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Thoreau Walks The Cape

May 2024
14min read

In the blustery days of late fall, the traveler still can find the sparseness and solitude that so greatly pleased the Concord naturalist in 1849

One morning in early October 1849, Henry David Thoreau peered through the rainstreaked window of a stagecoach as it rolled along a sandy, rutted road on the north shore of Cape Cod. He found the landscape bleak and almost bare of trees, the houses poor and weather-beaten. Even the women’s faces were cheerless. “They had prominent chins and noses,” he wrote, “having lost all their teeth, and a sharp W would represent their profile.”

The traveler’s view is much more agreeable today. While modern dentistry has taken care of the women with faces like Ws, nature has been induced to line the road with fine shade trees. For the traveler who is not in a hurry, the northshore road along the bay—Route 6A—is by far the prettiest way to go. Most travelers, of course, are in a hurry and so take Route 6, the mid-Cape highway, which is a straight shot to the outer Cape, with not much to look at except exit signs and pitch pines.

On his trip in 1849 Thoreau was visiting the Cape for the first time. He knew the woods and fields and rivers of his native Concord as he knew his own garden. He had traveled by dory on the Concord and Merrimack rivers, by foot across the White Mountains of New Hampshire and through the forests of Maine. But he knew almost nothing about the shore. He came to Cape Cod as to a new world.

On the morning after the coach trip, Thoreau and his traveling companion, William Ellery Channing, walked from Orleans to the ocean side over a desolate, rain-swept plain, holding their open umbrellas behind them to get some help from the following wind. Anyone who tries to retrace their steps today on a hot summer weekend will have to dodge a stream of beachgoers, picnickers, campers, bicyclists, surfers, wind surfers, dune drivers, birders, surf casters, whale watchers, and other assorted holidaymakers. Thoreau, who would go off his trail to avoid disturbing a muskrat, would have been alarmed, as presentday environmentalists are, by the impact of all this human traffic on the fragile ecosystem of the Cape. But he and Channing met only an occasional traveler.

Thoreau was no idle stroller. He was a serious walker, bent on observing every mark on the landscape, the movement of grasses in the wind, the tracks of a hundred animals, the pattern of water flow, the composition of soil and rock, and all the other phenomena of the natural world. Before he walked, he did his homework on the geology and geography, the history and natural history of the area, and after he walked, he wrote down extensive observations and reactions in his diary. Such a dedicated walker was naturally particular about his walking companions. Around Concord he went to some lengths to put off neighbors who wanted to accompany him, usually preferring to walk alone. On longer trips he chose someone who shared his close interest in nature, someone who was game for eight-hour days on a barren plateau in a strong wind, someone who would serve as a sounding board for Thoreau’s ideas and contribute some of his own. Ellery Channing, the nephew and namesake of Boston’s great Unitarian preacher, was his favorite traveling companion, partly because he shared Thoreau’s interests, but he lacked the literary discipline that enabled Thoreau to organize his thoughts on paper. (Thoreau’s account of his 1849 visit and two later visits, combined in one narrative, was published first as a series of articles in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and later, posthumously, as a book, Cape Cod , in 1865.)

Shortly after noon the walkers passed through a stretch of low shrubs and then a belt of sand and suddenly stood upon the edge of a bluff, looking down at the ocean. They were just above the elbow of the Cape, where the eastward-stretching arm bends at a right angle and runs north to make a clenched fist at Provincetown. The ocean side of the forearm is what Thoreau called the Great Beach, stretching unbroken for thirty miles north from Nauset Harbor (plus another twelve miles south). Considering both its length and its quality, it may well be the finest beach in the United States and one of the best in the world.

From the top of the cliff Thoreau and Channing slid and scrambled down the steep wall of sand to the beach below. If they tried that today, they would be in line for a reprimand from the park rang- ers of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The dune cliffs are unstable, and sliding on them is discouraged, much to the disappointment of young visitors.

Thoreau’s 1849 trail would now be more than four hundred feet offshore.

The sand cliffs, rising a hundred feet or more above the beach in places, look today as they did when Thoreau saw them, although they are constantly moving. The whole Cape is a great, curving mound of sand and gravel with some clay and a few boulders, all left in place when the last glacier melted. For ten thousand years the ocean has been beating against that mound, undercutting its steep face and redistributing the sand along the shore. In the 137 years since Thoreau walked by, the cliff has retreated at an average rate of something like three feet a year, so that the actual path where he left his footsteps is now more than four hundred feet offshore.

