Places that matter can help define us. For much of my life, the Outer Cape has molded a substantial piece of my inner being. My folks were renters, then residents of Wellfleet as I grew up. I knew the place well. A blanket on the beach and kite skimming across the sky became an important part of countless days in the sun. Beach erosion and climate change were yet to be discovered. We were kids, flying down the dunes, oblivious to what damage we might be doing to those mountains of sand.
My own family house now sits next to my parents’ old place on Blackfish Creek. I hiked the Audubon and White Cedar Swamp trails and poked around Provincetown in my younger years. Wellfleet was Tranquility Base for me. Bob Dylan spoke directly to me as my mind grew. My thoughts turned to how I would spend the rest of my life.
I became a journalist, working around the world for Cronkite, then Rather. Life was intense. Wellfleet became my private world, away from it all. I would retreat there from New York and sometimes Beirut or El Salvador. Breathing became easier in the salt air. Once I traveled from Wellfleet directly to Warsaw. I embraced my competing worlds.
Wellfleet always has cleared my head. Many years ago I fled there alone after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I tried to prepare for the bottom to fall out of my life. It stormed for the entire week I was consoling myself. That seemed appropriate. My retreat from reality was rained out, my faith in the future blowin’ in the wind, a nor’easter, as I remember it. I knew hard times lay ahead. Yet, in a funny way, the trip was a success. I took care of internal business and felt more at home and secure in Wellfleet than in Washington, where I actually lived.
Wellfleet comforted me. Solitude was a new experience. Even under the dull gray skies, familiar surroundings entered my pores. The village had ceased to be my playground. I was developing an adult relationship with the place. My body was slowly failing me. Long walks were disappearing in the distance.
If sand dunes are off-limits these days, no longer can I walk through sand anyway. I am a passenger, not a participant. Glorious beaches were becoming only poignant memories. I cannot steer a walker across challenging terrain. I do not feel sorry for myself, though. For a long time, I had it all, and in my head, I still come pretty close.
My three kids and their many cousins keep the Outer Cape close, too. Our daughter, Lily Max, the youngest of the lot, discovered her own way of making that statement. A tattoo now rests just above her heel. It displays the coordinates for Wellfleet. That girl knows where her heart is.
Richard M. Cohen is a three-time Emmy-winning former senior producer for CBS News and CNN. His most recent book is Chasing Hope.