Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Cool Times on Cape Cod

By Paul Gerald

MAY 18, 1998:  Here’s a new take on Cape Cod: Don’t go anywhere near the place in the summertime.

I know that Cape Cod is one of the hottest and hippest summer travel destinations around, but I’ve never been there in “high season,” and I have no intention of doing so. I was there in January, and from everything I can gather, summer on the Cape there is – other than the weather – a serious pain in the ass.

I was visiting my friends Ron and Mindy, who have lived out there for 12 years, and the whole time we moved around – visiting beaches and taverns and lighthouses and seafood restaurants and scenic roads – they kept telling me, “Now, in the summer, this would be a complete madhouse.” Restaurants that were empty now “would have an hour wait, at least.” It would take us a few minutes to make a left turn, and they would say, “In the summer we’d still be in the road waiting.”

So here’s a little snapshot of Cape Cod during “low season”: I came in on the bus, gazing out the windows as mind-numbing industry gave way to places with names like the Cranberry Highway, Falmouth (pronounced “fallmuth”), East Sandwich and South Sandwich, and Quaker Meeting House Road. Only in Massachusetts would you find a Quaker Meeting House Road.

The bus stopped in Hyannis, which looks like every other city in America on the way in – strip malls and fast-food places and traffic. But there was a maritime novelties store where I sifted through old charts and lighthouse replicas and boat pictures and fancy barometers and binoculars. I passed on the JFK Museum.

We went to a crowded bar that was short on decor but long on fresh seafood, and I ordered the Captain’s Platter or Skipper’s Feast or somesuch. It had shrimp, clams, cod, calimari, octopus, and scallops, all battered and fried, and all washed down with a Portland, Maine, microbrew. Considering the time of year, I asked Ron if there were many out-of-towners on the Cape these days. He looked around the bar at its dozens of patrons and told me, “In here, right now, you’re it.”

After dinner we went out to see a Coast Guard lighthouse that had been moved away from the water recently because the water was coming to claim it. That’s going on all over the Cape – a house or a cliff or a parking lot that’s been taken out to sea or destroyed by erosion, or a road that ends at the top of a cliff. The original Marconi transmitting station, the western end of the trans-Atlantic cable (some of which you can still see on the beach), is about half-gone. The ocean seems intent on taking Cape Cod back.

But that’s okay by me, because Cape Cod – even to my inexperienced eyes – looks a bit overhumanized. Ron often complained, upon seeing for-sale signs and houses being built everywhere, “Man, the whole Cape is for sale.” It probably won’t be long before the only part of the Cape not covered with development is the National Seashore.

In my opinion, the Cape Cod National Seashore is the best thing the Kennedy family ever gave the country. On a map of Cape Cod – which locals always present as a raised arm, bent at the elbow, with the hand curled toward the shoulder – the Seashore runs from just above the elbow to the back of the hand. Mostly, it’s undeveloped beach, prime for walking. The few families who still have houses in it are allowed to stay, but when they die they are not replaced. Many of their houses have floated away, anyway.

We saw the Cape Cod Trail, which looks like it used to be a railroad track. It’s covered with bikers and hikers and joggers (“totally crammed in the summer,” Ron said), and it runs for miles, all through the heart of the Cape. It winds past beaches and villages and and forests and cranberry bogs.

Our final destination was Provincetown, out on the tip of the Cape – the fingers on the arm-map. I had heard two things about Provincetown that seemed to make no sense together at all, and neither of which I noticed. One was that it’s a town full of Portuguese fishermen; the other is that it’s a town full of homosexuals – the Key West of the North, they say. I assume these are two different groups of people, but I think that’s too bad. I confess I would travel a long way to see gay Portuguese fishermen.

Anyway, Provincetown is a big-time tourist town, and Ron and Mindy made it sound like in the summertime it’s so crowded you can fall like a drunken sailor and never hit the ground. We saw T-shirt shops, art galleries, woodworkers, whale-watching tour boats, antiques, sunglass huts, portrait studios, fudge and ice cream shops, an old courthouse, the craziest-looking head shop I ever saw, two restaurants that were open, and 37 that were closed. This was January 31st, after all.

Cape Cod’s prices, numbers of people, and attitudes drop considerably after Labor Day. And that, say my friends, is the time to go up there – right after the summer season, when the weather is still fine and “there’s nobody up here but normal people.”

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