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Destination: Massachusetts

Thoreau's Cape Cod

Retracing a celebrated 25-mile hike along a pristine shoreline that is as isolated as it was 150 years ago

September 20, 1998|ALAN LITTELL | Littell is a freelance writer who lives in Alfred, N.Y

EASTHAM, Mass. — He was a comical little figure, Chaplinesque in his baggy suit and flapping coat. He twirled an umbrella as he strode.

Yet even for Henry David Thoreau, man-about-town of Concord, whose two years of living in the woods led to his masterwork "Walden," his attire seemed curiously inappropriate on that day. The New England author, eccentric and naturalist had set off to walk not a city street but the 25 miles of uninterrupted beach stretching along the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod from Eastham to land's end in Provincetown.

The date: Oct. 11, 1849. Rain squalls drove over the beach. Thoreau would take three days to reach his destination at the tip of Cape Cod, spending nights on the way in the cottages of an oysterman and a lighthouse keeper.

Ever since that blustery fall morning, a trek along the outer Cape has been called "Thoreau's Walk." And last October, starting out in much the same kind of weather Thoreau had encountered, I followed in his tracks.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 11, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Cape Cod--To illustrate a story on Massachusetts ("Thoreau's Cape Cod," Sept. 20) two outdated photographs were printed showing a lighthouse at Nauset Light Beach. In 1996, the lighthouse was moved 300 feet because of severe sand erosion. Also, due to a reporting error, the story incorrectly identified a beach where an old Coast Guard station stands. It is located on Coast Guard Beach.

On the map, Cape Cod has a singularly distinctive outline. It juts deep into the Atlantic from mainland Massachusetts like a bent, arthritic arm. Eastham can be found just above the elbow; Provincetown in the palm of the fist.

Created by Ice Age glaciers, shaped and reshaped by wind and tide, the peninsula's shore is a hiker's paradise. "A wild, rank place" without "flattery" is the way Thoreau described it in his posthumously published travel memoir, "Cape Cod."

Like Thoreau, I arrived in the wake of a great northeast storm that had lashed the coast. But I came equipped with Gortex rain gear and waterproof boots. I toted a light rucksack containing a change of clothes, some water, bread and cheese.

Thoreau also had carried a knapsack, I recalled, but as much for his sewing materials and fishing line as for his bread and "junk of heavy cake." As he walked, he would sometimes fish or forage for food. Once, to his later regret, he roasted a large surf clam over a driftwood fire.

"Though it was very tough," he recorded in his journal, "I found it sweet and savory, and ate the whole with relish." Later, however, Thoreau noted dryly, "In the course of the evening I began to feel the potency of the clam . . . and I was made quite sick by it."

*

I began my journey at the old abandoned Coast Guard station on Nauset Light Beach in Eastham. Now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the beach lies a mile and a half east of the National Park Service's Salt Pond Visitor Center and Museum.

From Eastham to Provincetown, all of the shore I was to hike upon is under federal jurisdiction. A few privately owned houses are still to be seen--but no more can be built. Long after Thoreau's time the Cape's coastline remains pristine, isolated territory, removed from development: a primal landscape of sea, dune and salt marsh with a great surf crashing upon the beach.

This is the so-called outer beach on the eastern side. And to the west, the Cape's inner shore presents a far less turbulent look. For about 40 miles, an elongated crescent of hardened sand edges a calm and shallow bay--in effect, an adjunct sea separating the Cape from mainland Massachusetts.

Yet regardless of the coast, on Cape Cod the fall sea retains a vestige of its August warmth. This is the season when bayberry, plum and scrub oak turn crimson and bronze, when the summer crowds have left, when nearly deserted beaches beckon the occasional surf fisherman--armored against the wind in waders and muffler--casting for bass.

Now and again a solitary walker nods a greeting as he passes, kicking up a spatter of shells--although in three days of tramping, I met no more than a handful of fishermen.

As I stepped out onto the sand at the beginning of my trek and headed north, I could hear a powerful autumnal roar along the outer beach. The tide was high; the storm-roiled surf thundered onto the foreshore in swirls and geysers of chalky foam.

On my left as I walked, the dunes--although steep--had been carved away at their base by surging tides. On my right, the overfall of surf washed so insistently up the shore that I fled from relatively firm footing at the ocean's rim to a loose, shelving beach below the bluffs.

I quickly began to tire. I had underestimated the drag of trudging ankle-deep through sand. To my dismay, it had taken an hour of calf-aching effort to cover the first mile.

Beneath Nauset's lighthouse I stopped briefly to rest. Soon I could detect the first withdrawing flow of an ebbing tide. As the beach widened, the walking became easier. At water's edge, sandpipers skittered in front of me. I chased up flights of gulls. A smell of sea wrack filled the air--that peculiar perfume of kelp rot and salt.

*

The sun was doused in a gunmetal sky; the wind had a chilling bite. Ahead, dunes fringed with grasses the color of straw curled to the horizon like a long, low wave about to break.

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