Anything built on top of the cliff is doomed. When Thoreau was there, three small brick lighthouses stood in a row above Nauset Beach, well back from the edge of the cliff. In 1892 they fell off the edge, to be replaced by three more and then, in 1923, by a single, taller lighthouse. The only reason that not many houses have fallen from the cliff is that early settlers did not build near the ocean. They built in the hollows, where they were sheltered from the wind, or along the bay side, where the water is calmer and the land lower. The men who lived in those houses were seamen, and they saw enough of the wild ocean from their ships without having to look at it from the land. The ocean side of the Cape was to them the back side.

On some stretches of the Cape, in recent times, vacation houses have been built close to the shore, and some of them are in trouble. As the beach in front of them washes away and the tide comes closer, the owners try different ways to do what King Canute could not do. They build seawalls, which may last for decades but not forever. They put in jetties or rocks or pilings, which may trap some sand for a while, but often at the expense of the neighbor’s beach. They may try sandbags or fences or nettings of wood or metal. At last, despairing, they may pick up their cottages and move them back from the shore. Sooner or later the ocean has its way.

Why, then, do people keep on building at the very edge of the sea, not only on Cape Cod but all along the coast? One might as well ask why the farmers on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, after an eruption that has buried their land beneath volcanic ash, go right back and plant their fields. In the case of the farmers, the mountain slope is their home, and besides, the ash eventually enriches the land. The beach dwellers likewise are willing to take some risks for the joy of summers at the water’s edge. And they, too, have been enriched just by staying there. Today the extra value of a hundred front feet on the shore of Cape Cod is something like two hundred thousand dollars—that is, two hundred thousand dollars added to the price that the property would bring if it were not on the shore. There is hardly a shorefront lot outside the National Seashore and other reservations that has not been built upon.

The Park Service, which runs the National Seashore, has learned some deference to the forces of nature. Until 1978 visitors to Coast Guard Beach in Eastham parked on a low-lying stretch of beachfront, not far from the spit of land where Henry Beston wrote his Cape Cod classic, The Outermost House . The parking lot was torn to pieces by a great winter storm, which also carried away the Outermost House. It has not been rebuilt.

As they progressed along the Cape, Thoreau and Channing would walk for a stretch on the sand and then climb the cliff to walk on the plateau above. Here the law-abiding modern hiker often cannot follow them. In order to control erosion, the National Seashore Administration has put many sections of the land behind the dunes, as well as the cliff walls themselves, off limits. The dunes are held in place by the long, twisting roots of the beach grass; if the grass is trampled, it dies and the dunes become a moving desert.

Thoreau, who hated all restrictions, would not have liked being told where he could or could not walk. But if he were around today, he probably would admit that the National Seashore has saved Cape Cod. The park was established in 1961, in the nick of time, largely through the influence of President Kennedy.

The Seashore is unique among national parks in that it was superimposed on established towns that had been there since the time of the Pilgrims. About 60 percent of Wellfleet is in the park, and approximately 70 percent of Truro. The takeover of so much settled territory by the federal government was not accomplished without concessions to the towns and their residents. The towns retained control of their established beaches, which some of them close to outsiders. Owners of houses within the park may keep them or sell them freely, although they are discouraged from making any large additions. The Seashore Administration has been diligent about protecting the captive property owners from trespassers, but at the same time it brooks no violation of its rules. Four years ago the owner of one beach cottage, which was being threatened by the sea, moved it to higher ground without permission. While he was absent, a park crew demolished it.


Not all offending cottages are so easy to get rid of. Among the dunes at the tip of the Cape is a scattering of wooden shacks that range in structural condition from spare to dilapidated. In the eyes of the Seashore Administration, the shacks are blots on the natural landscape, and because that part of the land has always been public, the occupants are squatters. Last summer the superintendent announced that when their temporary permits expired, the shacks would be removed. But hold on! The Provincetown shacks are not just anybody’s seaside camps. Over the last halfcentury or so they have given shelter, and perhaps inspiration, to the playwright Eugene O’Neill, the critic Edmund Wilson, the writers Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, the poets e. e. cummings and Mary Oliver, and the choreographer Paul Taylor. To tear them down, said their champions, would be like bulldozing Thoreau’s cabin at Waiden Pond. The Seashore Administration, bowing to the indignation of the historic preservationists, backed off and said that, for now at least, the shacks could stay.

Thoreau chose October for the time of his visit to the Cape. He liked the clear, crisp air of sunny fall days in place of the “thick” atmosphere and frequent fogs of summer. He also liked the storms that stirred up the sea and sent it crashing against the land. “An outward cold and dreariness,” he wrote, “lend a spirit of adventure to the walk.” Today another attraction of the autumn is that the summer crowds are gone. A fall beachcomber will pass only a few hikers, picnickers, surf casters, and dog walkers.

