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A Sandy Safari on Cape Cod

"The Salt House" chronicles a summer spent living in "Euphoria," a shack on the Provincetown dunes.
“The Salt House” chronicles a summer spent living in a dune shack near Provincetown.

Hermit crabs, fireflies, salty air and sand castles. Cape Cod calls out to those who appreciate pristine beaches, simple pleasures and an unhurried pace.

Up among the picture-postcard-worthy sand dunes that dot Race Point Beach and acres of outback along the Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown and North Truro, the air seems cleaner and the sun looks brighter. It’s a visual paradise of old lighthouses, abandoned lifesaving stations and so-called dune shacks that have been occupied by seaman, hunters, artists, writers and free spirits for over 100 years.

A hearty few still live there all summer, rejecting modern conveniences and embracing their solitude and the time-honored life-in-the-slow-lane pleasures of reading, writing, painting, and connecting deeply with nature.

Art’s Dune Tours, a family-run business founded by Art Costa in 1946, is the only operator permitted to take visitors on a sandy safari there. All of Art’s guides are locals with deep ties to the area. They’re a combination of geologist, naturalist, historian and cultural anthropologist with a bit of Nascar driver thrown in. As they skillfully navigate air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicles along spectacular beaches and up, down and around dunes with aplomb, they regale their guests with tales of dune shack life and details of the natural environment. They also cheerfully answer questions about the differences between beach plums and rose hips, hog cranberries and true cranberries, shadbush and scrub oak.

Dune Shack History
The dune shacks are a significant part of the area’s cultural history. The first were built in the latter part of the nineteenth century by men who worked at the Peaked Hill Bars Lifesaving Station. Barely more protective than a tent, the rustic structures were set on pilings so they easily could be relocated when shifting sands created new dunes.

When bohemians began to migrate to Provincetown early in the twentieth century, many found kindred spirits in the dune shack dwellers. Playwright Eugene O’Neill arrived in 1916 and described the area as “a grand place to be alone and undisturbed.” He is said to have written Anna Christie while living in a shack.

The clear air, million-dollar water views and camaraderie inspired a legion of other artists and writers through the years, including e.e. cummings, Tennessee Williams, Harry Kemp, Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Jack Kerouac, who said he conceived part of On The Road while visiting friends at a dune shack in 1950.

Saving the Shacks
When President John F. Kennedy created the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, 1,900 acres of Provincetown dunes and beaches, including the Peaked Hills Bars area on which the storied shacks were standing, immediately came under the aegis of the National Park Service. The agency saw the shacks as little more than trashy eyesores and did what governments often do when they’re not enlightened about the value of historic preservation: they began to tear them down.

Unwilling to watch their history disappear without a fight, a group of like-minded folks rose up in protest. Some of them had occupied the shacks for years and claimed squatters’ rights. They didn’t own them but felt such a special connection to them and their environment that they were willing to work to preserve them. The group understood that if the shacks were to disappear, so would a unique and important part of the area’s history and legend.

These preservationists, concerned citizens and dune-dwellers formed the Peaked Hill Trust, and job number one was to save the shacks.

Following years of debate, the group convinced the federal government to acknowledge the significance of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District by listing it on the National Register of Historic Places. They accomplished their goal in 1989.

Since the mid-1990s the Trust and several other not-for-profits have worked with the National Park Service to oversee a lottery each year in which the prize is a stay in a dune shack. Applicants understand that the shacks lack insulation, electricity and running water, but they find the opportunity to enjoy almost-complete isolation irresistible. Artist-in-residence and writer-in-residence programs are available, as well as residencies for architecture, engineering, dance, music and cultural/historic interests.

Living on the Dunes
What’s it like to live in a wind-swept shack on a dune without any modern conveniences, even the ability to charge a cell phone? While some would find the experience torturous, to those with art in their heart, it’s pure bliss.

In The Salt House: A Summer on the Dunes of Cape Cod, Cynthia Huntington, a professor of English and Chair of Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, wrote about the summer she spent in a shack called “Euphoria” with her new husband, a painter. She described her adjustment to her solitude and her new mate through prose that’s positively luminous. Reading this book before participating in a dune tour will amplify the information provided by Art’s Dune Tours guides about the Cape Cod outback, Peaked Hill Bars Historic District and dune shack life.

Art’s Dune Tours excursions are available seasonally. Arrangements can be made for lobster bakes and sunset or champagne tours.

I don’t recommend dune tours for small children because young kids may not find them adequately engaging.

For information on how to enter a lottery to win a stay in a dune shack, contact:

Provincetown Community Compact for art and writing residencies.
Outer Cape Artists in Residency Consortium for art residencies.
Peaked Hill Trust Residency Program for the arts and sciences.

(Photograph: by Cynthia Huntington, from her book “The Salt House: A Summer on the Dunes of Cape Cod”)


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