Six go mad near Truro

It was a bitterly cold evening at Wellfleet on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. For now, however, we were in a hollow, sheltered by the contours and by the trees that have come to populate this land over the past 170 years.

Dressed in heavy coats, gloves and woollen hats, we made our way down through gardens and onto the road, eventually veering off down a rutted track for a few hundred yards and then along a barely discernable path through long-forgotten vegetation on the ridge of a berm built before the trees to prevent the saltwater from Cape Cod Bay invading and poisoning what was once farmland.

The six on the search for the elusive American woodcock.

The purpose of our post-prandial stroll through the Wellfleet woodland in fading light was to catch sight of the American woodcock, a very well-camouflaged foraging bird with a long beak and eyes set atop its head. With a call similar to the corncrake, the woodcock has a strange courtship flight that involves it leaping up into the air with its wings making a melodic whistling noise before it spirals back, landing where it started. While we hear plenty of “peents” and whistles, the elusive woodcock remained elusive. However, slightly more concerning was the sudden outburst of coyote wailing close by. Then the locals regaled the visiting Scotsman with tales of large roaming packs of fearless wild turkeys. I was probably not the only one thinking it was time for home, a roaring fire and a glass or four of Macallan 12.

The next morning was the first day of spring. It dawned clear and cold. With my body clock still set to UK time, I was up early and headed out rather than disturb the others. I headed into the village of Wellfleet, which, unbeknown to me at the time, was in the opposite direction from the water. Blissfully ignorant and unable to get Google maps to load, I started out in a direction I hoped would lead me to water, but which after about 20 minutes had only succeeded in leading me to coffee. I decided it would be rude to stay away any longer, so I turned around and promptly found myself walking an unfamiliar road that seemed to be taking me closer to the water. Had I not been a guest in someone else’s house, I would have continued on my way; as it was, I needed to try and find my way back before a search party was organised. I diligently retraced my steps, discovering that I had forgotten to turn right at a junction. Once the correct route was taken, I was back among friends in no time at all and just in time to get ready to set out on the trail of Thoreau.

We set off in a convoy of two cars. I soon lost track of where we were as the cars turned left then right, seemingly at random. It didn’t take us long to reach a large car park cut into a hollow with the beach and the raging Atlantic at its far end. The sun was shining, but the wind seemed to be coming straight from Greenland, taking its time to cool down as it came. Wrapped up, the six of us started making our way north, with the sorghum bound dunes on our left and the white-capped ocean on our right.

Little things caught our attention. The captain was looking for beans washed up on the shore after their long journey from Florida, and after a few disappointments, discovered a large block of peat that he intended to take home, dry out and put on his fire. We were fuelled on the tale of D. H. Thoreau’s encounter with a clam, which he later cooked and ate. We also encountered some clams, but only their shells, which were soon discarded. I did gather a pebble, though, which is now part of my “pebbles from beaches I’ve visited collection” cluttering up and trapping dust on the mantelpiece in the dining room.

Heading in to the woods.

After a while, we turned off the hard wet sand and made our way across the energy-sapping soft sand that formed a path between two dunes. Through the gap, we could see what at first sight appeared to be large garden sheds, but which, on closer attention, turned out to be rather luxurious cabins that were either homes or holiday homes. We followed the path through a thin and sandy forest, clinging to a fence in front of trees upon which were nailed “Private: No hunting” signs. We continued through a gate beside a sign that read “No Trespassing. No Beach Access” — a barefaced lie if ever there was one. I was reliably informed that these signs are intended only for the “summer people” during the high season and certainly not for six middle-aged men on a cold first day of spring.

Our route took us to Horseleech Pond, a kettle pond caused by glaciation on a day colder than today. The clear water was obviously used for swimming in the summer by people too sensible to brave the wild Atlantic — despite its lack of beach and overabundance of vegetation. We stood variously marvelling and pondering, while one of the more rumbunctious of our party skimmed a stone, much to the mock chagrin of the others who berated him for lack of consideration of the pebble’s several million-year journey to get to where it was.

We rediscovered the path and had to separate our party’s dog from that of a father and daughter, who were also wrapped up against the cold and enjoying the first day of spring. A brief conversation followed between two New Englanders just “shooting the breeze”. The voices were wonderfully melodic and reminiscent of the sea. I know there must be as many New England accents as there are Scottish, but they all sound very similar to me and are all like a feast to my untrained ears. I could listen to two New Englanders talk all day and enjoy the way they speak — they could even be talking about basketball, or, like the man I met in a coffee shop in New Bedford, they could be trying to convince me they are Irish — I wouldn’t care. The accent is enough for me.

We continued our stroll through the woods, following the path round to the left and suddenly alighting upon an old wooden house on the shore of Williams Pond. Our native guide informed us that this house is generally believed to be the Wellfleet oysterman’s house, where the writer sought shelter during one of his forays between Eastham and Provincetown. While there were a few obviously later additions to the building, we could see that the older structure bore some resemblance to the description given by Thoreau. We stood for a while looking over Williams Pond and talking about how much the landscape had changed since the mid-19th century when Thoreau was there: the barren, sand-covered fields replaced by fast-growing pine trees with shallow roots in the sandy soil, offering very little protection from high winds or heavy rain. Indeed, several trees had fallen over, their exposed roots providing evidence of their precarious foothold.

The Wellfleet Oysterman’s house.

The last leg of our journey took us off the path and into the woods, where we bushwhacked our way onto a ridge from which we struck a path that eventually led us out of the shelter and back into the blustery car park. We had all worked up an appetite. It was now time to head back home for a breakfast of bacon-wrapped scallops, fresh coffee, cheesy bread and conversation.


H. D. Thoreau, Cape Cod at the Gutenburg Project

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