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Poseidon’s fury is Liam’s fate

Nauset coast

The extended Nauset coast as it stretches northward to the Eastham break, another vulnerable spot when storms appear. Photo courtesy of John Ohman

In his fascinating 1988 geological study, “Cape Cod Field Trips,” Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman’s scholarship about the cyclical changes at Nauset Spit is especially compelling in light of current debates. He noted that in the 1840s Chatham Light was protected by an elongated spit. Later, due to naturally recurring shifts in sands and winds and ebbs and flows of tides, an onshore migration of the spit began, eventually exposing the Light to the ocean. By the 1900s, a new strip of outer beach formed. He called this “the evolution of the barrier system,” where a complete cycle—from breach to regeneration to breach—can take “between 100 and 175 years.” Quite possibly, then, the Nauset coastline might be in the midst of a new breach phase in 2018.

Recent erosion has revealed old spirits and new skeletons from a century ago. This past November, timbered remains of what is believed to be the schooner Montclair became visible on Nauset Beach in Orleans. She broke apart “on the bars” during a vicious gale in March 1927. And her broken bones are said to have appeared and reappeared in 1957 and 2010, respectively. (The wreck was chronicled by Henry Beston; the Orleans Historical Society maintains several recovered artifacts at its museum.)

Three March 2018 nor’easters also exposed ancient peat bogs (compacted mud, grass and clay), long forgotten and buried under the beach. The bogs reveal near-fossilized tracks and hooves from horse-drawn carriages. These turn-of-the-century beach buggies traversed on makeshift peat roads, supported by cobblestones, to transport provisions to the Orleans Coast Guard Station (long gone) and harvested sea hay. After one spring tide cycle this year, remnants thought to be utility poles that carried telegraph and telephone lines to the coast guard station poked through the sand.

Liam’s was torn down on March 20, a rare sunny and placid day in an unusually stormy month, just as locals were preparing for the fourth nor’easter to hit the Cape that month.

Downtrodden onlookers did not hear the crackling of fried food on that first day of spring. Rather, they heard the cracking of wood by a Deere excavator as it tore through the weary shack. Just inside of what were once ordering windows that welcomed past patrons, an old ice cream menu was ripped from its post. To witnesses, that crushing image will be frozen in time.

James Philbrick created what few ever do: He converted a vision that became a tradition which transformed into an institution. It continued with John Ohman, who bought the business and renamed it Liam’s in 1990. For 63 years, the smell of fried food competed with the salt air on Nauset Beach. The Cape Codder said this experience was “a unique gustatory aura that attracts hordes of beach people made ravenous by sun and salty sea air.”

In the summer of 1976, Philbrick was asked how long he intended to continue his “special brand of hospitality.” He responded with a Yankee matter-of-factness: “As long as I breathe.” He passed away in 2004. The shack he built breathed its last breath for business in 2017.

The journey home will be paradoxical for many returning to Nauset this season. The annual ritual of seasonal pilgrimage was a link to intergenerational continuity, connecting past with present; one of life’s precious constants, when everything is constantly changing. It was a refuge where vulnerable souls were rejuvenated and where daily burdens were carried away—not the beach itself.

Summer of 2018 is all about change. The familiar sights, sounds and smells of endless summers past will cease temporarily. Maybe permanently.

It’s all a bit disorienting now. The mind doesn’t want to believe what the eyes see. It displays a seaside error message. But there is no reboot.

The landmarks were part of the landscape. For which soon there will be no land nor mark upon which to return. And what is particularly jarring to the psyche is that there will only be snapshots, faded postcards and failing memories to recall those joyful, fulfilling experiences at the one place thought to defy time. And the gods.

As the warm wind turns southerly and the summer season looks favorably upon the beach, nature is slowly repairing itself. But successive storms unraveled the grand tapestry of Nauset Beach. At low tide you can still see salt water trickling off a layer of peat. And patches of dune still resemble a scarred lunar surface.

A final insult, the rocks have returned. The sea surely and unsparingly throws jagged rocks together against a forgiving shore, lashed by sawtooth sands driven by winter winds. But as anyone knows, time still spent on Nauset Beach makes its visitors polished stones. No matter the season.

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