The Outermost House Treasure Hunt

Cape Cod ocean“The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dunes these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year.” – Henry Beston

One of my favorite books is The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston. I love imagining the stretches of beach and marshlands that Beston called home, seeing all the changes from season to season, hearing of wild places far from civilization.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to visit the site of the Outermost House but wasn’t sure exactly where it was located. There hasn’t been anything there since a massive storm, the Blizzard of ’78, destroyed the wooden shack and carried bits of it off into the ocean. Still, I wanted to go there to experience some of the beauty to be found, to sit near the site and soak in the poetry of the place.

Outermost House beach

Eastham Lifesaving Station

The site is about two miles from the Eastham Life Saving Station (white building above). Thanks to the Cape Cod National Seashore, I figured the area would look pretty much the same as when Beston stayed there in the 1920s. The Outermost House is credited with being one of the motivating forces behind the creation of the National Seashore, preserving 40 miles along the Atlantic coast.

While flipping through a book on Cape Cod hikes, I saw a map that showed the exact site of the Outermost House as an X on the beach. It looked like a treasure map. I knew then that I had to find it.

We set out from the life saving station. It seemed like the X marking the treasure would be easy to find. According to the map, the site would be on a beach and directly across a marsh from an observation pavilion.

We trudged through the sand, looking for the pavilion. But before we could stand across from it, an inlet opened up in front of us, a wide, deep inlet complete with waves that stretched from the ocean into the marsh. The inlet blocked our way to the treasure.

We stared across the channel to a beach that looked more like an island. The inlet hadn’t been there when Beston lived there. It wasn’t even on the map showing the hike, but it made the Outermost House site inaccessible.

Large rocks on the island beach moved. Then we saw heads bobbing through the inlet waves. Seals swam and played, oblivious to us and our quest for treasure. We realized that seals completely covered the beach and the area where the Outermost House once stood.

So we didn’t make it to the treasure. Or did we? As we walked away, we knew that the treasure is in knowing there are still places like this, places where seals can play, inaccessible places where nature can flourish. We were glad then that we couldn’t get to the site and that only seals could visit.

Have you read The Outermost House or anything that’s made you want to go on a treasure hunt?

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Cape Cod Scenes & Settings

It always helps to live or work in your novel’s setting. While walking through town on my way to work, every once in a while I try to capture a sentence from the air. Here are a few scenes from my new novel, Ocean Echoes:

Woods Hole marina

This is the small pond and marina near the main character’s workplace. Ellen’s falling apart houseboat is out there somewhere.

Woods Hole research vessel

The picture above is of a typical research vessel like the one that brings the characters to remote islands in the South Pacific. The vessel used in the book was older and a bit rustier. Here’s the scene when it arrives in port a few days before the research cruise:

“The ship docked behind Ellen’s work building and dwarfed it entirely, even though the building had often swallowed her whole. The Eagle resembled a small offshore city complete with smokestacks, flashing lights, and towers reaching into the sky. Crew members scurried around on deck like puppets on an oversized stage. The Eagle also hummed. Ellen could hear the metallic humming from inside her office, a constant whirring reminder that she’d better be ready soon.”

woods-hole-stone-building

Above is a stone building where candles were made from whales in the 1800s.  Whenever a whale beached on the shore back then, people would run down there with knives and buckets to take the whale’s oil and whatever else they could use. Now we try to save any beached whales. Maybe some things have progressed at least a little.

Woods Hole whale sculpture

This sculpture is across the street from the stone building. Here’s how it’s described in Ocean Echoes:

“They walked out toward a park bordering the ocean where a sculpture of a whale’s fluke dove into rippling grass. Children hung from the fluke and used it as a slide. Paul smiled and watched as if they could be his own kids. Ellen looked out toward the waves.”

So now I can wander through my novel any time (or whenever I’m not working away in the building near these scenes).

Do you wander through your novels or visit places you’ve read about?

Cape Cod Whale Watching

whale spoutWe saw the spouts from far away: distant puffs of water, an array of fountains spurting out messages to anyone who ventured near. We crept closer.