The only human beings Thoreau and Channing met in four days of walking on the beach were “wreckers” who combed the tide line for flotsam washed ashore. They were silent, expressionless men, loners like Thoreau himself. He described one wrinkled face: “It was like an old sail endowed with life,—a hanging cliff of weather-beaten flesh. …”

Thoreau heard tales of an earlier time when “moon-cussers” set out false lights to lure ships onto the shoals. At least it was true that when a ship was wrecked, the men would line up on the shore and use poles to pull in whatever floated by. In one town, it is told, they kept the competition fair by limiting themselves to ten-foot poles (but they allowed the minister a twenty-foot pole).

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the chain of lighthouses built along the coast had effectively reduced the number of shipwrecks. The only treasures salvaged by the wreckers whom Thoreau saw were the trunks of trees washed down the coast from lumbering operations in Maine. Since lumber is no longer floated down New England rivers, not many logs are found today on Cape beaches, but the same currents that brought wrecked ships and logs still wash up whatever comes by. After a winter storm the modern scavenger may find a litter of buoys broken loose from lobster pots and boat moorings.

Year by year and season by season, the beach is always changing. High tide in summer may leave a broad expanse of sand; in winter it may run up to the cliff, trapping unwary walkers. During one summer, at Wellfleet or Truro, the ebbing tide may leave an offshore playground of bars, spits, and lagoons, where small children wade and older ones build a sand city of castles, forts, pyramids and Mont-Saint-Michels. The following summer the bars and spits all may be underwater.


When Thoreau left the beach and climbed the sand cliffs, he found himself on a tableland stretching all the way across the Cape. Modern visitors may be puzzled by his description of this “bare and flat plateau a virtual desert. …” That description does not square with what we see today, and neither does it square with what the early explorers reported. In the seventeenth century, by all accounts, there were hardwood forests, made up of trees that were somewhat stunted on the outer Cape but all the better fitted to withstand the wind and salt spray. Those primeval woods were almost entirely destroyed, partly by the fires of the Indians but mostly by the axes of the European settlers. The lumber went to build and heat their houses and make their ships. By the time Thoreau saw the tableland, it was a barren heath supporting only shrubs such as bayberry, bearberry, and wild plum. At Truro, however, he saw the pattern of the future: a stand of little pines planted in rows. The pitch pine was planted to make good the loss of the hardwood, and after Thoreau’s time it spread, through cultivation and natural seeding, until it became the prevailing tree growth of the whole Cape. Only now is it giving way to a second growth of oak.

The tableland is broken by small valleys, known on the Cape as hollows. They were formed by rivers running down from the face of the retreating glacier. These partial breaks in the sandy cliffs were used by wreckers and stranded seamen, as they are used by beachgoers today. At dusk on the first day of their walk, Thoreau and Channing turned into Newcomb Hollow and knocked on a door to ask for lodging. Had he been traveling alone, Thoreau might have chosen to sleep under the sky, but Channing liked a roof over his head. At the house they were welcomed by a garrulous old man who kept them up until late at night, telling them about his youth (he had heard the guns of Bunker Hill across Massachusetts Bay) and about his life as a Wellfleet oysterman. The next morning, while waiting for breakfast, the old man resumed his stories, pausing to aim streams of tobacco juice at the fireplace, where cakes, doughnuts, applesauce, and eels were warming. In describing the scene Thoreau tells how he and Channing tried to pick out the dishes farthest removed from the oysterman’s line of fire.

That day Thoreau and Channing crossed the Cape to have a look at the bay side. Instead of a wild beach, they found a settled shore with fishermen’s houses and fields. Though the water is often warmer in the bay, its fish include more northern species brought down by the Labrador Current, whereas the ocean side has more southern species swept up by the Gulf Stream. On the bay side, as on the ocean side, the shoals are full of surprises. Old maps show Billingsgate Island, then an apparently solid piece of land outside Wellfleet Harbor, with houses, a church, a school, and a lighthouse. Early in this century the island disappeared beneath the sea. At low tide you can still see the tumbled foundation blocks of this small Atlantis.

Forage was too poor on the outer Cape, Thoreau noted, to support cows or sheep, and for that reason there were no fences running down into the water. Today he would not walk far along any private shorefront in Massachusetts without seeing fences, put up not to keep cows from roving but to keep people from trespassing. In Massachusetts, as in five other Atlantic coastal states, property rights run down to the low-water mark, thus making the beach private at all tides. The rights, originally granted by the colonial legislature, were reaffirmed in 1814 by a Massachusetts court in these words: “The owner of the adjoining land may, whenever he pleases, inclose, build, and obstruct to low-water mark, and exclude all mankind.”

