to Plymouth. In 1910, a 252 foot tower was completed to commemorate the first landing and educate the public about Provincetown's role in early American history. Elementary and middle schoolers all over Cape Cod and Massachusetts have climbed this monument, but even growing up here, I somehow never did. 

The second: spend one last afternoon at Race Point Beach and the tip of the Cape. Part of Cape Cod National Seashore, this is Provincetown's main beach, and its lighthouse marks the tip of Cape Cod. From there, the Atlantic Ocean stretches over to Portugal. So, you can't go much further than the dunes on Race Point.

The last time I had been there was two years ago, when one of my best friends from high school (Kara) was about to leave for the Peace Corps. She left in October 2013 in the middle of the government shutdown, and I was back on Cape for another friend (Sophia's) wedding, and to wish Kara good luck on her two year journey. We decided to go to P-town for the day. On our way to Race Point, we found the National Seashore closed! By order of the shutdown. We saw plenty of cars ignoring this, so undeterred, we drove through anyway.

As fate would have it, this time, two years later, I had the perfect vehicle for this journey. Kara's mother had acquired a seasonal second car, a crisp blue BMW Z3 Roadster, standard transmission convertible from 1999. The car was essentially in mint condition, and I had borrowed it a few times. I asked to have it for the day for one last Cape jaunt, and she graciously said yes. It was time to roll the top down and hit the open road!

Just look at it. It's a beauty.

Just look at it. It's a beauty.

It had been a while since I'd driven a stick shift, and I forgot how exhilarating it is. Especially in a convertible. It really doesn't get better than that. 

I grabbed a bagel and some coffee, heading up to P-town via Route 6. It's about 45 minutes from Chatham, and once you get to the outskirts, the road opens up into sweeping dune and ocean views on both sides.

It's one of the most stunning areas of the Cape. If you have the appropriate vehicle and permits, you can off-road, or get taken out in a dune buggy by a (likely overpriced) tour company. 

My first stop was the Pilgrim Monument. It was completed between 1907 and 1910, when President William Howard Taft dedicated the final 252 foot product (which rises about 350 feet above sea level.) Interestingly, it is the tallest all-granite structure in the country.

In front of the monument is an observation area with benches for relaxing and admiring the view. The monument faces the harbor, so it is part of the inner "wrist" of the "arm" of the Cape, curling toward the bay.

The sky was just perfect on this day: clear and bright blue. 

The Pilgrim Monument standing tall and proud. Yes, this is no-filter.

The Pilgrim Monument standing tall and proud. Yes, this is no-filter.

It takes about 10 minutes to walk up to the top of the monument. Along the way, stones are carved with names and dates of Massachusetts towns.

When you finally (and breathlessly) make it to the top, all of P-town lies before you. You can see all the way out to the ocean, noting the harbor. The high school (now defunct and since regionalized with other schools) sports fields lay behind the monument. I spent about 15 minutes up there, taking panoramas and just breathing in the view. It was sunny, but fairly cold! The top of the museum does have rails and window guard bars, but it is exposed to the wind. And it whips through!

View to the left of the monument, if you are facing the water.

View to the left of the monument, if you are facing the water.

Climbing back down, I stopped in the museum at the base of the monument. It houses artifacts of Cape Cod/ early American history, including taxidermied animals, such as polar bears, that were killed on expeditions leaving from Provincetown. Most of these animals were obtained on missions lead by the Provincetown-born arctic explorer Donald Baxter MacMillian.

Much of the museum focuses on the Pilgrims, the Native Americans who inhabited the area, and early-era settlements. Other exhibits display nautical charts, fossilized marine life, and artifacts from ships and buildings at the time. The once-booming whaling industry is also highlighted.

Old-time map on display in the museum.

Old-time map on display in the museum.

For me, it was particularly interesting to learn about P-town's history as an artists' community and writer's haven. Tennessee Williams wrote parts of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire in P-town; famous playwright and poet laureate Eugene O'Neil spent time here; and Norman Mailer is even buried in the town cemetery. Other notables who passed through included Kurt Vonnegut and Jackson Pollack.

Today, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center sponsors artists' and writers' residencies and fellowships. P-town is also known as one of the best artistic and cultural towns on Cape. The Art House, International Film Festival, and the Provincetown Playhouse are popular spots. And, of course, there is the annual summer Carnival. The Carnival is an enormous parade/party that celebrates P-town's history as an LGBTQA community. It was formed to encourage and support LGBTQA tourism, and now it's one of the biggest-attended events on Cape Cod (it attracts 90,000 people!)

I meandered through the museum exhibits for a bit before hopping back in the car to head to Race Point, around noon. Going into the national seashore, you pass through a cover of trees and wind through the typical sandy Cape roads.

Since it was after Labor Day, the beach would be fairly empty...and there would not be a fee! I pulled into the parking lot and grabbed my towel, heading for the beach.

There were a few clusters of people enjoying the day. It was 65 and sunny, windy, and clear for miles. The Atlantic stretched out beyond the line of sight- endless, blue-black, and dotted with whitecaps.

I was the only one who went for a "swim." By swim, I mean wade. The waves were thunderous and unsafe to swim in, so I splashed around the shoreline and got up to my waist with some of the bigger waves. Surprisingly it was not all that cold, for straight-up Atlantic water- but people nearby probably thought I was crazy.

Naturally, I took some film pictures that I have yet to develop...so take my word for it: it was every bit the perfect "end of summer, goodbye Cape Cod" beach day.  I stayed for about two hours, soaking in the sun and salt spray, tracing the foam with my toes, watching seals tumble in the waves. I have always been a water lover. I am a Pisces, after all. I'm the one who goes straight for the water and stays in until leaving time, pruned, sopping wet, and utterly delighted. 

I had to return the car by 4:00, so at about 2:00 I (unhappily) left the beach for some lunch. I relished the drive back to Chatham, giving the sweeping dunes one last, longing look. It was goodbye, and it was harder than I predicted. Anyone who has spent time on the Cape can attest to its magic. I wanted to hold onto that for a little bit longer, but like anything, you have to learn when to let go, and be thankful for the time you called a place home.

Here are a few snapshots of some other Cape wanderings: