Graham Nash wrote “Our House” in 1969 when Sally and I were in high school dating (though she in Massachusetts and I in Iowa). While certainly a CSN fan, I was not particularly fond of that song. It thus came as quite a surprise when its lyrics began to run through my mind some thirty-five years later.
We were on Cape Cod in an isolated one-room shack that was perched upon a sand dune. It looked as in and out of place as a piece of driftwood – one that had been part of a tree, gone through the hands of man, and back to those of nature over the course of many many years.
While not exactly alone, it was hundreds of yards from its closest neighbor, which was similarly bereft of electricity or running water.
My wife was one of several, out of hundreds of artist applicants, to have an opportunity to live in the cabin for two weeks alone (or almost) with their thoughts and work. I was only able to visit for three days, but even so they were several of the best of my life.
The shacks were originally built in the 1800s to serve as life saving stations offering aid to the victims of shipwrecks just off the coast. Thousands have occurred since the Mayflower first furled her sails nearby. They fell into disuse after 1914 with the construction of a strategic canal that obviated the dangerous passage.
The then empty gray boxes were discovered by those who had already made nearby Provincetown a dynamic and vibrant artists community. Maybe America’s first. Thoreau spent time there. Eugene O’Neil was living in one when he learned of his first Pulitzer Prize. Kurt Vonnegut wrote Player Piano there. Norman Mailer had a place. Painters such as Hans Hoffman, Mark Rothko, and Helen Frankenthaler have lived and worked in these parts.
Jackson Pollack visited the area several times and apparently had even stayed in the shack in which we found ourselves. He was thereabouts heard to have said that “he fucked Mrs Benton” (Mrs Thomas Hart…) which episode though must have taken place in town – not in the shack. It’s too far from anywhere for an illicit tryst. Not the place for a quickie. Wrong juju.
The hike in sets the tone emotionally and otherwise. You park your car just outside of Ptown at the intersection of Snail Road and US Highway 6, pack your things and enter a natural archway through a thick wood.
The trees end suddenly though, leaving one to face the steep slope of a fifty-foot sand dune. A one-hour trudge up down over and across hot sand leads to the north coast. The two steps forward and one back routine make it much tougher going than most mountain trails.
And a horse of a different color at night. Once, after a wild time in Ptown we made it back to a quiet fogbound trailhead at 10:00 PM. We nonchalantly chattered about the evening for an hour or so until we realized that we’d lost our way. Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I always carry a compass and with a few course corrections soon found ourselves home.
Upon awakening the first morning there, I turned slightly to look through the screen door to watch Sally on the deck intent upon her clay. The ocean rolled in the distance and fishing vessels bobbed about. She hadn’t always worn glasses, but looked great in them. Her long honed mode of concentration was at its peak.
Other mornings were similar. After watching her work a bit, I’d make a pot of filtered coffee, we’d eat a bit of breakfast, and then walk on the beach. Sometimes for hours without seeing another soul. Only twenty miles from Boston and the whole eastern seaboard!
We were lucky though. During most of the year vehicular traffic is apparently allowed on the shore, but through the course of our sojourn the endangered piping plovers were breeding. The National Park Service makes certain that their relationships are allowed to flower.
Ya, during our walks over those few days we did talk about our kids, folks, work, world events, etc, but they somehow seemed far away and ok. Life used to be so hard.
Upon conclusion of our strolls we’d disrobe and swim. Not an original thought. Thomas Hart Benton wrote in 1937 “once or twice I’ve seen a young Venus come naked out of the Martha’s Vineyard sea, but generally it’s something to make you wish you hadn’t lived so long.” Well, I’m still aiming for 100.
Then lunch, after which Sally would put in several more hours of work at her clay or watercolors. I’d usually take a well-deserved nap. Just before dinner we’d bathe in water we’d drawn from the well several hours before and allowed to warm in a galvanized tub out front.
Once home – without her – the song continued to play in my head and I was somehow compelled to locate and read letters that Sally had written to me back in high school. The nature of the relationship manifest therein was, well, syncopated, but the tone, the sparkle of their author was clearly recognizable and fresh.