All summer long, I’ve watched as the calendar moved closer to September. September meant the end of the summer rush, a chance to catch my breath. I watched the days get shorter, by a minute or so at first until whole hours of daylight had been swallowed up. September would mean my week in a dune shack in the Province Lands.
I watched the skyline of Nantucket get smaller as the Eagle pulled out of its berth, watched the strange grace with which the captain spins the ferry around as we headed for Hyannis. I watched as the highway narrowed, the colorful blur of roadside clam shacks and tee shirt shirt shops as they gave way to scrub pines, and finally, as the dunes rose high over the old East Harbor in North Truro. I have worn a groove through Nantucket sound, along route six between the island and the Outer Cape.
The dune shacks have long captivated me, tucked behind undulating waves of sand, or perched on the crest of a dune, like ancient wooden ships at sea, blown inland during a gale. Provincetown’s downtown in high summer is like a beating heart pounding, throngs of people packed into every square inch. The quiet of the dune landscape, and the otherworldliness of the shacks, stand in stark contrast to the buzzing hive just on the other side of the highway.
I always wondered what, exactly, it was people did out in the dunes. Write the great American novel? Find the meaning of life in a spiral of sand? Count shorebirds and seals as they drifted off to sleep? Sweep sand? Theirs was another world entirely.
The first time I stayed in the dunes, two years ago, an electrical current of excitement pulsed through me. I could have powered the whole town, in winter, anyway. I was going to sort out every problem I ever had, was going to emerge from the dunes anew, as though the sand would scrub my rough parts smooth, the salt and sun would bleach my worries away, the wind would untangle the rest.
And at the end of that week, I was still pretty much the same. I was tired and tanned, and knew the backshore better than before. But I wasn’t sure I knew myself any better.
This year, I decided not to put too many expectations on myself. I wasn’t going to write a thousand words a day, or read all the books I’d brought with me, or cook artful meals that would echo still life paintings. Maybe I’d do those things, or maybe I’d just watch the world unfold around me. I did a lot of watching.
I watched the mackerel sky, bright white clouds like silver-bellied fish scales against the brilliant blue. I watched the storms come through, the sky change from blue to purple to slate gray, the fat rain drops as they fell heavy on the sand. I watched the harvest moon as it rose over the dunes, caught in the branches of scrub oaks. In the middle of the night, the moon was so bright the shack cast a faint shadow on the dusty miller, the rosa rugosa, the beach grass that seemed to shimmer in the silver light. The next morning, hundreds of tree swallows filled the sky like a school of minnows.
In the dark, when the glow of the kerosene lamps was too dim for my tired eyes to read by, I listened. To the wind, to the rattling of dishes in the cupboard, to the shack groaning and sighing, to towels snapping on a clothesline, and to animals in the distance. At least, I hoped they were in the distance.
Depending on which way the wind was blowing, I listened to the sounds of route six, or to the pounding waves. A few nights, I listened as beach buggies struggled up steep hills towards other shacks, and the sounds of laughter as it carried across the hollow. And there was the radio, when I craved voices other than my own.
I came to the dunes intending to walk along that razor’s edge between humanity and nature, to find the places where the two bleed into one another. After a week, I watched as my own edges began to soften. And I watched the sky.