Springtime is feeding time for whales off Cape Cod. They spend the winter in the Caribbean, where they don’t eat, so when they arrive in the spring they’re hungry. The whale watching boat wandered into a feeding frenzy of humpbacks, finbacks, and dolphins. We could see their slick bodies arch above the surface as they dove through the waves. whale surfacingFinback whales are the second largest animals to ever live on Earth. The only animal larger than a finback is a blue whale, which can grow to about 100 feet long. Finbacks are a close second, reaching up to 80 feet.

Humpbacks work together to capture food. One humpback will create underwater bubbles in a donut shape to disorient krill and fish. The prey ends up in the middle, surrounded by bubbles. Then another humpback will surface with an open mouth for a feast. A few daring seagulls might dip in for a fish before the mouth closes. The humpbacks take turns creating bubbles and eating. DSC04012_3Whales can be recognized by their unique patterns. Naturalists onboard keep track of the whales while recording their activities and health conditions. They name the whales and know their habits and companions, so it’s a continuing saga to see what each one is up to.

whale watching boatOn a cold day in May, we saw a humpback teaching her calf how to feed, repeating the steps while the calf mimicked them. A young adult whale showed fresh cuts on his skin from a recent fishing line entanglement.

A hunting moratorium went into effect for humpbacks in 1966 whales archingwhen the population fell by 90 percent. Since then, the population has recovered to around 80,000 worldwide. In April, fisheries managers proposed that they be removed from the endangered species list.

whale tailNorth Atlantic right whales haven’t been so lucky. Today, only about 400 remain in the world, according to the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife.

A hushed quiet and a sense of peace came over us as we watched the whales glide through the water. We could hear their muffled sighs as they came up for air and feel their struggles for survival.

Back in the 1800s when a whale beached, people would run out with knives and buckets for the oil. Now we run to the beach to save the whale. Maybe things have progressed at least a little.

Hyannis Whale Watcher boats cruise by Sandy Neck while going out to Stellwagen Bank where the whales feed. It’s much easier to take pictures of the houses and lighthouse than the constantly moving, appearing and disappearing whales.Sandy Neck, Cape CodSandy Neck, Cape Cod

Humpback whales have been known to sing continuously for up to 24 hours. Whales in the same region all sing the same song and that song gradually changes from year to year. I wonder what their songs will be into the future.

Have you ever been on a whale watch? What do you think of whales?

Earth Day, Every Day

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“A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature.” – Albert Einstein

I went for a walk along the ocean a few days ago. I’ll usually look for any trash to pick up along the way. Sometimes an entire trash bag can be filled. Too easily. This time, I could only find one bottle cap and a tiny ribbon from a balloon. That gives me hope.

How did you celebrate Earth Day? How will you celebrate it throughout the year?

Hidden Colors

frozen ocean

After months of snow and ice, we feel like we’re living in a black and white movie. We become color deprived. The ocean is frozen and icicles are everywhere.

sand icicles

But somewhere underneath it all, the colors are waiting. Maybe if the sun doesn’t melt the snow, the colors will.

marsh flowers

castle

flowers

ocean

marsh

Whether you’re enjoying the beginnings of spring or fall or an everlasting summer, I hope your colors are shining through.

Alpaca Fun on Martha’s Vineyard

alpaca smileAlpacas pop up in the most unlikely places. While riding down the bike path on Martha’s Vineyard, alpacas can be seen through the trees, tempting anyone to stop for a visit.

At Island Alpaca in Oak Bluffs, the original purchase of eight alpacas in 2004
has grown to more than 80, plus one llama named Lucy. Most visitors want to know what the difference is between a llama and an alpaca. They’re cousins, but llamas are larger and they’re known for their spitting abilities.

alpaca smileAlpacas are gentle and timid with faces that resemble puppies or teddy bears. They have no top teeth in the front and they don’t bite. They will run for food and they’ll run away from any trouble. While goats are known to eat anything, when alpacas graze they eat only the top part of the grass so that it can continue to grow.

The alpacas at Island Alpaca have names like Roberto, Zora, Silver Angel, Dom Perignon, or Captain Jack, embracing their South American heritage, their colors, and pirate names for their new island home. Alpacas boast 22 natural colors from snow white to auburn to coal. Their luxurious fleece creates material that’s lighter and stronger than wool while feeling like cashmere.

Island Alpaca visitors are given the chance to help out with the morning chores, feed the alpacas, and learn how to harness and walk them. If they’re lucky, springtime visitors might get to watch a birthing.

