Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Walking the Shores of Cape Cod

Six years ago, when the Bean was new and tiny and I carried her everywhere on my chest, I thought it would be fun if we walked around Cape Cod. Literally. I thought it would be a good idea for me and the babe to hoof it around our fair peninsula's every mile of shoreline. Double distance, because we had to walk back to the car on our every excursion.

Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn't a good idea, but one thing's for sure: the Bean grew a lot faster than I had opportunity to hike. Over time, we did walk every mile of beach in Sandwich, from the northeast end of the canal out to Sandy Neck in Barnstable. And I looked out at Sandy Neck, a lovely six mile stretch of barrier beach with a parking lot at one end, and I thought, hm. Twelve miles, averaging, say, two miles an hour, is six hours walking - a long time for a baby. I knew I wasn't going to do the whole thing.

My inner purist protested. I sympathize with Appalachian Trail purists, thru-hikers who won't take side trails to cut off even a quarter mile here or there of the AT proper. The compulsion to walk only and exactly along The Path, be it marked in the physical world or just in the mind -- I get that. However, motherhood forces all kinds of compromise, and flexibility is growth, right? Right. It was time to modify the grand plan.

It made more sense to go 'round the Cape walking only as much as we felt like of every reasonably accessible beach, instead of every single inch of shoreline, be it sand or muck, public or private. Walking mucky marshes is unpleasant and potentially dangerous; people do get stuck. We'll stick to sand. Public beach access points can be hard to find along some stretches. I'm not above walking on private beaches in wintertime when nobody's there to care, but I'm not going to sneak through people's yards for the sake of not missing a hundred yards of otherwise inaccessible shoreline.

With our newly flexible guiding principles, we did an incomplete but still long walk down Sandy Neck, and have since walked the north side beaches of the rest of Barnstable, then Yarmouth, Dennis and Brewster. We don't go in summertime because of the crowds, and because I'm too cheap to pay for beach parking. These aren't issues after Labor Day, but soon enough the weather interferes. Sometimes I'll think it's a great day for a beach walk, pack a lunch, get to where we left off, get the girls out of the car, and in approximately 90 seconds they want to go home. (Grrr. Whose children are these?) Needless to say, the goal is now both flexible and long-term. I could easily be in my 60s by the time we reach Monument Beach in Bourne. At least, if I need to be wheeled along after that, there's the paved bike path along the canal that'll bring us back to the Sandwich end, where I started with the baby Bean.

The baby Bean, after one of our walks. Good for a couple hours, but not six.
Salt marsh out the window.

Sometimes when I tell people about this back-burner hobby of mine, they say, "oh, someone did that and wrote a book..." and the small part of me that ever considers writing anything for publication thinks well shit, someone did it already, but another part thinks, hm, maybe he knows how to avoid guard dogs in Osterville -- that could come in handy. So I found the book. It is Walking The Shores of Cape Cod, by Elliott Carr (1997).

Without little ones in tow, and with someone to do car shuttling, Mr. Carr was free to undertake the route of the purist, braving the muck and swimming channels when necessary. (Shoot, his wife even swam across Falmouth Harbor, in the path of incoming vessels. That's just nuts.) The book has a chapter for each segment of his walk, with helpful maps and tips about when to walk (low tide, if possible). He did Thoreau's famous hike along the outer Atlantic beaches -- a trek I imagine we will significantly abbreviate -- and concludes, essentially: eh... don't do this unless you really have to. All that walking on a sloped beach, one leg higher up than the other, eventually gets really uncomfortable.

There's a fine line between "long satisfying hike" and "pointless forced march." In my experience, you don't find the line until you've already committed to completing whichever character-building experience it turns out to be.

Carr's book is more than a hiker's log. He reflects on many of the fundamental problems facing Cape Cod, as he walks areas where they're especially evident. Development and private vs. public interests are common themes. People come here to enjoy the shore, right? Nobody vacations here because the Cape Cod Mall is a unique or wonderful shopping environment, or moves here because Yarmouth has a world-renowned school system. Yet much of our beautiful shoreline is inaccessible or not used to best advantage. Clearly we've lacked planning, where development's concerned. Beach erosion is another issue; even if counter-erosion measures were effective, and there's plenty of evidence that they're not, is this a worthwhile use of public money... particularly to protect private beaches whose owners refuse public access?

Whereas beaches in most coastal states belong to everyone, Massachusetts still operates under a 360 year-old ordinance that allows private ownership of the area between high and low tides (wading in an inch of water at low tide is fair game). Cape Cod has 427 miles of shoreline, two thirds of which are private. Here, as elsewhere, we struggle to balance public good and individual rights. Carr sees this contest manifested on many segments of his walk. His observations are at once sharp and gentle:
I never saw a new house that looked as good as the open space which it replaced. That, in a nutshell, is the Cape's dilemma. Every time another house is built, a seller realizes the value from the land, a buyer is made happy to be the latest to cross the bridge, and a realtor, a banker, a lawyer, and a builder all make a little money. But, another piece of Cape Cod is gone, particularly if the new home is on the shore and the owner chooses to close the beach.
As to guard dogs, I didn't get any practical advice. However, to their almost-amusement, Carr and his wife were physically removed from a Nantucket Sound beach by local police, who arrived in two cruisers, having been summoned by neighborhood security guards in their two cruisers. Nice, huh? I suppose a middle-aged couple taking a walk represents a huge threat to the quality of life of the mansion set. Four cars and flashing lights required, pronto.

I'm almost looking forward to that part, myself. By then the Bean might be a teenager, prone to total embarrassment every time I say or do anything, and there I'll be with my feet wet and a copy of the 1641-1647 Colonial Ordinances in hand. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. I have not yet trawled through the archives of your blog, so this is the first time I have seen baby Bean. OMG. Sooooo cute! Those eyes are amazing!

    I'm kinda torn on the whole MA beaches thing, having lived on the south shore and experienced the kinda stuff you mentioned. The realistic, middle-income person I am thinks the beach should belong to anyone, and I hate being told I can't be somewhere.

    But the part of me that still dreams of making enough money to afford beachfront property thinks about privacy. I used to think about this all the time doing the Cliff Walk in Newport - your backyard is visible to everyone and if it's dark outside people can see in your windows. I'm a wicked stickler about privacy - not that I'm the kind of person who would ever walk around the house naked (too self-conscious even when alone), but I would like to think that in a beachfront home I could keep the blinds open and not feel like I'm being watched.

    Not to mention that if I were ever to pay that much money for property, I want to see the ocean when I look outside, not some drunk teenagers making out.

    I think the police response was totally over-the-top, especially if it was in the daytime. I think that's more about the pretension of the Cape Codders (no offense) who like to think of themselves as Kennedys. Kind of like the Kennebunkport ME crowd that for some reason think they're holier than thou because George Bush Sr is their neighbor.

  2. Thanks -- she was a stunning baby, if I do say so m'self :).

    I can appreciate having mixed feelings about private beach ownership. The Newport example is well-taken. I tend to think more of California and Oregon coasts, where you can walk for miles on public beach, and not be in anyone's backyard, either. I think that's a great model, though in New England it's much too late to adopt it on a large scale.