Editor’s note: This commentary is by Walt Amses, a writer from North Calais.
Wriggling my toes in the sand, staring out at the interplay between brilliant sunshine and the wind-whipped blue-green water of Cape Cod Bay, I’m mesmerized — caught in a furrow of chronology. It realistically could be any time in the last 50 years and pieces of each and every one of those summers fly in and out of my head as I contemplate the passage of time in a place that — for me, anyway — time itself seems to stand still in the best possible way.
The first time I came to Provincetown in the late 1960s I was on leave from the military and looking for an alternative to the heat, humidity and clamor of the Jersey shore. What I found was part fishing village, part artist’s colony and part gay refuge along with pristine, uncrowded beaches with more seals than people swimming in an Atlantic cold enough to induce foot cramps just from walking on the wet sand.
But I loved all of it and kept returning: as an untethered college student in the ’70s; later with my wife — even spending a segment of our honeymoon walking the national seashore; and eventually, twice a summer with our children, renting a small cottage to ward off the June chill and tent camping at Head of the Meadow Beach in August. As retirees we still go back to the same places and do many of the same things as we’ve done for decades, reflecting on our lives in the process through P-town’s unique prism.
Much has changed since the days when downtown parking lots revealed myriad license plates from across the country, silently documenting exactly how far people traveled just to hold hands in public, but the incredible light that has drawn painters to this furthest outpost on what’s called the “Outer Cape” for over a century remains, inspiring new generations with images of windswept dunes vividly set against sky and water.
Not only traditionalists like Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell were galvanized by the stark natural beauty but abstract expressionists including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko (among many others) extracted color, light and form from those landscapes, infusing them with an exuberance that set the art world on its ear in the decades after World War II.
Ambling along the shore to the heartbeat of a gentle surf with a salty breeze on my face, I wonder if I’m retracing the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau who walked these same beaches in the mid 19th century.
The forces at work in Provincetown aren’t limited to wringing every ounce of creativity out of visual artists. There’s enough magic to go around. Writers like Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut lived here for years and Jack Kerouac wrote portions of his revolutionary novel “On the Road” holed up in a beach shack among the dunes in the summer of 1950. And as the story goes, while Tennessee Williams was finishing the final draft of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he had Marlon Brando audition for the role of Stanley Kowalski in a similar storm-battered cottage out in the sandy solitude. The vision of Brando, white T-shirt and cuffed jeans, floundering through monolithic powdered quartz screaming “Stella” to an audience of confused herring gulls, invades my consciousness.
In all the years of weather phenomenon we’ve seen visiting the area, one stormy experience rises above the rest. We’d developed an affinity for the work of several P-town artists, all of which we loved, particularly the paintings of Robert Cardinal, whose palette featured a phenomenal array of vibrant color. His seascapes, cottages, boats at anchor and barns — some of which were painted in Vermont — all contained bold and brilliant hues of blue, green, pink, yellow, orange and purple we’d assumed were conjured by the artist and mixed in his studio.
One June evening quite close to the summer solstice we’d finished unpacking the car and stocking up the cottage, when the day’s heat and humidity exploded into a fierce thunderstorm, rattling the windows as incendiary lightning danced across the horizon, illuminating the bay like flashbulbs at celebrity sighting. An hour later when skies cleared, low tide found our family strolling across a huge expanse of sand and hundreds of tidal pools reflecting the sky, clouds and descending sun.
Initially it looked to be a normal, exceptionally beautiful Cape Cod sunset before things slowly began to change. As the children splashed through miles of vermillion puddles, Helene and I were spellbound by what was going on above, as the pastel ribbon far to the west expanded, moving over our heads, covering the entire sky and the remaining clouds with every imaginable color, electrifying, mysterious colors we’d only seen in the paintings of our artist. That was over 20 years ago and we’ve not seen a similar phenomenon since, but it’s exhilarating knowing it’s possible.
Ambling along the shore to the heartbeat of a gentle surf with a salty breeze on my face, I wonder if I’m retracing the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau who walked these same beaches in the mid 19th century. An American eel undulates by in water so crystal clear he looks like a levitating snake. Miraculously, he’s traveled over 2,000 miles to get here from the Sargasso Sea, south and east of Bermuda. Thoreau would have seen eels as well without knowing how far they’d come. He’d have marveled. Easy to do in a place like this.