A writer recreates author’s walk with her teenage daughters and their friends, from the outer ocean to Cape Cod Bay in Eastham.By Marlissa Briggett – Photography by Georgia Moses, Henry Moses, Ella Necheles
Henry Beston’s classic “The Outermost House” sits on bookshelves across the country, but it is particularly beloved on Cape Cod. First published in 1928, the book chronicles the year Beston spent living alone in the dunes of Eastham. Environmentalist Rachel Carson has cited its influence on her work. Federal officials have credited it as a motivating force behind the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Many others are simply drawn to the romantic idea of spending a year on the dunes, observing the weather and tides that 12 moons bring.
Beston’s sojourn in the dunes was somewhat spontaneous. Assigned to write a magazine story on the Coast Guard men in Eastham, he fell in love with the place. He bought land and commissioned a local carpenter to build him a little two-room home (16’ by 20’) right on the dunes, which he dubbed the Fo’castle. His front door opened to the Atlantic Ocean and his back door led to Nauset Marsh. Upon its completion, he planned a two-week September vacation there. He later wrote, “As the year lengthened into Autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.” He did what many of us fantasize about when we visit an alluring place: he stayed.
At the foot of this cliff a great ocean beach runs north and south unbroken, mile lengthening into mile. Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote, visited and posessed by the outer sea, these sands might be the end or the beginning of a world.
Though intrigued by Beston’s experience, I couldn’t recreate it by taking a sabbatical year or two from my life. Yet I could recreate one of his chapters. In Chapter 7, Beston undertakes enjoyment of the April weather by walking, as he says, “across the Cape from outer ocean to Cape Cod Bay.” This idea took root in my mind and gained momentum. I could write an article about it! I could rope my family into it and create a memorable day for us!
I gathered my daughters (18 and 15 years old) and two dear neighbors (15 and 11 years old) and presented them with the opportunity to join me. ‘Come with me,’ I said, ‘Take pictures and maybe the photos will make it into the article.’ They signed on with an enthusiasm that frankly surprised me. I reminded them that we would be walking seven and a half miles. On a late November day. Seven and a half miles!
Yep, they heard me the first time. They were still on board. Dangle the promise of publication and it seems that even teenagers respond.
We discussed the plan in early October when we all were wearing short sleeves. Yet with busy fall schedules, we wouldn’t be walking until the weekend after Thanksgiving. As the days grew shorter, I reached out to Don Wilding, president of the Henry Beston Society, for some tips and advice. He sent me some maps along with his thoughts on Beston’s likely route (see sidebar).
We had figured on chilly weather. But we woke up to freezing weather. Perhaps because it was such an odd adventure, perhaps because they were charged with the photography, perhaps because the Outer Cape exerts such a powerful magnetism, no one complained. When we parked at noon, the car’s thermometer read 29 degrees. We all bundled up, packed our bags with chocolate and water and cameras, and off we went.
Beston had embarked upon his walk from the Fo’castle. That was impossible for us, as the Fo’Castle disappeared into the ocean in the Blizzard of ’78, along with the land it sat on, according to Wilding. Like many things, this news was both good and bad. The bad news was that we wouldn’t personally see the Fo’castle, nor could we begin our walk from the original site. The good news was that it would knock a couple of miles off our walk.
We started at Coast Guard Beach, which provided the closest street access to Beston’s home. By the time Beston would have reached our car, he would already have logged a few miles. On a nicer day, we might have walked south for a mile along the beach where the beach ends at the inlet to Nauset Marsh. Wilding says from this point, if you look a few hundred yards out to sea and a couple of miles toward Orleans, you’d be looking in the area where the Fo’castle once stood.
Tips: If you’re intrigued by our walk, try it yourself.
