Sunday, June 3, 2007

My New Favorite Place

I'm 60 years old and I've only just met my one true love - geographically-speaking, that is. I have traveled a great deal and covered most of the U.S. I've been to southern Atlantic beaches and Gulf Coast beaches and Pacific beaches but for various reasons, I had never been to the northeast coast until we went to Cape Cod over Mother's Day.
I have known or read about people who found their Perfect Place. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (who wrote "The Yearling" - do kids in high school still have to read The Yearling?) was from the cold of Michigan until she made a trip to inner Florida. She promptly made arrangements to cut all her ties up north and bought an orange grove in her chosen state. When Brenda and I went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, we met the owner of a shop (she sold nothing but hearts - heart soap, heart jewelry, heart boxes, heart place mats and napkins, heart everything!) who told us she'd previously owned a similar store in Houston, Texas. She came to Arkansas with her husband on a fishing trip and fell in love . They returned to Houston long enough to put their house and her shop up for sale and have lived joyously in the Arkansas Ozarks ever since. My doctor, Regan Andrade, told me that when she and her husband, a local attorney, vacationed near Mobile, Alabama, they looked at each other and said, "this is it." Upon returning to North Manchester, they began taking the steps necessary to relocate.
In all my travels, I had never felt that "Eureka!" moment about a place until I went to Cape Cod. I would move there tomorrow if: a) you could find a good job (highly unlikely) and b) you could find an affordable place to live (nearly impossible).
Mom and I drove to Massachusetts where the kids are currently living in a small town close to Boston. We spent the night there then headed for the Cape when Lisa got off work the next day. Cape Cod is an island off the coast of Massachusetts, approximately 65 miles long and about 20 miles wide at its widest point. Small towns dot the coast - Hyannis and Harwich, Falmouth and Brewster, Wellfleet and Provincetown are only a few of them. There are so many Dennis', it is hard to keep track of them - East Dennis, West Dennis, North Dennis, South Dennis, Dennis and Dennisport (where our house was)! My favorite and the place I would live if I was a wealthy writer is Chatham.
One of the things I appreciated most about Cape Cod is that you have the best of two worlds, so to speak. I have always loved beaches but in the south especially, the land close to the water takes on a certain appearance. It tends to be bare ground sandy interspersed with palmettos and yuccas and tall pines. There's nothing wrong with this type of topography. It has its own kind of beauty but it it makes a midwesterner homesick for green grass and deciduous trees and the flowers associated with home. Of course, when you return to Indiana, then you miss the ocean and the sand and the seabirds. Until Cape Cod, it always seemed as if you have to choose one over the other.
But on the Cape, the villages could be midwestern small towns. They feature historic government buildings and comfortable cottages and tall-spired churches. They are characterized by deep green lawns and tall old trees, punctuated by beds of tulips and daffodils and brilliantly yellow forsythia and shocking pink Rhododendron. And this is so clear up until, suddenly, you reach sawgrass and deep sand and the ocean right in front of you.
The towns and their beaches each have their own unique personality. Our house was right on Nantucket Sound so our beach tended to be serene and calm, with water that sparkled in the sun and quiet waves that drifted soothingly into shore. Low tide there reveals a string of shells washed up on the sand. But we visited Brewster whose beach recedes a mile during low tide, leaving behind a vast expanse of sandy flats and tidal pools, so that you can walk far out to see what the water left behind. Then, heading toward the tip of Cape Code, the land gets wilder, with high sand cliffs and an Atlantic that becomes wild and woolly, with huge waves crashing into shore.
Lisa is our internet wizard and, only using the computer, she found the perfect house. Of course, on Cape Cod, everything is built to focus on the water. The upstairs had a bedroom, bath, sitting room and deck overlooking the ocean. The living room featured a fireplace on one end so you could feel snugly warm on chilly nights while still seeing the waves from the glass wall that faced the water. The dining room was also glass on the ocean side. There was a front porch with sofas, tables and chairs and a gas grill and then another patio at the side of the house with a table that had a built-in fire pit. So whether you are watching television, using the laptop in the dining room or eating, you have only to turn you head to see what brings people here, whether to visit or stay - the allure of the ocean.
Cape Cod probably wouldn't do for true beach afficionados. If what you want to do is lie on the sand in a swimsuit and play in the waves, then you'd probably have to stick to the Cape's main "season" which is July and August. When we were there in May, it was sweatshirt weather. We waded in the water but only the stoutest-hearted would have wanted to do a full-body dive. The island tends to be 10 degrees cooler than the mainland in the summer and 10 degrees warmer in the winter.
Of course, we shopped. Being a tourist mecca, Cape Cod has many, many shops of all kinds for the shop-a-holic. And we ate. There are food places everywhere. There are restaurants that feature full-Irish breakfasts and Portuguese bakeries and ice cream emporiums that specialize in mega-sundaes and of course, you can get fresh seafood of every type prepared in every conceivable way.
Provincetown is one of the most unique places on the Cape. Approximately two/thirds of its residents are gay and it shows in the funky creativity of the landscaping and architecture. The town itself is all up and downs hills, with a downtown that fronts the ocean, full of exotic little shops and of course, many restaurants.
We ate in a place (the best shrimp I've ever had) that had only the tiniest of stalls in the ladies' bathroom. Lisa, Mom and I all remarked about how you could barely fit into it. A short time later, a woman, probably 6'5, came out.
"I bet that gal had a hard time in that little stall," says Lisa.
"Yep," I said, "I bet 'she' did too."
"Oh," replied Lisa, catching on that the statuesquely beautiful woman was a transvestite.
A different and diverse and interesting place compared to the one at home where we all tend more toward boring conformity.
Just about every part of Cape Cod where there is no one living is wooded and the entire island is dotted by "kettle ponds" so that no one who lives there is far from water, either salt or fresh. There are nature walks of all kinds you can take - through white cedar woods or through bogs (cranberries are grown in the Cape Cog bogs) or along the seashores (there are over 43,000 acres of national seashore) or across marshes. You can take a water ferry to Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard. You can take a boat to go seal-watching or whale-watching (sightings guaranteed). You can go deep sea fishing or freshwater pond fishing. If you are a lighthouse enthusiast, there are seven on Cape Cod. There are museums, natural and historic, and a Zooquarium.
The point is, you can be as active or as laid-back as you like. If you enjoy being on the go all the time, you will never run out of things to do on Cape Cod. On the other hand, if your preference is simply to zone out to the sounds of waves sushing into shore, you can do that too.
We did something a part of every day but my favorite time of our vacation was the early morning when no one was up but me. I'd take my coffee and cigarettes out to sit in one of the beach chairs on the water's edge. At that time of the morning, it was only me and the birds, watching the sun rise over Nantucket Sound. Seeing fluorescent swathes of pink and violet and blue across the sky and flotillas of ducks bobbing in the waves, hearing the water gently lapping onto the shore and the gulls crying out to one another. Smelling that slightly fishy, salt-infused aroma that comes with being near the ocean.
I think I would love Cape Cod in any season. I wish I could think of a way to live there. I wonder how a shop that sold only hearts would go over......?