Peru, Bolivia, and Chile are still home to the largest percentage of alpacas in the world but with their ability to adapt to most climates, alpacas are being raised in places like Florida, California, Maine, and even islands like Martha’s Vineyard.

There’s a recent trend of adding goats to books. Why not alpacas? They look like characters to me. As long as I’m still revising my novel, I think I’ll add an alpaca.

To meet the Martha’s Vineyard alpacas, visit Island Alpaca.

Island Alpaca, Martha's Vineyard

Island Alpaca, Martha's Vineyard

Have you ever seen an alpaca? Could alpacas be the new goats? Would you want to be an alpaca farmer? (I’m considering it after reading the article below.)

Pumpkin People Are Strange

pumpkin witchThe pumpkin people can be found downtown. They hang out by lamp posts and lounge in rocking chairs. Some resemble politicians or witches or cartoon characters. Even though a few haven’t grown mouths yet, they generate smiles or laughter.

While out strolling among the pumpkin people, it’s best to be prepared for anything. They might even come to life when the autumn moon is full. Yes, people are strange. Pumpkin people are even stranger.

Irish pumpkin

Mexican pumpkin

Salon pumpkin

Pumpkin person

Pumpkin people

Grinch pumpkins

Have you encountered pumpkin people like these? Have you ever tried to create a pumpkin person?

How to Make a Ghost Happy

Highfield Hall

Is there a ghost in that second-story window?

Cape Cod is a land of pirates and witches, shipwrecks and heartaches. It’s a land of lost souls. Certain houses, built while the Revolutionary War thundered on or even during the Salem witch trials, hold their secrets almost as well as the New Englanders who inhabit them. They may not look like the haunted houses of nightmares and movies. They may even look quaint or charming. But take another look. The truth still manages to seep through, with every creaky floorboard and slamming door. It could be the wind or it could be howling of a much different nature.

The Beebe familyReports of levitation, strong odors, and sightings mingle with stories of exorcisms and the unnerving sound of footsteps echoing through the night. These mysteries cling to the Cape Cod air, becoming part of its mist and moaning foghorns. A local anthropology professor believes the type of atmosphere found here contributes to spiritual activity. The low pressure and damp air bring these energies out, making them easier to see. Vibrations and energies from lives lived long ago or spirits so strong that they cling to their old lives, unwilling or unable to move on.

Built in 1878, Highfield Hall in Falmouth was once owned by the Beebe family. Emily Beebe is said to have become so attached to the house that she never left. Several people claim to have seen her wandering near the second-floor windows. Many more have heard her footsteps and skirts rustling.

Her home was abandoned decades ago and fell into disrepair soon after. Eventually, it was threatened with demolition. A group of residents stopped the demolition and raised enough to renovate the historic building.

Highfield Hall before the renovations

Highfield Hall before the renovations

Before it was renovated, I walked through Highfield Hall in search of Emily’s spirit. The front door stood as open as a gaping wound and a constant flow of bone-chilling air poured out. The imprisoned air tasted of rotting wood and mold, and felt as if it hadn’t been inhaled for centuries. Ceilings dripped with fungus, graying wallpaper peeled and flaked like damaged skin, revealing the skeleton of the house hidden beneath. Windows and mirrors were broken. Some rooms were completely dark, even in the daytime, and stood as caves beckoning to anyone insane enough to enter. After stepping back out the door into the sunshine, the emptiness could still be felt.

Emily lived with her brothers most of her life, acting as hostess for parties held at Highfield. Those who claim her spirit lived on suggest the dilapidated condition of the house distressed her and she’s now pleased with the renovations. Cultural events and weddings are held there. The wood floors shine and reflect dancing shadows, calling back the past. It’s easy to imagine an orchestra playing in the ballroom amid swishing skirts and laughter. If Emily is still looking on, she must be smiling.

Highfield Hall ballroom

Highfield Hall after renovations

Do you believe in ghosts?