Make it more fun by photographing it along the way. Use #henrybestonwalk in your social media. If we like your photos, we may repost on our Instagram or Facebook pages. The photo that gets the most likes before the end of the year will receive a free copy of “The Outermost House,” donated by the Henry Beston Society. Dangle the allure of publication (in the form of reposting) and prizes in front of the younger folks in your life. See if it entices them to join you.
Since we couldn’t see the Fo’castle and since it was cold (did I mention it was 29 degrees?), we opted to start our walk directly in front of the Coast Guard station by reading a few words from “The Outermost House.” We also memorialized the beginning of our adventure with an Instagram post and created a hashtag: #henrybestonwalk.
When Beston arrived at the old Coast Guard Station, he chatted it up with the Coast Guard men who were “airing their bedding and cleaning house.” When we got there, it was quietly buttoned up to the winter’s cold, no longer a working station. But the parking lot was busy with other families enjoying the National Seashore, despite the chill. We admired the white structure against the blue sky. The light dusting of snow made everything sparkle.
Starting out, we walked up to Doane Road. Pine trees sheltered us from the wind. They also blocked the sun. It was cold. We talked about whether we might walk to the Salt Pond Visitor Center and call it a day (as well as a taxi). We talked about how Henry Beston handled bathroom breaks. We talked about the cold.
The Salt Pond Visitor Center reinvigorated us. We got a map and chatted up the ranger in the same way Beston must have greeted the crew at the Coast Guard station. The ranger estimated that we were halfway to our destination. After caucusing about whether we should continue or go back, we unanimously decided to continue. We bought dark chocolate-covered cranberries from the gift shop as both sustenance and reward for continuing.
Standing with the visitor center behind you, the view is as pristine and lovely as when Beston stood here. After some pictures, we trudged up toward Route 6 and turned left, following along the highway until the intersection in front of Eastham Town Hall. Like Beston may have, we stopped to admire the windmill and the hand water pump there.
The last leg down Samoset Road required some old-fashioned games to help pass the time and distract us from the cold: “I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to take apple pie. I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to take apple pie and blueberries.” Bundled up with gloves and hats, we sometimes sank into silence. We stopped and admired a treehouse more intricately designed than Beston’s Fo’castle and which was accompanied by a garden still boasting some hardy kale. I wondered, “will nothing kill kale?” and other similar musings that were nothing like Beston’s soaring thoughts on nature.
And then, First Encounter Beach was ahead of us. As if it were a finish line, we made sure to step on the edge of the beach before jumping into the warm car that my husband had graciously agreed to meet us with. Beston had probably done the same. Wilding notes that the author made no reference in his book to the walk home from the inner bay and surmises that he had arranged for a ride home. According to Wilding, Beston was a popular guy in town—“he knew which side his bread was buttered on,” Wilding recounts one woman telling him.
Our walk wasn’t as solitary and introspective as I imagine Beston’s walk was. But despite the cold—maybe because of it—it was a magical day. Like him, we “read winter in the clouds.” We had our own encounter with rugged nature. We held our own. And we have the pictures to prove it.
Where to start….
Park at Coast Guard Beach. If you are ambitious, walk south toward Orleans along the beach until you can go no further. Look out to the Atlantic a few hundred yards in front of you and a couple of miles south. Imagine the Fo’castle.
Go back to the Coast Guard Station and follow the road to Doane Road. Take a left and follow this all the way to the Salt Pond Visitor Center (Doane Road becomes Nauset Road). Stop for a rest, replenish your water bottles, admire the salt marsh, get your National Parks passport stamped, buy a copy of “The Outermost House” and some chocolate-covered cranberries. Head up to Route 6 and cross the street. Follow along the sidewalk until the windmill is on your right. Turn right onto Samoset Road. Beston may have followed Samoset all the way to the beach or he may have turned right onto Herring Brook Road and then left onto Cole to see the bay from that point. Walking in April, he was lucky enough to see a stream with a school of herring in it. We chose to continue on Samoset Road because it’s an easy meeting place for whomever is going to meet you there.