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?

Hiking through Words

Reading and writing are adventures of the mind. So it makes sense that they can easily be compared to hiking or mountain climbing. Each word is a step. There will be curves and cliffs, mountains and canyons.

Arizona hiking trail

Bell Rock hiking trail

You can stay on the path or wander off in a new direction. You might get lost. Just don’t look down.

Devils Bridge looking down

You can map it all out beforehand or let yourself be surprised. Remember to look back to see how far you’ve come.

Devils Bridge trail

Arizona hiking trail

No matter where you end up, you’re better off for taking those steps. Enjoy the view.

Devils Bridge trail

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharlal Nehru

“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.” – George Eliot 

Books as Traveling Companions

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors so when the time came to choose a traveling companion for a trip to Arizona, I chose her words. Her novel Animal Dreams takes place in Arizona and her descriptions became the perfect background music.

Arizona canyonsI read this description while on the plane and couldn’t wait to get out there:

“The canyon walls rose straight up on either side of us, ranging from sunset orange to deep rust, mottled with purple. The sandstone had been carved by ice ages and polished by desert eons of sandpaper winds.”

canyon wall

Once I finally stood near the canyon walls, I made sure to notice the colors threading their way through the rock and all the layers representing centuries of creation.

After hiking up a steep path, ancient cliff dwellings came into view. From down below, the dwellings couldn’t be seen at all. They blended in with the canyon to the point of invisibility. Everyone figured they built their homes that way for protection against potential enemies. Later, I read this passage and saw the cliff dwellings all over again but in a different way:

“The walls were shaped to face the curved hole in the cliff, and the building blocks were cut from the same red rock that served as their foundation. I thought of what Loyd had told me about Pueblo architecture, whose object was to build a structure the earth could embrace.”

cliff dwellings

Tucked away in a crevice between the cliffs where sunlight acted as a calendar, petroglyphs told their own tales. They spoke of the people who lived there high above the ground, of hunting parties, and of women with Princess Leia hairdos.

petroglyphs

DSC03868_2

Kingsolver describes petroglyphs as a record of progress through the generations:

“There were antelope, snakes, and ducks in a line like a carnival shooting gallery. And humans: oddly turtle-shaped, with their arms out and fingers splayed as if in surrender or utter surprise. The petroglyphs added in recent centuries showed more svelte, self-assured men riding horses. The march of human progress seemed mainly a matter of getting over that initial shock of being here.”

Now that I’m back home, I can revisit the red rock canyons any time with a turn of the page.

(And the Twitter goat club will be happy to hear there’s a goat in Animal Dreams.)

Related Post:
Writer…Uninterrupted – during Vacation

Do you choose novels based on setting? Have you ever taken a favorite author along on vacation? 

Climbing Up a Sleeping Bear

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Tackling the dune climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore feels like mountain climbing. But these mountains made of sand are tricky. With every step up, climbers sink back down again by almost the same distance.

Sleeping Bear Dune ClimbersBecause of this, it takes a while to climb up the 100-foot bear but it’s worth it for the views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding sand dunes. When it’s time to go Sleeping Bear Dune Climbershome, another reward is to bounce or roll down the dune to the ground below.

The highest point in the park is 450 feet straight up from Lake Michigan. Anyone attempting to climb that dune might be forced into crawling, but that’s forgotten once the top is reached. From there, it’s easy to see why Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America.

According to the National Park Service, the Chippewa Indians once used the bear-shaped dune as a landmark. The bear rose about two thousand years ago and has seen its share of changes. It no longer looks like a bear. In the late 1800s, it was covered with trees and shrubs, giving it a dark shaggy appearance. For now, the bear has gone into hibernation and his sand dune looks more like a cave. With all the wind-swept changes, the bear may rise again or disappear.

Sleeping Bear Dune Lookout

Because these dunes feel so much like mountains, I was surprised to learn that Adelie from Artfully Aspiring had gone sledding there. I’ve been known for a few sledding feats, including barreling right into a raging polluted river, but I don’t think I’d be brave enough to sled down steep mountain dunes like these. Though you never know. If I find myself there again when there’s enough snow, I might be tempted.

Instead of sledding there, as a teenager I climbed up and bounced down the dunes while listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes View

Do you have a favorite National Park memory?

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.)

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?

Ireland’s Ancient Castles and Spirits

100_0731

Ireland is a dream, a glowing green celebration, a place of shifting light where shadows of knights can be seen roaming through the fog.

