The driving rain and howling winds hardly registered as we moved towards our rendezvous at Race Point beach. Our excitement was too strong; no amount of inclemency could put a damper on that.
Months ago, Shannon and I had applied to stay at a dune shack through the Provincetown Community Compact. Open to all and selected by lottery, community residencies are granted throughout the year. Fate had smiled and now it was our time to slip across the sand and leave modern life behind.
The dune ride to the C-Scape shack was a trip back in time. With every turn of the tires we ventured deeper into the past.
I’ve known these shacks since the third grade, the year my mom drove the orange Pinto packed with my sister and me and all our belongings into Provincetown. We would walk in the dunes right past those mysterious shacks. They must have been inhabited by hermits, I thought. I never asked. Later, my friends and I would pack a lunch and a thermos of iced tea for walks from High Head to Provincetown. We hadn’t yet learned about ecology and conservation. But we knew how to venture on foot past those shacks, nibble on blueberries, take a dip, and spend the whole day outdoors.
Shannon and I were at the “Devil’s Dip,” which I remembered as a daunting challenge for my friends and me when we were just learning to drive. Now it was just another sand hill; our aging S.U.V. effortlessly navigated the incline.
Another corner and the shack came into view, stark and captivating. A fresh pile of wood was splayed out in front, a treasure trove of warmth and comfort in the making. The door, its knob sandblasted and dangling, crashed open at the slightest push. Inside, a simple eye hook is its guardian.
In spite of my childhood ease on these dunes, I had spent some years in New York City, and a certain caution welled up as I looked around the inside of the shack at random boards, cracked windows, and threadbare rugs. There is no electricity here, no running water. A sink with no faucet. A collection of random utensils. Nothing is new, nothing is whole, nothing is fresh. The unsteady furniture reeks of sweaty, salty summer nights, mixed with smoke from the wood stove.
But Shannon was instantly comfortable. A fifth-generation Provincetown native, she had never been inside a dune shack either. She set about making a fire in the stove and as the place warmed up our ramshackle surroundings became an affirmation of where we were and a nod to those who had been there before us, confirming our status as “Shackers.”
The weather let itself be known. Cracks and crevices shrieked with the wind gusts coming off the bluff. They mixed with the moans and groans of the swaying building. Stoking the fire became a full-time job. But Shannon took it on, driven by our need for warmth, but also by satisfaction at what something as simple as a stack of hardwood and a little diligence could do. If she fell short, in no time we could see our breath in the room. We made it through that night, and another, and another.
This was not exactly the vacation I had imagined. Back when we filled out our application, I imagined us naked on the beach. We heard the roaring surf calling from the shoreline a hundred yards away and took the path that leads through beach plum and bayberry to a gap in the dune. There, the angry ocean was visible, a rhythmic spectacle of waves and white water viewed through squinted eyes. We were bundled up and pelted by whipping sand. But seals hunted, shorebirds dove, and our hearts soared.
Further down the path, coyote tracks formed patterns in the sand. We followed their quest and came across a family of deer who sprinted to safety with amazing leaps and bounds.
“Shacking” was magical and therapeutic and cleansing, just as everyone had said. We had stepped out of the trappings for a while. I think Shannon would have stayed forever, if only I could have built her a real bathroom out there. And it was sure nice to come home, turn on the lights, crank the heat a bit, and take a hot shower.