I knew in mid-October that I would be alone for Thanksgiving. I didn't wish it to be; I had had hopes that our marriage could be saved, that love and sanity would prevail and that once again we would sit down with family for the traditional feast in Rhode Island. But, after all the years, it was not to be. To escape gloom, the odd-man-out would have to travel.
The Masai tribesmen of East Africa believe that when a lion is wounded, he will walk for miles by night to find one of his old beds--a solitary, painful search for peace. I knew where my Thanksgiving hideaway would logically be--an old bed I remember and love; also a place with strong anecdotal, if not historic, ties to this most American of holidays. My wife and I had often visited Cape Cod together but never on Thanksgiving. Now I would go alone--and discover that for a growing band of present-day Pilgrims the Cape has become the ritual place to observe this Colonial-style occasion.
Yes, I know: The first Thanksgiving was celebrated not on Cape Cod but at Plymouth, Mass. The mythology of the holiday is flexible; and, anyway, before the digging of the Cape Cod Canal (1909) defined beyond dispute the boundary of this most famous of glacial gravel banks, Plymouth was thought of as a part of the Cape as often as it was considered part of the mainland.
I drove through Rhode Island at dusk on Thanksgiving Eve, passing our usual exit and pressing onward. Providence was ahead, then Interstate 195 arching off to the right in the direction of Cape Cod--the road to saltwater taffy and basket shops and thousands of furiously spinning lawn ornaments in the forms of windmills and flying geese.
I passed all the familiar landmarks: the canal-spanning old Bourne railroad bridge--a ghostly, Victorian latticework tonight; the favorite "scenic overlooks" where we used to stretch our legs; the Sunoco station where we always stopped for gas; the site of the "leaning tower of pizza," now gone.
It was black night when I drove over the Sagamore Bridge and arrived, geographically, on the Cape. What an exciting frontier crossing that used to be! Tonight, it was like entering a familiar room in the dark. I didn't need a light; I knew where everything was.
The village roadsides swirled with dry leaves. Tall tree trunks and saltbox houses picketed by white fences crowded close on each side. Then, at the center of town, a white, Christopher Wren-style church steeple, floodlighted, and framed by the silver filigree of bare branches, spindled the dark sky.
There had better be a cozy New England inn at the end of this journey, I thought wryly--and there was, in Sandwich, only a few miles from the canal. The Dan'l Webster Inn stands on a spot where Colonial roadhouses welcomed travelers (no doubt on the eve of other Thanksgivings) and wherein old Daniel himself kept a room permanently reserved for 30 years.
Within, there was warmth and hospitality; candlelight and piled up pumpkins; the smell of spicy things baking; baskets of nuts; McIntosh apples mingled with Indian corn; a staff dressed in Early American costumes--long dresses, dust bonnets, aprons and black stockings. A fire burned quietly in the dining room, and an old oil portrait of Daniel Webster looked down upon the guests. In a glass case were some antique postcards of the original 1692 inn, pieces of scrimshaw and a pair of Webster's small, spidery spectacles that he somehow left behind.
The Devil'n Dan Tavern was already crowded, and all the inn's 42 rooms were booked for the holiday: "Was the traffic heavy from Boston?" I was asked at reception. I explained that I had driven up from Connecticut.
"Really? So far! Seems people are coming from everywhere these days to spend Thanksgiving on Cape Cod."
The Dan'l Webster Inn should know. It does more to make the custom possible than any other establishment from Provincetown to Boston. "We have 1,600 reservations for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow," innkeeper Steve Catania told me with pride, "and 800 requests that we had to refuse." The inn serves a turkey dinner (cranberry, sage, and pork stuffing; pumpkin and apple soup; Indian pudding) from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. After many years' practice, it is a smooth operation from valet parking through check paying. No one waits much more than 10 minutes to be seated--or to start eating.
There are other inns on the Cape that also serve the feast, albeit to somewhat smaller numbers. At Falmouth, I learned, the Coonamesset Inn serves 900 Thanksgiving dinners; at East Bay Lodge in Osterville, the number is 700; at the Wayside Inn in Chatham, 600; at the Red Inn in Provincetown, 350. In every town, in every restaurant, hotel or inn, the numbers have been growing each year for more than a decade.