On hearing I was fresh from building a house on Cape Cod, the first 84 people I met after moving to Wisconsin 18 years back broke into huge grins as they leaned in to confide, “You’ll love Door County. It’s the Cape Cod of the Mid-West.” There was no doubt they felt proprietary. I guess that’s the way I feel about “my” Cape and why I’d like to make a few introductions.
The Cape I know is a bit shy. She hides her secrets on winding dirt roads, in the hollows of dunes, deep in the coolers of one-named ice cream stands or high on the shelves of artists who craft each coffee mug so the warmth you feel holding it on a winter morning seems to have come directly from the hands of the one who shaped it.
First, to get your bearings, imagine Cape Cod looking like that flexed arm on the box of baking soda, reaching out from the Massachusetts mainland into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. “My” Cape lies from wrist to fist, Wellfleet to Provincetown, and despite the fact that my great-grandfather at 105 was once the oldest man in Wellfleet and I spent summers there even before “summer’ became a verb, I’m still a “washashore,” the locals’ term for anyone born “off-Cape.”
Twenty years ago, we bought a view—a bluff that had been eroding into Wellfleet Harbor for years. Victim of fifty mile an hour winds, horizontal rain and benign neglect, a cracked cinder block beach house, stripped of all but its pink toilet, lay naked beside a rutted parking pad.
Four real estate agents had discouraged us from looking at it. They were wrong. Working with a local builder turned on by challenges and a lanky, young New York architect who had renovated a Stanford White brownstone in Manhattan but didn’t drive a car, we spent over a year teasing the land to tell us what it had to say and designing a house that would speak its language as well as ours. Now beyond its walls of 10-foot windows, on the far side of the harbor where scallop boats chug in at day’s end, Great Island puts the sun to bed. It’s the closest we get to “nightlife” out there, and it’s enough.
Open a cupboard on the Cape and you’re likely to find a forty-year old Welch’s Grape Jelly glass printed with Howdy Doody sitting comfortably beside a Riedel wine stem. It is this unself-conscious mixture of old and new that marks the understated flavor of the place. And there are many artists working on the Cape today who craft this into their work. Here are a few whose work has become part of the everyday fabric of our life on the dunes.
I stop one rainy Sunday afternoon to chat with Joe McCaffery, whose Narrow Land Pottery—thick mugs, bowls, and plates— help define our days just as much as the briny oysters we buy from shell fishermen who work the low tides in front of the house or Ethiopian coffee beans same-day fresh by local roasters.
Joe’s one-man shop would be easy to miss speeding along Route 6 through Wellfleet on the way to somewhere else, even by those long-conditioned to stop there in the 50’s for enough Cora’s Beach Plum Jelly to get them through the long winter in Larchmont. His red hair is fading now, but his out-spoken perspective on life and work is anything but dull. Gazing at an azure blue pot that sits alone on a shelf behind his head, I sense it almost starting to glow despite the afternoon’s gloom. Subtle layers of sea green emerge from what had first looked like any ordinary pot. ‘Now that’s Cape Cod,’ I think, ‘Waiting to see if you’re really paying attention before revealing her most intimate self.’
“So,” I ask Joe, “What makes that so different?” “Copper carbonate I add to the glaze,” he says. I think he’s glad I noticed. “And what makes you and your work so different?” To which this university-trained artist replies, “If all I was doing was making blue mugs, I’d rather drive a cab.”
And suddenly you start to guess the secret: Every piece here is a work of sculpture, meant not for the rarefied life of a museum display but for taking part in good conversation over long breakfasts and longer dinners in the hands of people who appreciate the difference time and attention make.
I pull my yellow slicker tighter around me as I edge back into the rain and head for town. It’s early May. Two months from now on any rainy afternoon, the narrow streets of Wellfleet, lined with Victorian houses that resemble someone’s dotty old aunties, will be crowded with beach-deprived shoppers taking in the galleries.
I know where to head: The Left Bank Gallery. This barn-ceilinged former VFW Hall houses what is, in many ways, the personal collection of Audrey Parent, whose gifted eye recognizes and assembles not only some of the best works of art in the country but fine examples of art that also plays well with others. Here almost photographic oils by Jim Holland and revisionist landscapes by newer artists are deliberately hung above hand-crafted inlaid tables and chairs to underscore that art is meant to be lived and life itself can be an art when you let it in..
For a different flavor, head out to Provincetown for the food. Nowhere does the contrast of tastes on Cape Cod stand out in more dramatic relief, often within a few short blocks. My experience in P-town, as it’s commonly known, seems to argue for the superiority of eating spots with first names only, like John and Lewis.
For lunch, head to the pier in the center of town. You can’t miss John’s, a hot dog stand that time forgot, whose counter has been serving up foot-long franks on grilled buns, piled high with self-serve chopped onions, at least as far back as Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. Unless you drop half the contents on your shirt as you walk on down the pier, it really doesn’t count. You may just have to order another.
Once back at Commercial Street, skip across and join the long line for handmade ice cream at Lewis. My personal favorite, no doubt left over from being imprinted as a child with Howard Johnson’s ice cream, is pistachio. Be warned though: It comes out creamy white rather than the atomic green we grew up on. If you’re already feeling grown up, try their saucy Brandy Alexander or White Russian varieties (photo ID required.) By then you’ll be ready to head back for a nap before dinner. Or climb on a whale-watching boat out along the pier and catch the humpbacks playing catch with fish.
With that I’ll put this to bed. Yes, there are other secrets I could share with you, like the long solitary walks I take to where I can pull silvery blue stripers out of the incoming tides in June, but then I’d have to put you out of commission. Besides, some secrets are best left for you to discover for yourself.
[You can discover some of Cape Cod’s secrets yourself by joining the OLLI-USF tour of “Cape Cod and the Islands” this fall. It includes Nantucket Island, Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth Rock, Martha’s Vineyard, a tour of Boston and a lot more. The primary departure date for this seven day tour is September 15, but if that sells out, there are three other possible departure dates. Obviously you’ll need to sign up and secure your spot well in advance, and the payment due date is July 2, so click here for all the details.]
Judy Huge spent more than 30 years as a college teacher, corporate consultant and writer. Since joining OLLI in 2016, Judy has taught The Page Awaits: A Workshop for Writers in the Making and Writing Your Memoir: Out of Your Past and Onto the Page. She will teach The Page Awaits again in Fall 19. Judy regularly participates in Great Books courses and has taken classes in history, politics, mindfulness and poetry. She spends part of the year in her beloved Cape Cod.