Thoreau Walks The Cape

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One morning in early October 1849, Henry David Thoreau peered through the rainstreaked window of a stagecoach as it rolled along a sandy, rutted road on the north shore of Cape Cod. He found the landscape bleak and almost bare of trees, the houses poor and weather-beaten. Even the women’s faces were cheerless. “They had prominent chins and noses,” he wrote, “having lost all their teeth, and a sharp W would represent their profile.”

The traveler’s view is much more agreeable today. While modern dentistry has taken care of the women with faces like Ws, nature has been induced to line the road with fine shade trees. For the traveler who is not in a hurry, the northshore road along the bay—Route 6A—is by far the prettiest way to go. Most travelers, of course, are in a hurry and so take Route 6, the mid-Cape highway, which is a straight shot to the outer Cape, with not much to look at except exit signs and pitch pines.

On his trip in 1849 Thoreau was visiting the Cape for the first time. He knew the woods and fields and rivers of his native Concord as he knew his own garden. He had traveled by dory on the Concord and Merrimack rivers, by foot across the White Mountains of New Hampshire and through the forests of Maine. But he knew almost nothing about the shore. He came to Cape Cod as to a new world.

On the morning after the coach trip, Thoreau and his traveling companion, William Ellery Channing, walked from Orleans to the ocean side over a desolate, rain-swept plain, holding their open umbrellas behind them to get some help from the following wind. Anyone who tries to retrace their steps today on a hot summer weekend will have to dodge a stream of beachgoers, picnickers, campers, bicyclists, surfers, wind surfers, dune drivers, birders, surf casters, whale watchers, and other assorted holidaymakers. Thoreau, who would go off his trail to avoid disturbing a muskrat, would have been alarmed, as presentday environmentalists are, by the impact of all this human traffic on the fragile ecosystem of the Cape. But he and Channing met only an occasional traveler.

Thoreau was no idle stroller. He was a serious walker, bent on observing every mark on the landscape, the movement of grasses in the wind, the tracks of a hundred animals, the pattern of water flow, the composition of soil and rock, and all the other phenomena of the natural world. Before he walked, he did his homework on the geology and geography, the history and natural history of the area, and after he walked, he wrote down extensive observations and reactions in his diary. Such a dedicated walker was naturally particular about his walking companions. Around Concord he went to some lengths to put off neighbors who wanted to accompany him, usually preferring to walk alone. On longer trips he chose someone who shared his close interest in nature, someone who was game for eight-hour days on a barren plateau in a strong wind, someone who would serve as a sounding board for Thoreau’s ideas and contribute some of his own. Ellery Channing, the nephew and namesake of Boston’s great Unitarian preacher, was his favorite traveling companion, partly because he shared Thoreau’s interests, but he lacked the literary discipline that enabled Thoreau to organize his thoughts on paper. (Thoreau’s account of his 1849 visit and two later visits, combined in one narrative, was published first as a series of articles in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and later, posthumously, as a book, Cape Cod , in 1865.)

Shortly after noon the walkers passed through a stretch of low shrubs and then a belt of sand and suddenly stood upon the edge of a bluff, looking down at the ocean. They were just above the elbow of the Cape, where the eastward-stretching arm bends at a right angle and runs north to make a clenched fist at Provincetown. The ocean side of the forearm is what Thoreau called the Great Beach, stretching unbroken for thirty miles north from Nauset Harbor (plus another twelve miles south). Considering both its length and its quality, it may well be the finest beach in the United States and one of the best in the world.

From the top of the cliff Thoreau and Channing slid and scrambled down the steep wall of sand to the beach below. If they tried that today, they would be in line for a reprimand from the park rang- ers of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The dune cliffs are unstable, and sliding on them is discouraged, much to the disappointment of young visitors.

Thoreau’s 1849 trail would now be more than four hundred feet offshore.

The sand cliffs, rising a hundred feet or more above the beach in places, look today as they did when Thoreau saw them, although they are constantly moving. The whole Cape is a great, curving mound of sand and gravel with some clay and a few boulders, all left in place when the last glacier melted. For ten thousand years the ocean has been beating against that mound, undercutting its steep face and redistributing the sand along the shore. In the 137 years since Thoreau walked by, the cliff has retreated at an average rate of something like three feet a year, so that the actual path where he left his footsteps is now more than four hundred feet offshore.