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A Walk on the Great Beach
John Hay
September 11, 1961
I lay in a hollow back of the shore, listening to the heave and splash of low waves. The sinking sun, like a colossal red balloon filled with water, swelled, flattened and, with a final rapidity, disappeared into the sea, leaving a foaming, fiery band behind it. I heard the trembling cry of a loon behind me, and then saw it fly over, heading north, it had been a hot day, the light shining on metallic, glittering, slow waters and sharp-pointed beach grasses clicking together in the faint wind. Now, with the dusk, the wind grew cool.
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September 11, 1961

A Walk On The Great Beach

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I heard the grating call of terns. They were flying low over the water, occasionally plummeting for fish. Among them were some least terns—a tiny, dainty version of the family-that chased each other back and forth, crying with shrill insistence. In their littleness and excitability they show a kind of baby anger.

The beach is convex, slanting steeply toward the water, and with the cliffs behind it increasing in height as you go through Truro and Wellfleet, you cannot see very far in any direction; but it curves on and on, around one corner after another. I thought of Thoreau's remark that "a man may stand there and put all America behind him."

The Pilgrims first landed in the Provincetown area, as Cape Codders point out happily to the citizens of Plymouth, showing that for landing, a big beach is as good as a small rock. In fact, before moving on to the historic rock, the Pilgrims spent several weeks in the upper Cape looking for water, sizing up the place, smelling the rim of the new continent. A few years ago I saw the replica of the original Mayflower being towed in to Provincetown harbor, but the greatest excitement to me, a few hours previously, was to see its strange Elizabethan rigging showing up above the dunes on the other side of Race Point. It was like hearing that Shakespeare had arrived on Broadway to see what he could do.

Behind the beach at Provincetown and Truro are eight square miles of wind-scoured dunes, a great series of dips and hollows, and hollows within hollows. Standing below their rims are hills, mounds and cones, chiseled by the wind, sometimes flattened on the top like mesas. These dunes give an effect of constant motion, rolling, dipping, roving, dropping down and curving up like sea surfaces. When I climbed the bank to see them, I heard the clear, accomplished notes of a song sparrow. There were banks of wild roses in bloom, of an incomparably lovely scent, and the dunes were patched with the green of beach grass, bay berry and beach plum. The shrubs looked clipped and rounded, stunted by wind and salt spray.

A mile or so at sea, over the flatness of the blue waters, a fishing boat moved very slowly by. I started down the beach again, following a swallow that was twisting and dipping in leafy flight along the edge of the banks. On the lower half of the beach, lines of slippery green sea lettuce began to glimmer as if they had an inner fire, reflecting the evening sun. I stopped somewhere north of Highland Light in Truro, built a small fire of driftwood to heat up a can of food, and watched a bar emerging from the water. Low white waves conflicted and ran across the dome of sand, occasionally bursting up like hidden geysers.

The terns were still crying and diving as the sun's light turned a soft yellow. They hurried back and forth, as if to make use of the time left them, and fell sharply like stones into the shimmering road of light that led across the water. About half an hour after sunset a beach buggy, curtains at its windows and a dory attached, lumbered slowly down some preordained ruts in the sand, and then a smaller one passed by at the top of a low line of dunes behind me. Surf rods were slung along the outside of both machines. It was getting to be a good time to cast for bass.

A small seaplane flew past at low altitude, parallel to the shore. A sliver of a moon appeared and then a star; and then single lights began to show up on the horizon, and from the direction of Highland Light an arm of light shot up and swung around. The sky now was massive with its stars. Lying in a small hollow above the beach, I thought of night's legitimacies now appearing, the natural right of all these single lights to darkness, and then, while thinking, I fell asleep, waking up at one o'clock in the morning at the sound of shouting, a strange direct interruption to the night: "Why don't you for God's sake bring her higher up? I can't dig in, that way." The tide was high, and someone was having trouble maneuvering his beach buggy along the thin strip of beach sand now available to him. In a few minutes, shouting and talking died down, engines droned away and headlights passed by above the dunes.

My eyes did not open again until just before sunup, and the first thing that met them were tiny drops of dew on the tips and stems of beach grass that surrounded me. A sparrow sang, and a herring gull flew slowly and heavily by.

When I started walking again, I caught sight of a very young fox. Its fur was still soft and woolly, and its gait had a cub's limpness as it moved along the upper edge of the beach. I noticed five eider ducks across the troughs of the waves, a remnant of the thousands that winter off the Cape along with brant, Canada geese, scoters, mergansers, auks and old squaws. I passed a dead gannet lying on the sand. It had been badly oiled, reminding me of the hazards of jettisoned tanker fuel to water birds that land in the water to rest or feed. The cliffs grew increasingly high as I walked southeast. Since some were 150 feet in height and the sun was beating with increasing ferocity on my head—so that I began to think of it as a genuine enemy—I had little interest in scaling them, but plodded slowly on. From some of these cliffs there falls a continuous stream of pebbles or granular sands, made a rich red-brown by iron compounds, and in the sunlight it looks like ' a broad rain of precious metals, a great treasure chest broken open. In other areas miniature Niagaras of dry, grayish clay pour down. On the whole, these cliffs are not as colorful as Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, for example, but they do show ' broad and varying bands of brown, yellow and lavender.

I walked on—very hot and very slow-meeting no one for a number of miles, then coming now and again to a group of houses where I would exchange words, refill my canteen and continue on.

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