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In This Place

Brush Valley

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Robert Frost once said, “We love the things we love for what they are”- and not, presumably, for what we might wish them to be. This is as true an observation for places as for people. Take Brush Valley, for example.

Brush Valley is a modest-sized valley that lies just south of Truro’s Ballston Beach. It is one of a dozen or more ancient glacial valleys, or “hollows”, that bisect the Outer Cape from Eastham to North Truro They were created when the last great ice sheets moved down from the north and covered Cape Cod some 25-30,000 years ago.

The Outer Cape itself was formed when two massive lobes of this ice sheet - the Cape Cod Bay Lobe to the west and the much larger and thicker South Channel Lobe to the east - squeezed together, dropping massive loads of glacial till that formed the rough outline of what is now the Outer Cape. Because it was formed between two lobes of the ice sheet, the Outer Cape is what is known as an interlobate moraine.

When these ice sheets began to melt some 18,000 years ago, the meltwater from the larger South Channel Lobe to the east carved a series of valleys running from the ocean into Cape Cod Bay. Some of them, such as the Pamet River Valley in Truro and the Herring River Valley in Wellfleet are quite large and still contain water – tidal or fresh. Other glacial valleys, like South Truro’s Lombard Hollow and Paradise Valley, are mostly dry, but still impressive in size, flanked by hills that rise 80-100 feet above the valley floor.

Compared to most of the Outer Cape’s glacial valleys, Brush Valley is seemingly modest and unremarkable. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in seclusion. As there are no signs to tell you where it begins, it has relatively few visitors. Only a third of a mile long, it branches off from the South Pamet Road just a few hundred yards before you get to Ballston Beach. It gets its name, Brush Valley, from the dominant vegetation that borders the narrow foot path: dense thickets of scrub oak that form a tunnel of crooked brush. All in all, Brush Valley is a relatively modest and undistinguished place, except, that is, in one respect.

The one thing all these glacial valleys have in common is that they all exhibit a gradual but definite slope or gradient, running downhill from east to west. All of them, that is, except Brush Valley. For some reason its valley floor runs from northwest to south east – almost exactly the opposite direction from all the others. And that, I think is why I have always had a fondness for Brush Valley. I like its contrariness, its hutzpah in running counter to all the other larger and more impressive glacial valleys. I’m sure there is a simple, or perhaps not so simple geological explanation for Brush Valley’s, s contrariness, but I simply like what it seems to stand for: going against the grain.

Oh, yes, there is one other aspect to its history that sets it apart. In the 1970s Brush Valley gained a certain amount of notoriety as one of the Cape’s unofficial “nude beaches.” The Valley gave nudists access to the beach without having to go through the summer crowds at the nearby Ballston Beach. It didn’t last long, though, as the National Seashore soon shut it down. Interestingly, the official reason for its closure was not public morality, but environmental concern. The Seashore claimed that the hordes of clothed voyeurs who flocked down the valley in order to catch a peek at the sunbathers from behind the dunes, were damaging the fragile dune vegetation. Now you may believe that explanation if you wish, I couldn’t possibly comment.