Liam's, Nauset Beach

Taken in the early 1980s, Philbrick’s Snack Shack, as Liam’s was originally called—the building on the right—was considered a long, hot walk from the beach blanket. Photo courtesy of John Ohman

Though battered and bruised, Nauset Beach remains an iconic presence on Cape Cod

In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Poseidon, god of the sea, is a divine antagonist who hampered Odysseus’s journey home. Today, among the living, a shared truth emerges from the cold currents and shifting shoals: A visit to Nauset Beach on outer Cape Cod is a kind of journey home, too. But the fury of Poseidon’s ghost this past winter darkened the destination. A series of ferocious nor’easters reshaped the contours of the glorious shoreline and has taken a piece of its heart—a fabled 64-year old shack, called Liam’s—to a seaside grave. A place once deemed magical is now rendered mythological. What is the adequate penance when the gods sin against the people?

With no shield from the buffets and spits of an angry Atlantic, the shack, known to old-timers for decades as Philbrick’s, was demolished on the Vernal Equinox. Symbolically, yet ironically, a day of renewal. Not burial.

The wicked winter did more to alter Nauset Beach as a physical and spiritual place than 70 previous winters combined. Nearly 10 days before Liam’s met its fate, a century-old gazebo—where, for decades, concerts were staged, vows were exchanged, and families were photographed (with the ocean then an invited guest)—was moved off the beach before it could be claimed by the gods. What remains is a weathered bath house and administration building, exposed on its sides, and with only a few feet of temporary bluff for protection.

Orleans Selectman David Currier recently said, “The reason Nauset Beach is Nauset Beach is that shack.” For many, though, Liam’s was more than just a shack. And Nauset more than just a beach.

The endless rolling white dunes and yielding green beachgrass, with a backdrop of blue sea and gray gables, are indeed this region’s amber waves of grain. A quintessentially New England portrait. Iconic and romantic.

But there is something still more fundamental about the sea that draws us to it.

President John F. Kennedy understood this basic instinct. “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea—whether it is to sail or to watch it—we are going back from whence we came,” he said at a dinner before the 1962 America’s Cup Races in Newport, RI.

Humans have been tied to Nauset’s seacoast for millennia. Likely longer.

Local Native Americans were called The Nauset. They were the first people the Pilgrims encountered when they came ashore in Provincetown in 1620. Nauset Indians were part of the southern New England Algonquin and occupied the Cape with The Wampanoag, with whom they shared a similar dialect and similar customs. Today, Nauset is commonly associated with the Massachusetts shoreline of Eastham, Orleans and Chatham, with the eponymous name regularly used under local auspices.