Returning to Provincetown by boat is a simple pleasure that never fails to meet my expectations. The sleek, slow boat has unfortunately been relegated to the Saturday service so the trip is now cut in half by the slightly banal high-speed catamarans that run the route between Boston and the Cape, but which still provide that magical contact with the sea as you head towards land’s end.
Reputedly, the first landfall for the Pilgrim Fathers, this small fishing community has acquired a mythic status as the first point of refuge for these fleeing pioneers seeking the freedom to pursue a life determined by conscience and belief. And so in turn the town has remained a place of hope and sanctuary to artists, writers, performers, gay men and women, immigrants and those too eccentric to conform to the expectations of their native communities. Rather like San Francisco, Provincetown acts as an inspirational idea and a rebuke.
As you leave the long elongated Boston harbour and its remnants of armed revolt, the boat heads out to what appears to be open sea. For an hour or so the horizon is filled with the grey-blue swell of the Atlantic. If you’re lucky, you may see a whale rise up in a brief, mesmerising leap to break the monotony. With patience, the feint edge of the Cape’s shoreline emerges to guide the boat towards the tranquil embrace of Provincetown’s harbour, allegedly the second largest in the world (the first remains obscurely unknown to me). As you arrive at the dock, it’s possible to discern landmarks that line the long high street: the wooden spire of the Universalist Church; the granite replica of an Italian campanile, built as a monument to the Pilgrim Fathers; the white belfry of the town library; and various wharves and jetties once used to unload fish but now the back porches of bars and restaurants that line the beach.
Every few years I feel a hankering, even an urgency to return. Little changes from year to year. Perhaps one clothing store has been replaced by another or a favoured lunch spot has closed, but it’s the local residents who endure such as the drag queens who stand outside their venues promoting their acts like hawkers selling clams. They hustle to earn a buck as they trade quips or fling provocative remarks at passing strollers. Later at twilight, Cher’s doppleganger will appear on a foot-powered scooter in fishnets and a thong .Outside the town hall, buskers take their turn to woo a crowd. Some have a semblance of talent while others battle to be taken seriously and try turning a buck by selling Cds laid out by their feet. Only a ‘moving statue’ raised my ire but the local paper gave her space to describe how she had built her career on the road from Ohio. This year ‘Emily’ a transsexual was belting out show standards with a handwritten sign saying ‘76 and living my dream’ in an ill fitting long wig, short skirt and high heels. Marrying this audacity to conviction was enough to force bicyclists and walkers to a halt as they stared in baffled astonishment. It is unseemly to mock or snigger in ‘P-town’. This is a community that is defined by eclecticism and it takes all sights in its stride.
What is truly astonishing is the arrival of day-tripping middle America into what some may term a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah. But it’s gratifying that by the sea, at the end of the continental US, couples and their kids actually enjoy the theatricality and camp excess of street life here. They discover a summer-long carnival of performance and display.
Aside from this social conviviality, the town perches on the edge of the natural world. On three sides sits the ocean. Beyond a narrow strip of settlement, you can cycle into the dunes and forests of a seashore set aside for protection as a national park by a President Kennedy who grew up sailing this coast. It’s possible to follow the trails for miles up to Race Point lighthouse up and over shifting sand dunes punctuated by clusters of pine trees. Despite the need to navigate the crowds on the town’s narrow high street, the beach here is largely empty even in high season by comparison with the Mediterranean where swimming in summer can resemble membership of a seal colony.
The tip of Cape Cod sustains a microclimate shaped by the mercurial moods of the sea. This year it was so hot that it felt like crossing the Sahara simply to arrive at the beach where there was no shade to shelter from the sun. On my last day, the rain rolled in off the sea with a savage intensity. One year I was stranded for days by the aftermath of a hurricane. Living in London most of the year, Nature here beckons me to leave the hurly-burly of urban life behind and re-connect with elemental forces. When I must leave to return to life elsewhere, I carry an indelible memory of P-town that sustains me in the hope that I can return.
As I stood in the lashing rain waiting anxiously for the ferry to arrive and hoping for a miraculous subsidence of the waves, an elegant, tall, middle- aged woman in a boiler suit with a broad Boston accent began to talk to me in that disarming American way that assumes familiarity and which makes many Britons so often uneasy. But she charmed me with her natural bonhomie and tales of spending summer in the resort. Susan worked as a psychiatric nurse for most of the year and between the lines I could read an annual quest for solitude and the chance of navigating the sea in her little rowboat that she kept tied up in port. She reminded me of Katherine Hepburn in African Queen; stoic, independent and a maverick. Susan might stand out in the suburb of the city where she lived and worked, but out on the Cape at the end of the world she was compellingly self-sufficient and content. In that momentary encounter on the point of departure, I found what makes Provincetown an irresistible destination. While the boat pulled out, I hoped to take as much of this spirit away with me, much as I might pack a jar with shells found in the marsh by the long stone breakwater where the tide brings in the salt water to animate the reeds and rock pools.