The Beach, a Bonfire, and…a Movie?

bonfire

Wood smoke mingled with ocean spray. Our bonfire crackled and popped, contributing exclamation points to the conversation. Sparks drifted up to the stars as the waves swished in song. Everyone huddled closer to the fire as the sky darkened.

setting up firepitWe laughed when the people in the encampment near us whipped out a large movie screen and set it up so that it blocked their view of the ocean and sunset. They had a bonfire going but turned away from it in favor of the technicolor fireentertainment. A family with young children. Why wouldn’t they want to use a chance like that to talk with each other? We laughed at a lot of things that night. I didn’t hear laughter coming from the movie encampment.

It’s getting harder to get away from it all when everything can be carried in a cell phone. Maybe some things have been gained with more and more technology to entertain us, but what have we lost?

What are we losing when we continue to block out the sky, the stars, and the sound of the waves?

beach sunset

On Sandy Necks and Primordial Ooze

Sandy Neck, Cape CodShifting sands create an ever-changing artistry. The constant wind sculpts peaks and valleys while smoothing out any edges. This is a place called Sandy Neck. On a map, it looks more like a tiny finger jutting out into the ocean. Over time, this barrier beach has developed into 4,700 acres of dunes, maritime forests, and marshes.

Sandy Neck, Cape CodStrangely enough, the beach at Sandy Neck is a rocky one. It’s usually packed with sunbathers in the summer, so I like to hide from the crowds and investigate the 13-mile trail behind the dunes. A small parking lot at the entrance can be used for the trail.

Mash at Sandy Neck, Cape CodAt first, the trail winds between towering sand and marshes. It branches off every once in a while to bring tired feet and pounding hearts back to the beach for some easier walking. Those trails also bring hikers up higher for views of the dunescape and ocean.

Sandy Neck dune trail

Dune trail at Sandy NeckSandy Neck, Cape CodFarther ahead on the main trail, a few scattered and lost cottages call up images of possible shotguns pointing through broken windows. Someday if I’m brave enough, I might walk the whole trail.

muddy, sandy dogSparks isn’t afraid of the cottages. She’ll trot right up, wag her tail, and practically knock on the door. By that time, she looks scarier than the cottages because she loves to splash around in the primordial ooze found in the marsh. This is the smelliest mud my dog has ever found. The overall smell is a combination of rotten eggs, fish, and dog breath. I’m planning on giving her lots of baths this summer.

What are your plans for the summer?

Walking in the Footsteps of Thoreau

I try to time travel as often as possible. A book is the perfect time travel vehicle but a place can be too. Henry David Thoreau walked along this Chatham coastline about 150 years ago and wrote about it in his book Cape Cod. It’s fun to read his descriptions and follow in his footsteps to go back in time.

Asphalt from the parking lot crumbles into sand. Dunes rise up along with the path to give the feel of walking on a mountaintop or the end of the earth. From this vantage point, there haven’t been many changes since the 1800s.

Far ahead Stage Harbor Lighthouse can be seen hunched down in the scraggly bushes. Thoreau wouldn’t have seen the lighthouse since it wasn’t built until 1880. Without it as a point to walk toward, there would be nothing but this stretch of land and sky.

A snake slithers into the bushes by the path. It is so quiet that the flap of a seagull’s wings can be heard overhead. Even the fishermen standing on the shore talk in low voices so that their murmurings become one with the wind.

Thoreau said, “The sea never runs very much here, since the shore is protected from the swell by Monomoy.” This creates a sense of peace, with everything as still as a painting.

Thoreau saw Monomoy as one offshore landmass while today it forms two barrier islands. As a testament to Cape Cod’s shifting sands, Monomoy has been a peninsula, a single island and even multiple islands. A lighthouse was built on the southern tip of the island in 1823 but deposits of sand over time have lengthened it, causing it to seem as if the lighthouse has traveled inland.

A seagull plucks at a crab on the sand while sand pipers dance in the background. Thoreau loved to watch these birds, as he said, “Sometimes we sat on the wet beach and watched the beach birds, sand pipers, and others, trotting along close to each wave, and waiting for the sea to cast up their breakfast.”

The quiet waves continue to bring more treasures. According to Thoreau, “The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime. It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up…”

The shore is still strewn with whatever the sea casts up and it remains an advantageous place to contemplate this world. It is a different world now. Although much has changed in the last 150 years or so, it is comforting to know that some places remain the same.

Do you use a certain book or place to travel through time?

Secret Places

My mom is always finding these secret places, the kind of places that people walk or drive by without realizing there’s a door to another world right there.

