The invitation was unexpected and intriguing: Did I want to spend the night in a dune shack just yards away from the Atlantic in Provincetown?
For those unversed in Cape Cod lore, the dune shacks are the bare-bones dwellings that run along a two-mile stretch of dune ridges and valleys between Race Point in Provincetown and High Head in North Truro. The earliest shacks housed sailors who shipwrecked during the 19th century on the treacherous Peaked Hill Bars just off the beach. Others were constructed to provide a getaway from nearby bustling Provincetown center. Today, 19 rough-hewn shacks remain, and like the rest of the Provincetown community, they are steeped in history, culture, stories, and legend.
It didn’t take me long to accept the offer, even though it was early November and I had seen my breath in the night air the day before. As someone who calls Cape Cod home, I can say that living here doesn’t always feel like a getaway. On my street the neighbors’ houses are closer to mine than any beach. This is where I work and go grocery shopping and shovel snow. Sometimes I feel like my neighborhood could be anywhere in suburban America. But a trip to the dunes? Now that’s a Cape escape.
On the morning of our trek to the shacks, my companion and I fortify ourselves with a breakfast fit for a fisherman at a Provincetown eatery. It’s a good thing we do because the hike into the dunes is three-quarters of a mile up and down what are best described as deep sand bowls, while lugging large canvas bags bearing logs for the wood stove as well as enough food to make three meals, sleeping bags, and a change of clothes. (Life as a “shackie” is not for the weak.)
This is not my first foray into the dunes, but it’s the only time I’ve come during hunting season. As I step heavily up the incline, balancing firewood and food, a bright orange wave descends toward me. Three hunters bearing uncocked shotguns head out of the hills, one behind the other. I hold my breath as each one passes, nod, and avert my eyes. I don’t want to see the three brown lifeless rabbits dangling from the belt of the last hunter out, a muscular dog with a bloody snout trotting ahead of him.
When we finally reach the shack, I am nearly overwhelmed by the heavy scent of dried cloves and what appear to be countless mouse droppings on the floor and bed. But a closer look tells me my sense of smell is correct and my sight got it wrong: Cloves have been spread over the floor and the bright blue tarp covering the mattress to discourage the mice from making a winter home.