The Guinness is foamy and dark and suspiciously looks like the River Liffey. Poems float through the air and music is everywhere.

castleMist hovers through the countryside, contributing to the dream. When the mist clears, ancient castles appear. Some castles have been restored, but I love the ones that haven’t been touched. Doors and walls may be missing or crumbling. Birds fly through open windows and nest in the corners. It’s easier to imagine the past in a place like this, a place that has surrendered itself to time.

castleFrom the ancient castles, the countryside still looks as it did when kings and queens ruled the lands. Green fields stretch toward the darker trees of a forest’s edge. The rumble of galloping horses can be felt. Fog and magic swirl through the air, bringing shadows of the past back home. They stoop over a stone fireplace, tending a fire so that a whiff of wood smoke is inhaled hundreds of years later. They harvest the fields that have grown into a tangle. Their laughter still sings through cracks in castle walls.

Ireland green fields

Ireland countryside

Ireland

Ireland castle

Ireland castle

On St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be dreaming of Ireland.

How will you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year?

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.”

Roller Coaster Biking Through Provincetown Sand Dunes

A few ups and downs are usually expected in the path ahead, but this path throws in surprise twists and curves, all while traveling through shifting sands.

It’s been called the Cape Cod Spiral. It brings unsuspecting bikers up to unimaginable heights before forcing them to plummet down the other side. When the path drops, it feels as if you’ve been shot out of a cannon as you try to navigate all the angles at warp speed. Narrow tunnels appear right after a few drops. At times the path seems suspiciously like a toy train track designed by a madman. But madmen do know how to have fun.

Provincetown is at the very tip of Cape Cod. It’s mostly sand. Even while driving into town, sand dunes rise up on either side of the highway.

The sand that collects on the bike path is just another obstacle. If you try biking too fast through it, you just might end up flat on your back appreciating the sky more than the dunes.

The Cape Cod National Seashore built this 8-mile loop in the 1960s. Maybe that explains it. After struggling to bike up the hills, it’s tempting to reward yourself right away with a downhill catapult supplied by gravity but the hilltops are the best places for water breaks with 360-degree views of the dunes and ocean.

After feeling the heat of the sun and sand, another leg thankfully travels through shady tunnels of green. Sun-baked pine and oak mingle with glimpses of the ocean beyond the trees. This path leads to Bennett Pond, which looks a lot like a swamp but it does offer some pretty lily pad and tree root views.

Most Cape Cod bike paths were built on straight, flat railroad lines. They’re a little too easy. Not this one. It will make you work for your views.

The reward for so much up and downhill biking is a walk through the streets of Provincetown and lunch in a shady spot. If you’re lucky, the pet bird at the Governor Bradford Restaurant might decide to peek out of her house and entertain you with a song.

Summertime on Cape Cod

Cape Cod is a summertime place to be. People brave traffic jams and rotaries to breathe the salt air and relax on the beaches. Summer means body surfing and swimming, building sandcastles, and collecting seashells. Bike paths wind along the shore or through sand dunes. When everyone is saturated with sunshine and salt water, there are always old fashioned band concerts and baseball games to enjoy.

Summer is also usually slow in getting here since the ocean keeps the land and air cool. Sometimes summer doesn’t really start until July. I haven’t jumped into the ocean waves yet this year but once I do it’ll feel as if summer is really here.

The influx of people is another sign of summer. The overall Cape Cod population is around 215,000. The population doubles in the summer months. Since Cape Cod is really just a sandbar sticking out into the Atlantic, sometimes it feels as if it’s being invaded. License plates become multicolored. Many are from New York or Connecticut. We’ve been known to scoff at these invaders, which is funny really because most of us are from someplace else.

This stretch of land is connected to the mainland by two bridges. In the summer, the bridges are packed with cars. I don’t go over the bridge when that happens. I’d rather hide.

There are still places to hide here and places to get lost. Unpaved places. Places meant for wandering. So for this summer, any travel posts will be on and from Cape Cod. Even though I’ve lived here for most of my life and work at a regular office job during the day, I still try to be a tourist as often as possible. Sometimes the best places to investigate are right outside the door.

Top Ten Craziest Things to Love About San Francisco

While growing up, San Francisco always seemed like some sort of a dream to me. My brother and I used to climb up into a cabinet that was on top of my bedroom closet. We hid candy in there, played games, and called it San Francisco. Every once in a while, we would look at each other and say, “Want to go to San Francisco?” and then we’d climb up into that secret place and play. I didn’t get the chance to find out what the real San Francisco was like until just a few weeks ago. Since photo opportunities are everywhere there, I thought it would be fun to share some of the crazier photos as a top ten list. 10. Signs with a sense of humor 9. Trees grow as abstract art 8. Everything is art (and art is everywhere) 7. Graffiti 6. Architecture with character 5. Chinatown 4. Sea lions that knock on houseboat doors 3. Crooked, slanted, steep streets 2. The Golden Gate Bridge and how it seems to hover everywhere And the #1 thing to love about San Francisco…the people and dogs (and dog people) you meet on the pier What do you love about San Francisco?