On most shores of the Cape the walls of privilege are not as daunting as they are, say, north of Boston, but if you drive across the causeway to Oyster Harbors, you will be stopped by a guard who will step out of his gatehouse to ask which of the du Ponts or Mêlions or other residents you wish to see. In some other places the No Trespassing signs are more wishful than threatening. Indeed, on the bay side around Brewster the tide goes out so far that any pretense of private property disappears. It is not practical to claim ownership of the tidal zone when the tidal zone extends half a mile from shore.

Just before sunset Thoreau and Channing walked back across the Cape, which is only two miles wide at Truro, to spend the night with the keeper of Highland Light. This famous lighthouse stands on the highest and wildest stretch of the shore. Here the coastal cliff takes the brunt of gales so fierce that Thoreau, who knew both places, compared them with the famous winds on the top of Mount Washington. The storms that blow against the Cape have combined with the shoals around it to make these waters a deathtrap for ships—more than three thousand of them by some counts.

The highlands have always been a vantage point from which to sight any ships approaching land. If the Wampanoag Indians were watching at the right times in the early years of the seventeenth century, they very likely saw the ships of Samuel de Champlain, down from Canada, and of Capt. John Smith, up from Virginia, and of the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who in 1602 named the Cape for its most abundant fish. On a morning in early November 1620, they could hardly have missed the Mayflower , for Capt. Christopher Jones sailed directly toward the highlands and then, finding shallow water, turned south along the shore, only to end up in the swirling currents of Pollock Rip, off Chatham. Champlain, by some combination of good seamanship and good luck, had got through the rip and dropped anchor in Stage Harbor, where he landed, planted a cross, and claimed the country for the king of France. But Captain Jones prudently turned back, anchored for the night, and the next day sailed around the end of the Cape to Provincetown Harbor.

From Highland Light, Thoreau saw the mackerel fleet come around the Cape “in countless numbers, schooner after schooner, until they made a city on the water.” Treacherous though the shoals might be, they afforded one of the world’s great fishing grounds. Cape Cod was a place where a boy went to sea so young that, as Thoreau remarked, he “leaps from his leading-strings into the shrouds. …”

Indians on the Cape Cod highlands in 1620 could have seen the Mayflower sail by.

In Thoreau’s time and for a hundred years thereafter, hardly anyone supposed that the fish in those seas were anything but inexhaustible. But after World War II, with the help of fish-tracking gear and factory ships that processed the catch on board, the international fishing industry almost destroyed the fishing grounds. Even the imposition of a two-hundred-mile limit gave only temporary relief. In the last five years the total catch of the Provincetown fleet has dropped from twenty-three million pounds to twelve million pounds. Of forty-five commercial boats, only thirty are still operating.

From the lighthouse Thoreau and Channing continued along the coast to High Head, where the land drops off sharply to a low, sandy plain that stretches ten miles to land’s end at Race Point. High Head marks the end of the glacier-made Cape. The lowland beyond —the clenched fist on a map—was dropped there by the sea, which builds up one part of the shore while it eats away another.

The end of the Cape is a true desert, covered by dunes that shift and move at the urging of the wind. Travelers before Thoreau thought that the sand must surely engulf the crescent of wooden houses at Provincetown. But in fact, the Cape Codders had already learned to tame the dunes by planting clumps of beach grass on them. The battle is never wholly won. In places the moving sand still buries the gnarled and stunted oaks, almost to the tops of their trunks, and would bury Route 6, the main highway, if bulldozers did not regularly plow it off. This rolling Sahara is a playground for dune buggies. Only the beach grass, now managed by the National Seashore, keeps the desert in bounds.

From the surface a clump of beach grass looks like a fragile thing to hold a dune, a wisp of vegetation with blades that bow before the wind and draw little circles in the sand, as perfectly .as if they had been made with a compass. But when Thoreau tried to pull out some of the beach grass, he discovered the depth and toughness of its root system. “Thus,” he wrote, “Cape Cod is anchored to the heavens, as it were, by a myriad little cables of beachgrass, and, if they should fail, would become a total wreck, and erelong go to the bottom.”

A greater fear today may be that the Cape will sink beneath the weight of the people who are crowding onto it. On a hot summer weekend visitors may wait for an hour to get over the Cape Cod Canal and then drive almost the length of the Cape before finding a National Seashore beach with space to park. But in the autumn they can still follow Thoreau’s footsteps, beyond the staked domain of man, onto the natural shore.

During his days on the Cape, Thoreau, the countryman, the panegyrist of hills and rivers and freshwater ponds, had been won by a new world of sand and sea. The sparseness and emptiness made a special appeal to one who, by his nature, had a limited taste for human company. “A man,” he wrote, in his valedictory to Cape Cod, “may stand there and put all America behind him.”

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