When my brother and I were little, she would bring us to a circle of dunes behind a public beach. No one was ever there. It was her secret place. Then there was a garden with seven-foot hedges surrounding it. The door could barely be seen, but if anyone walked through it, the reward would be blooming flowers and whispering trees.

She found this place tucked away behind an art gallery off Route 6A in Sandwich. The walk starts off with a maze of paths through the woods. Every once in a while, a sign appears with a quotation or saying as if the scenery itself is telling us secrets. Metal sculptures twist out of the greenery, letting our imaginations wander along with our feet.

The path leads to a narrow rope bridge that bounces crazily with each step.

At first the bridge looks as if it ends in the marsh, but a hidden path off to the side brings us through towering marsh grass, making us feel as tiny as insects wandering through a lawn.

Once through the grass, the path continues along the side of the marsh, where a bench sits and waits for visitors to admire the view.

On our way back through the maze of woods, we see uprooted trees. A sign there states, “Thank you Hurricane Irene.”

Another great thing about this walk full of secret places is that donations are collected toward the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. If you happen to live in the area or plan a visit, it’s worth a wander behind The Giving Tree Gallery on Route 6A in Sandwich.

Do you have a secret place? How did you find it?

Glassblowing and the Art of Carrying on a Tradition

The glassblower holds the iron rod up to his lips while somehow balancing a hefty bundle of glowing hot liquid glass on the other end. His breath fills the molten ball as it begins to take on a life of its own. A living, breathing piece of glass, it is constantly moving, shaped and formed by the glassblower’s movements.

At the Pairpoint Glass Works studio in Sagamore, with four furnaces roaring in the background and the room temperature climbing up to 110 degrees, master glassblowers cheer on apprentices as they work.

Glass is made from a mixture of silicates, found in sand, and lead oxide. Furnace temperatures must reach up to 2,300 degrees to bring the mixture to a malleable state. No matter what the glassblower intends to make, it all starts with a gathering of glass. This is when the glassblower twirls the iron rod in the pot of molten glass, skimming it off so that it gathers at the end. The maneuver looks like twirling cotton candy on a paper tube, collecting it in a great glowing bulge.

From the moment the liquid fire is taken out of the furnace, it begins to cool. The glassblower must keep the iron rod spinning to maintain the uniformity of the piece, while making sure that the temperature never dips below a certain level. If it cools too quickly, it will crack or even explode. To avoid this requires lots of trips back to the fire for reheating while constantly spinning the object.

At times glassblowers will hold the rods out and twirl them like batons to use centrifugal force for further shaping. When the rods are held up over their heads, gravity forces the edges of the molten ball down, creating a bowl shape. As the object continues to spin, the glassblower will carefully touch it here and there with wooden tools dipped in water, creating a bottleneck or design within the glass. To form the rim of a bowl or vase, pieces of the red-hot glass are cut away while it’s spinning. By the time these chunks hit the floor they clink with the sound of hardened glass.

The Sandwich Glass Museum tells the story of how a small factory founded by Deming Jarves in 1825 grew to employ more than 400 people by mid-century. Since glass is made from sand, it might make sense to think that the Cape Cod sand added to the quality of Sandwich glass. Ironically, that’s not the case. Cape Cod sand contained too many impurities to be made into fine glass. Jarves initially imported sand by boat from southern New Jersey, and by 1847 began bringing large quantities of sand from the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts to Sandwich.

One of the reasons for locating the factory in Sandwich was the promise of the Cape Cod Canal. Although it hadn’t been dug yet, at the time it seemed as if it would be soon. Politics being politics, the canal wasn’t created until years later, in 1914, after the factory had closed. The Sandwich Glass Factory operated for 62 years before competition from Midwest factories closed its doors in 1888.

Since the factory is no longer in existence, true Sandwich glass cannot be created, but its classic designs are reproduced. Glassblowing demonstrations are shown continuously at the museum so that visitors may witness techniques used by Egyptians, Romans, and Venetians, culminating with Sandwich and the innovation of pressed glass.

The glassblower tells the crowd, “I like the whole idea that what I learned is passed down from hundreds and hundreds of years and that basically with every generation it gets a little more refined. We’re still learning so it’s endless. You’re never going to get bored when there’s always something more to learn.”