PROVINCETOWN STANDS ON a finger of land at the tip of Cape Cod, the barb at the hook's end, a fragile and low-lying geological assertion that was once knitted together by the roots of trees. Most of the trees, however, were felled by early settlers, and now, with the forests gone, the land on which Provincetown is built is essentially a sandbar, tenuously connected to the mainland, continually reconfigured by the actions of tides. When Thoreau went there in the mid-1800s, he called it "a filmy sliver of land lying flat on the ocean, a mere reflection of a sand-bar on the haze above." It has not changed much since then, at least not when seen from a distance. Built as it is at the very end of the Cape, which unfurls like a genie's shoe from the coastline of Massachusetts, it follows the curve of a long, lazy spiral and looks not out to sea but in, toward the thicker arm of the Cape. The distant lights you see at night across the bay are the neighboring towns of Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham.If you stand on the beach on the harbor side, the ocean proper is behind you. If you turned around, walked diagonally through town and across the dunes to the other side, and sailed east, you'd dock eventually in Lisbon. By land, the only way back from Provincetown is the way you've come.
It is by no means inaccessible, but neither is it particularly easy to reach. In the 1700s storms or changes in currents sometimes washed away the single road that connected Provincetown to the rest of Cape Cod, and during those times it was reachable only by boat. Even when the weather and the ocean permitted, carriages that negotiated the sandy road often got stuck and sometimes capsized into the surf. Provincetown is now more firmly and reliably attached. You can drive there. It's almost exactly two hours from both Boston and Providence, if you don't hit traffic, though in summer that's unlikely. You can fly over from Boston, twenty-five minutes across the bay, and if you're lucky you might see whales breaching from the plane. In summer, from mid-May to Columbus Day, a ferry sails twice a day from Boston. Provincetown is by nature a destination. It is the land's end; it is not en route to anywhere else. One of its charms is the fact that those who go there have made some effort to do so.
Provincetown is three miles long and just slightly more than two blocks wide. Two streets run its entire length from east to west: Commercial, a narrow one-way street where almost all the businesses are, and Bradford, a more utilitarian two-way street a block north of Commercial.Residential roads, some of them barely one car wide, run at right angles on a semiregular grid between Commercial and Bradford streets and then, north of Bradford, meander out into dunes or modest hollows of surviving forest, as the terrain dictates. Although the town has been there since before 1720 (the year it was incorporated) and has survived any number of disastrous storms, it is still possible that a major hurricane, if it hit head-on, would simply sweep everything away, since Provincetown has no bedrock, no firm purchase of any kind. It is a city of sand, more or less the way Arctic settlements are cities of ice. A visitor in 1808 wrote to friends in England that the sand was "so light that it drifts about the houses ... similar to snow in a driving storm. There were no hard surfaces; upon stepping from the houses the foot sinks in the sand." Thoreau noted some forty years later, "The sand is the great enemy here ... . There was a schoolhouse filled with sand up to the tops of the desks."
The sand has, by now, been domesticated, and Provincetown floats on layers of asphalt, pavement, and brick. Still, any house with a garden has had its soil brought in from elsewhere. Some of the older houses produce their offerings of grass and flowers from earth brought over as ballast in the holds of ships in the 1800s--it is soil that originated in Europe, Asia, or South America. On stormy days gusts of sand still blow through the streets.
There could be no other town like it. If you were sensitive to crowds, you might expire in summer from human propinquity. On the other hand, if you were unable to endure loneliness, the vessel of your person could fill with dread during the long winter. Martha's Vineyard, not fifty miles to the south and west, had lived through the upsurge of mountains and their erosion, through the rise and fall of oceans, the life and death of great forests and swamps. Dinosaurs had passed over Martha's Vineyard, and their bones were compacted into the bedrock. Glaciers had come and gone, sucking the island to the north, pushing it like a ferry to the south again. Martha's Vineyard had fossil deposits one million centuries old. The northern reach of Cape Cod, however, on which my house sat, the land I inhabited--that long curving spit of shrub and dune that curves in upon itself in a spiral at the tip of the Cape--had only been formed by wind and sea over the last ten thousand years. That cannot amount to more than a night of geological time.
Perhaps this is why Provincetown is so beautiful. Conceived at night (for one would swear it was created in the course of one dark storm) its sand flats still glistened in the dawn with the moist primeval innocence ofland exposing itself to the sun for the first time. Decade after decade, artists came to paint the light of Provincetown, and comparisons were made to the lagoons of Venice and the marshes of Holland, but then the summer ended and most of the painters left, and the long dingy undergarment of the gray New England winter, gray as the spirit of my mood, came down to visit. One remembered then that the land was only ten thousand years old, and one's ghosts had no roots. We did not have old Martha's Vineyard's fossil remains to subdue each spirit, no, there was nothing to domicile our specters who careened with the wind down the two long streets of our town which curved together around the bay like two spinsters on their promenade to church.
NORMAN MAILER, from Tough Guys Don't Dance
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Cunningham.