Successful upkeep of the shacks is no small feat considering the wild elements these Spartan structures must endure decade after decade. The simple act of spreading cloves, the periodic roof replacement, even the occasional raising of a shack after sand has buried nearly half of it are performed by a collection of shack lessees, shack dwellers, members of the nonprofit caretaker group Peaked Hill Trust, and those just interested in the promise of a cold one when the work is complete.
This loosely knit rescue squad gives you an idea of what dune shack society is about. It includes artists, writers, and fishermen among its past and present members. Some shacks have housed four generations of family members as well as playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, and “bard of Provincetown” Harry Kemp. Writers e.e. cummings and Edmund Wilson as well as artist Jackson Pollock have also been associated with the shacks.
The structures became the property of the National Park Service in 1961, when the Cape Cod National Seashore—40 miles of beach encompassing 26,666 acres—was created and took the shacks by eminent domain. Today, the NPS has a variety of lease agreements with residents of 18 of the shacks; one shack is privately owned. The question now being asked is what happens when most of these agreements begin expiring in 2014. Shack devotees want continued access to them, while the mission of the Seashore is to keep the land as natural and unspoiled as possible.
Most dune dwellers travel to Provincetown’s “backshore,” as it is called, seeking solace, inspiration, and life on the edge of the land. While my companion and I are shackies for little more than 24 hours, we make the most of it. We strip off our socks, which got soaked from stepping through a bog on the way in, and head to the beach barefoot. The sand is cool, not quite cold. But the surf is icy, and not even the rousing fire we build later in the tiny Glenwood can take away the chill.
Not long after we arrive, we hear a high-pitched rattle emanating from a short oak just outside our shack. My companion thinks it’s some unseen bird. I envision a large, flying insect. Later that night, on our way to the outhouse, the same sound sends us leaping toward the inky sky. We dart back into the shack, shove the feeble bolt to lock position, and consider our options. (Later, our bodily functions trump our fears and we each head back out for relief.)